At the Empty Inn

By | 23 August 2004


He is lost in a crowd of hero-worshipers,
pale skin darkened by an alien sun.
He commands their attention. But he prefers
curiosity to love. To both, they are immune.

No one is to blame for his complexion –
his sunburnt face: the sun-scarred portmanteau:
his lack of missionary zeal. No one
is to blame. Soiled, pale, a hypnotic blue:

his feverish eyes latch onto passers-by,
each man a reoccurrence of the last.
A sea breeze blows in. In the customs shed

he completes the formalities. Today,
names mean little to him. All in the past:
gold, medicine, shitting ink, books unread.

From chansons to gunnysacks of coffee beans.
From Les Illuminations to flogging
obsolete rifles and front-loading guns
to balding desperados. He dined with King

Menelik in Ethiopia. He kept
a black mistress and yet left his estate
to the ever-present Djami, who wept
for his master, who did not hesitate

to say goodbye behind closed doors.
Trafficking in uncertain precision,
the precise thing itself – an exhibitionist,

all baroque excess and self-satisfaction:
pipe-dreams of marital bliss and civil wars,
of appetites and visions to resist.

Grey-haired, loose-limbed, a sort of hooligan
drifter transformed into a stumbling wreck.
He heads a thousand-camel caravan
inland from the Red Sea, the sun on his back,

across fields of lava and lakes of salt:
this is a life “stupid and stupefying.”
To be illuminatingly plain. To assault
the senses with necessity, stifling

dull imperial urges. His devotee,
a loyal body-servant of all of eight
years proved insufficient grist to his dark mill,

to the perplexing port of memory,
to Aden. The blacks – Djibouti, Labutat,
Makonnen – somehow acted according to will.

Legends are not made of facts: a mixture
of pig-headed pride and flatulent rage.
Talents unearthed to burn on a bonfire
along with yellowed manuscripts. To verge

on genius, to teeter on the brink
of immortality. By the time anger
had eaten its way through his soul, he stank
of contempt. An amputee, the cancer

had its way with him. What more is there to say?
He was only 37. Temperance
got the better of him. His slipknot halo

choked him to death. A heavy price to pay:
a lead-lined coffin and no audience.
Such a terrible thunder: Odi et Amo.

Taken as we found you: intense, vain, bitter,
and deeply human. An arrant and absolutely
careworn son. Lent vision just to look at her:
Africa as seen by an indecent eye

that pierces skin yet rouses no suspicion.
The faint but persistent lavender, black
preserve, your own self aged too. You belong
here. A petty capitalist sympathetic

to your brief career, imagine the sound
of voices in song and I am myself
singing while I imagine what our home
is to us now. Where I cry. Where you laugh.

All night has gone into morning, as one
might imagine the dying of the sun.

Variously: a good merchant; passionate
trader; entirely devoted to commerce;
a very serious man; an expatriate;
experienced in business affairs. Worse,

he attained at the end of his long journey
a kind of luminous ordinariness.
A circle of friends tightens – the company
of strangers. And they remain his witnesses.

At last he had become somebody else,
a more pressing difficulty. He left
in such a hurry his century of Hell.

Urban apercus and fifty more years
to waste. Property is no longer theft.
I see the passing years have served you well

Being shipwrecked here with us, in the evening,
unlike water is in water, you deserved
our vendetta: the terror of dogs, aching
to be gone-back all alone. Lime preserved

in a spiky shell. A satirical mask,
saturnine – as far as we know we knew you.
Cordially ours, serious, a hard task-
master, protector of property both new

and old, worthy of a good reputation,
as when an excavation suggests our
future wars. In the morning you are gone,
as is customary here. In the early hours,

when you were all alone with circumstance,
you moved heaven and earth for pride of place.

In the flush and tremor of beginning
all is new to the non-specialist. We
need fresh-minted terms and new songs to sing;
brilliant re-descriptions; a ministry

bristling with more-than-necessary laws
rewritten according to deliciousness.
Perhaps you seem ambiguous because
I lack your lack of taste. Amid kindness

is dereliction: you made the past secure –
and the long-standing ruinousness of nerve
in the human. You will have been the future
perfect. Your informalities preserve

the dead. But they are only passing through.
Only I have eyes for you and you and you.

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