The Death of the Poet

“Tempora fulgura dum pulso cesso Maria”

(‘When I Mary ring, I end the stormy hours’  a quote given me by Martin Tallents, inscribed in St George’s Chapel Ibiza, Maria in this sense of both the plural of seas, and the Virgin).

I had first seen Robert Graves from a distance, crossing the  street, walking towards the  post office. He had crossed from one side to the other, blocking the low afternoon sunlight, no more than an impression, a presence, a tall figure with a wide black hat, head tilted upward as if searching the sky, arms clasped behind his back, long legs covering the width of the cobbled village street in two slow strides, and, overall, a presence of pure white light radiating from him that caused a sharp intake of breath and a sudden  stop.

I knew who it was without  being told

He was, of course, the reason they had all come there: the four Jesus Christs one silly summer in the sixties, Captain Weetbix the paleontologist, Maggie the cat lady in the Clot, the woman from New York who spoke only Mallorquin, Georges the American from Paris, the Australian pixie, the famous and the infamous, the artists who could or did not paint, the writers with no voice, the poets with no song, the alcoholic and the indolent.

“You won’t find inspiration here” he had told me sternly when my yearning for the secret of his seemingly effortless and always graceful of creations in prose and, especially, poetry exposed itself, “you must bring it with you.”

He must have guessed I’d started hammering away at a portable typewriter in the studio of a friend, Georges Sheridan whose house we were then looking after . That’s where I wrote the first draft of the story that ended up as Lamb To The Slaughter. Based on the incident I was told by a villager, Sebastian Deià, and a pig killing that I came across one afternoon  on my way up from the cala.

He had been there longer than most of them had lived. He had come there the year the stockbrokers fell from the windows of Wall Street like ticker tape at Thanksgiving, and had lived, save for the period of the Spanish Civil and Second World Wars , most of his life there. By the 1960s, he was on the tourist itinerary, albeit somewhat erroneously.

As he wrote in 1965 “on their way from Son Marroig to the orange-growing town of Sóller, the buses come hooting through Deià, and halt outside my house. I can hear the loudspeaker inside: ‘A gauche ancien olivier caractéristiquement tortu: aussi le beau plage de  Deià ; a droit demeure le célèbre écrivain americain Robertson….’” … to the left a characteristically tortured olive tree: also the beautiful beach of Deià; to the right lives the celebrated American writer Robertson.

Truly, going north along the coast road, having passed through the village of the damned, deranged and delightful lounging around the bars, having driven, without knowing it, past the naked prone figure of Norman Yanukin soaking his head beneath the small stream running by his studio door, past the librería run by the beautiful poet, past the farmacia where the potions were dispensed by Nicolau’s tragic daughter, past the home of the furtive midnight painter of Persian carpets, past Sa Vinya Vella, Ca’n Fusimany, Son Fony, Son Canals, Son Moragues, Sa Tafona, C’as Cavallet and Can Torrent, you will pass by Ca’n Graves, or more properly, Ca n’Alluny. It is marked only by the yellow rambling roses tumbling over its high dry stone wall.

It is quiet there now. The poet lies dying. He has lost the restless need to transform the life he lived behind the craggy face, once described as an ancient ruin, into verse and tale. He is fed, bathed, turned and tolerated as would be a helpless child, lost to lucidity.

His dear friend and companion of more than 2800 afternoon teas and coastal walks, cardiganed by Marks & Sparks, shinily shod and carefully brushed, walks the lonely road past olive groves to Ca n’Alluny each day to tell his now unheeding friend the daily doings of the village, the counting of the hours. What time is it? The usual.

This kind friend, who has read the bells of old England, and danced the dance of the Ensaimada among the Germans will feel the loss most painfully. He will sit alone and eat the fried lungs of sheep with garlic and pimiento with only memories of the wild grey-haired man who would fill his afternoons with imaginings. Now he has only shards of memories, like  glass teacups shattered on the stone floor of his entrada.

I once took  tea with Don Roberto at Martin’s house  myself, the original winter I  came to the island to escape another marrow-freezing winter in London. Although Susie and I  had taken tea at Martin’s often – my first wife, Susie, was particularly fond of Martin’s meticulous Georgian manners – we had always missed the poet. But it was not long after seeing him on the way to the correos that I met him for the first time at the refectory table.

He presided over the gathering and eclipsed all the other guests.  He was charming, interested, interesting –  he was the first World Famous Poet I had met and as such merited scrutiny – vain and eloquent.

He was even then in his mid seventies, but fully in charge of his faculties. He was rumoured to be fretting over the non-appearance of his knighthood, but said nothing of it. He did speak with obvious delight of having received an invitation to some convocation of poets in Ireland. “They haven’t forgotten me” he beamed at the table generally, “of course we go back a long way in Ireland, my family. I shall go. Most definitely.” And he did, in 1975, his youngest  son Tomás joined him there, and he gave a reading in Dublin with New York-born Irish poet John Montague.

He looked upon Susie with an approving, even flirtatious, eye, although she is far from being a white goddess, her eyes nothing like the sun, an exotic flower from a distant island of volcanoes.

I wish I could say I remember more of that first meeting than the craggy face, the sympathetic lopsided smile, the surprisingly thin voice (although no sign of trembling), the crushed white linen shirt beneath a dark brocaded vest, but I don’t. I could invent, for that’s what I do, but I won’t. Indeed the only thing I remember clearly of our subsequent conversations, few in number and always at Martin’s, is the warning or prediction or admonition already mentioned above: you won’t find inspiration here, you must bring it with you. And, of course, take it away.

Postscript: Much later,  the year before he died, his memory long gone, that vast cathedral of a memory that imagined  the Rome of Claudius, delineated and deciphered the myths of ancient Greece and so much more, I sat next to his palliative nurse in the café. A cheery girl from Yorkshire with freckles, pale red hair and a ready smile. How is Robert I asked. He had a good day today she told me. How do you mean? Well, she said, on a good day, he tries to kiss me.  A fitting end, I think, for the poet of love and the author of The White Goddess.

The Snapped Rope

When the rope snaps, when the long story’s done

Not for you only but for everyone,

 These praises will continue fresh and true

 As ever, cruelly though the Goddess tricked you,

 And lovers (it may be) will bless you for

Your blindness, grieved that you could praise no more.


From Across the Gulf, a collection of unpublished poems, written by Robert Graves in his seventies. The book was published (printed by hand) by his youngest son Tomás Graves’ imprint, The New Seizin Press.


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