A’mused’ George Szirtes Writes Birthday Poems for the Beloved

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“We met at art school in 1968 on a pre-degree course but didn’t get together until the very last day of the course in 1969, both of us having just ended relationships.

Young Clarissa Upchurch

She had had a car accident over Christmas and was away a few weeks. I hadn’t really spoken to her before but knew she was the finest draughtsman in the year. I knew her by sight chiefly through her blonde hair and blue raincoat. We got talking about Easter time and more after that. She came from a religious but generally liberal family who welcomed me. She was full of energy and goodwill. We went our separate ways over summer then to different further art schools in different parts of the country, and I would hitchhike over to her two weekends out of three. I was both poet and visual artist at the time but hadn’t published or exhibited anything. She had studied literature to a higher school level (I did sciences and art) than I had. I proposed to her in a pub, and we got married at the end of the first year so, being unhappy at her art school, she came to join me in the city where I was studying. When art school was over, we moved to London for a year and at the end of that our first child was born. We were both twenty-four. Then we had two children. We didn’t think too much about it. I took up a series of school-teaching jobs, she had the first few years with the children but continued drawing, and that blossomed once both children were at school (I was teaching full time). My first book came out in 1979, and five years after that we went to Hungary. That was where her art leapt forward, and she began to exhibit work. She was courageous and admirable in every way and still is.”

They say if you fall in love with a poet, you cannot die at your will. And, if a poet falls in love with you, it is always at their will. Don’t you think this thought holds for the above story directly from the poet?

George Szirtes & Clarissa Upchurch

Dear Readers, here’s George Szirtes—poet and professor emeritus at the University of East Anglia—actively involved with his friends and followers on Facebook and Twitter. I, being one of his thousands of contacts on Facebook, got to discover a genuinely romantic George who writes a poem for his beloved Clarissa on her every birthday. On the one hand, it reminded me of the loving arrangement of letters in the movie “P.S. I Love You,” and on the other, Ted Hughes’ Birthday Letters to the eternal Sylvia Plath. Of course, George’s and Clarissa’s journey is unique and incomparable, but I admire how the overall bonding becomes palpable in the poet’s own words. Sure, I am not going to take much of your time, instead, take you to read the poems he dispatched for Clarissa.

BIRTHDAY POEMS

 A Photograph

Should someone ask me what life is, I’d say
this is, knowing it is only you, but reading,
your face, the light enveloping it, into all faces,
for what a face might mean when it is loved
and stares into the darkroom of the world
as though that too were life, the light as kind.

 After Roethke

 ‘I knew a woman lovely in her bones…’

…Ah, when she moved she moved more ways than one,
But that’s just movement as the cat performs,
Beauty enough for cats, for anyone
Because a movement can be more than one
And several is how they spent the day.
And she was several, far more than one,
Just more perhaps of one than anyone
In terms of movement, nothing standing still
For long enough, though they themselves stood still
While moving on, refusing just the one
Mode of movement or fixity of place
And so they kept on moving, place to place.

And this is where they were. This was the place
Where she was moving, every movement one
With the next, each fitting into place
Then shifting on; discarding sense of place.
And he stood by, seeing how grace performs
Itself, and knows its place beyond the place
Provided for it, never perfect place.
You love the many and you love the one
But many may be focused into one.
You want the thing, you want it in a place.
You want it how you want it, to be still,
As poised, he thought, and constant as if still

In movement, loving all that remained still
In her, her sense of being in a place,
Not of it, and the sense he made was still
A point of stillness in her being still.
So when she moved it was more ways than one,
He noted, as she moved by being still.
One might move so and yet remain quite still
He said. It’s life that holds her and performs
The daily ritual she herself performs,
And she performs herself beyond the one
Still moment of performance in the day
That moves past her and will not spare a day.

But this was where she moved, it being day
She moved through, as though perfectly at one
With day, and it with her, day after day,
With nights to come, the body of the day
Turning to sleep and image in the place
They lay and moved in, in a dream of day
Working its way through body and the day
As though her body, his dream, and day were one.
Most time is timeless. Time knows only one
Mode of being, rushing through the day
Ticking off items, the function it performs
Performable, but not what she performs.

