THE PHILOSOPHERS by Barry Tebb
Lavender musk rose from the volume I was reading through,
The college crest impressed in gold, tooled gold lettering on the spine.
It was not mine but my son’s, jammed in the corner of a cardboard box
With dozens more; just one box of a score, stored in a heap
Across my ex-wife’s floor, our son gone far, as far as Samarkand and Ind
To where his strange imaginings had led, to heat and dust, some lust
To know Bengali, to translate Tagore, or just, for all we know,
Stroll round those sordid alleys and bazaars and ask for toddy
If it’s still the same and say it in a tongue they know.
The Classics books lay everywhere around the flat, so many that my mind
Grew numb. Heavy, dusty dictionaries of Mandarin and Greek,
Crumbling Victorian commentaries where every men and de was weighed
And weighed again, and then, through a scholar’s gloss on Aristotle,
That single sentence glowed, ‘And thus we see nobility of soul
Comes only with the conquering of loss’; meaning shimmered in that empty space
Where we believed there was no way to resurrect two sons we’d watched grow up,
One lost to oriental heat and dust, the other to a fate of wards.
It seemed that rainy April Sunday in the musty book-lined rooms
Of Brenda’s flat, mourning the death of Beethoven, her favourite cat,
Watching Mozart’s ginger fur, his plaintive tone of loss, whether
Some miscreant albatross was laid across our deck, or bound around
The ship, or tangled about whatever destiny we moved towards
Across that frozen sea of dark extremity; fatigued as if our barque
Had hardly stirred for all those years of strife, for all the times
We’d set the compass right, sorted through those heaped up charts
And with fingers weary and bleary-eyed retraced our course.
The books, a thousand books that lined the walls:
Plato’s chariot racing across the empty sky,
Sartre’s waiters dancing like angels on the heads of pins,
And Wittgenstein, nodding in his smoke-filled Cambridge den,
Dreaming of a school room in the Austrian hills and walks
In mountain air, wondering why he wasn’t there.
We wondered, too, at what, if anything we knew, trying to sift some
Single fact that might elicit hope from loss, enough to get us through
Another year with other griefs to come, we knew. Some, by a little,
Through God’s grace or chance or simple will, we might delay.
More likely we would have no say. By words or actions who can stay
The rolling balls across the table’s baize, the click of ball on ball,
The line of bottles in the hall?
We heard the ticking of the Roman -figured clock
My mother made us take when all was lost,
Together until the last breath had flown
Into the blue empyrean with her soul.