Silent greetings from Mars

Women may be from Venus but that doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy the occasional trip to Mars.

On a dreary, rain-smeared midsummer night, I land on a sociable planet light years away from Brexit Britain, and find the perfect holiday poem for my husband.

Where else but in the Scottish Poetry Library?

Raincoats dripped from the coat rack, raindrops blurred the view of Edinburgh’s Crichton Close from the windows, but the Poetry Archive’s Scottish Collection was launched with beams of distant sunshine. From the Peloponnese with Anna Crowe, from France with Tom Pow and even from Shetland where Christine De Luca teased out Dat Old Trickster Sun.

More about the spellbinding readings by Christine and Anna another time (and you can hear their voices courtesy of the Poetry Archive). On this occasion it wasn’t the sun so much as the sentiment that drew me to The Bar at the Well of Love. Describing his chosen watering place in the South of France, Tom Pow evoked that unmistakably masculine scene: the line of silent men at the bar.

nothing to ruffle the arrangements of bodies

composed at the bar. Two men give a slight

angling of the head.

It strikes a chord. I remember well the Cross Keys, a favourite old pub where of a Saturday lunchtime my young man delighted in an almost tacit transaction across the bar, retreating with his pint and small change to read the paper undisturbed by small talk. That always amused me, but now running through the poem I find something more to the scene than an absence of chatter. In the silence there is room to breathe: ‘I can stand/with others and let them be alone too’.

The bar at the well of love

At the end of the evening I treat myself to the three poetry collections displayed for the occasion, and line up to get them signed by the poets. Having secured Tom’s permission to publish The Bar at the Well of Love, I mention my memory of the Cross Keys, and he tunes in immediately. If there had been more time during the readings, he says, he would have liked to add a story.

One evening the Bar au Puits d’Amour was unusually full. Unable to take up his normal position at the bar, he had manoeuvred himself into a vacant spot. No hard feelings. However, without a word, one of the regulars indicated with a gesture to the newcomers – that ‘angling of the head’ – to move along so that Tom was able to occupy his rightful place. Then, with a shared glance over a raised glass, the regular indicated his satisfaction. And that was it.

‘Men may be from Mars,’ Tom says with a chuckle, handing me the signed copy, ‘but that does not mean we are without feelings.’

The Bar at the Well of Love

Six stone steps take me from the empty street

to the Bar au Puits d’Amour. Of the handful

 

of regulars, three are in tonight. We breathe

‘Bonsoir’ to each other – a bovine snuffle;

 

nothing to ruffle the arrangements of bodies

composed at the bar. Two men give a slight

 

angling of the head. Yes, that more than any nod.

There is no one piloting the bar, till le patron

 

steps up from the glare of the silent restaurant.

Today is one of his unshaven days. He is small

 

and must reach over the bar to shake my hand.

‘Bonsoir, monsieur. Ca va? Bien?’ ‘Tres bien,’

 

I reply and the slight puff of our enthusiasm

rises with the cigarette smoke and disappears.

 

He pours me a glass of beer slowly, ensuring

body and head are in proportion, and places it

 

on a beer mat before me. He fills the glasses

of the other men. And that’s it. I stand at the bar

 

and stare straight ahead or at the uncertain heap

of coins and keys beside the coffee machine.

 

Sometimes, talk is thin with them too and one

by one they lapse into silence. Or there is a joke

 

at someone’s expense or a flurry of attitude –

a dismaying eruption of convictions. This is

 

one of the things I do well and I do not say it

lightly. I have learnt, over many years, to hold

 

myself within my stall, as if standing here alone

is all I need. Because of this, I can stand

 

with others and let them be alone too. But what

makes possible this solitary act is that all this time

 

I breathe with them and give them what breath

I have. Once this poem is finished, you may find me

 

Both taking and giving breath, wherever I can.

 

You can listen to Tom’s reading here. The Poetry Archive is a treasure chest with Christine de Luca, Tom Pow and Anna Crowe among 13 Scottish poets recently recorded and added to an ever expanding website.
At The Well of Love is published by Mariscat Press, Edinburgh, £6

Featured image, Layers and Dark Dunes from NASA’s Journey to Mars album on Flickr. CreditNASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona CC By-NC 2.0

First published on the author’s personal site

 

 

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