They were, he thought, what permanence performs
When permanence is saved for just one day.
So day performs, so anything performs
Itself by moving, being what performs,
Because performance is like standing still
While moving. And so everything performs:
Movement, stillness, whatever thing performs
What happens. And it happens in this place
Or that, the whole being only the place
She moves in and, by moving in, performs.
So she, he thought, must clearly be the one
Who holds the movement still, as if at one

With both the stillness and the movement, one
Moment here or there, then the whole place.
Her body moved, and then she stopped quite still,
Still as the world compacted into day,
Her several parts and all that day performs.

In the Hotel Room


In the hotel room, in the dim lamplight, in her black slip,
she turned her head this way and that in the soft glow.
It was all too fragile: the darkness, the faint curve of her lip,
the slant cut of her hair, since nobody could know
just when the hard light of the corridor might burst
into that tenderest space and prove the space illusion.

Whether it was his hand or the bedside light that came first
to define what she felt, such moments of vision
were rare, with most blossoming suddenly out of so little.

It is hard being in darkness and light all at once,
to be sheltered yet vulnerable, now solid now brittle,
to be subject of both self-construction and chance.

Everything remains in its stillness while also in flight.
Love and the skin. Love and the nerves. Love, time, and night.

Song: Love Deeper

The years grow expensive the faster they pass,
The moments are whispering all flesh is grass,
Your heart may be gold but your neck is of brass,
Love whom you love, love deeper.

The days stand in queues, the buses are full,
You can’t push your luck says the load you must pull,
There’s nothing to fortune but gathering wool,
Love whom you love, love deeper

Look back at the time grown shrunken and small,
How rich is the garden, how high is the wall?
And where’s Humpty Dumpty after the Fall?
Love whom you love, love deeper.

Love fiercer, love faster, love longer, love well,
Don’t wait for the bellman, don’t wait for the bell,
The years are expensive, they’re yours for a spell,
Love whom you love, love deeper.

Towers

Sometimes I think we roost on towers,
or high crane-gantries, scribbles in the sky
among industrial chimneys of an earlier world;
that we are living above and beyond our powers,
watching the clouds whichever way they’re hurled
into a swarm of time that passes us by.
Below us, our shadows, combine into one shape
we cannot split, nor desire to escape.

Now the rain falls, now we watch it sweep
across the landscape. Now the sun emerges
for a few hours. It is all the same
yet different. We watch. The towers keep
rising like great industries, half-asleep;
the gantries tremble, each vulnerable frame
uncertain of itself as the wind dips and surges.

The Songlines

Timing is all, and as your eyes move along
the page, like a typewriter, pressing the return
key, you begin to hear the riff of time’s song-

lines, filling up, taking over. So you turn
round and, there in the mirror, you find a script
written without your permission, which, you learn,

is the script of your life in progress, a life stripped
from you and turned into a pattern that is more
pattern than you’d like, stricter, more tight-lipped

more revealing…

But, you ask, how can we restore

the body into its lovely shapes, send the music
of time into reverse? Is there a way to score

music so it holds us in eternity, in some classic
frozen moment? Are the shapes we discover behind
our backs capable of movement – jerkily physic-

al, broken, like this line – into ourselves, refined
like oil, or gold? Here is a hand, two eyes
a mouth, each fine detail singing in an unlined

unwritten poetry that takes everyone by surprise,
the street itself moving in time, its music faint
but relentless, of happening, of song-lines, faint cries.

The New Clarissa Upchurch as of Feb 2020

Each of the above poems is a well-defined synapsis. It is fascinating to notice how these poems are born in the junction of two beautiful nerve endings. 

True, we are headed for Valentine’s Day in another nine-ten days, but as writers and poets are we programmed to love just for a day? George’s Birthday poems for Clarissa are an inspiration for all the unmotivated poets in love or trying to love. 

Our gratitude to Clarissa & George for sharing a few precious moments of their lives with us.


If you too have had the opportunity to write a series of affectionate notes to your beloved, tell us your story, and we may choose to feature you.