The Past

by Eric Le Roy

The Past is another country. They do things differently there.”

H.P. Hartley. The Go Between

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Content 18+ A once famous but now mostly forgotten American poet named Marianne Moore once defined poetry as “Putting real toads in imaginary gardens.” I have never heard it said better, and I think that she meant identifying and extracting something palpable from the mist of the human spirit, transferring it onto a simple page, and offering other people a chance to compare ‘truths’ – those of the reader and the poet together. Or maybe she meant something else.

Whatever the case, I was reminded of it by an exchange of letters I have had recently with a treasured friend. This fellow, despite being a decade younger than me, has already begun his hike on the ‘green mile’ of human existence, which is to say, the long last walk toward extinction. He’s only in his early 60s, and today that is still pretty young, but let’s not kid ourselves. Fortunately for him, he has an abiding faith in God – one that I lack – that will be of good comfort in those bewildering days. Besides, the best writers always capture in their work the quality of timelessness that makes it seem they have been around forever and thus are older than they are. In that sense, the author of Ecclesiastes is younger and more relevant than 95% of the junk on The New York Times Best Seller list.

My friend was the star of our Creative Writing class 1990-92 at the University of Arkansas. He went on to publish excellent work but never made ‘the big time’. There are famous writers who aren’t as good nor as honest as my friend, but they excel at self-promotion and marketing. It’s the world we live in. The graveyards of the world are strewn with genuine artists nobody ever heard of. Two World Wars and The Holocaust took care of the rest.

My friend is stuck teaching in the public school system in the state of Missouri. He is, I am certain, a charismatic, meticulously well-prepared ‘pedagogue’ with an almost limitless knowledge of literature and the eloquence to convey it, but the admin suits have, in their usual obtuse way, chosen to squelch his finest attributes and turn him into a computer technician with the additional duties of switching the lights on and off. Oh, he’s still the official ‘teacher’, but they won’t let him teach. He is now an academic janitor.

My friend was always attractive to women back in our days in Fayetteville when I first met him. Back then, he was a Man of Rivers: The Mississippi and the Missouri, their riverboats, their music, their dusky, bluesy men and sundown women, diamond-studded gamblers and flamboyant Madames. He loved Mark Twain and William Styron, but I think that part of his heart resided in The House of the Rising Sun. It was the music and the sensual promises of these rivers that beguiled him and, like everyone else with his background and temperament, he was possessed by visions the rivers encouraged: both goddesses and harlots were waiting around the bend. He knew they were. He never gave up on finding their elusive houses.

After these escapades, he eventually married the ‘right’ woman. When I caught up with him after a long hiatus, he was still logging time with her. Facebook tells the story: Time’s mercenary army spares no one; age is the great equalizer. In the end we all look like hell, but at least – unlike those others from our generation who are now beating their heads in futility against unyielding coffin lids – we still prowl in our gardens, our breath competing with the wind on autumn days.

My friend went to Ireland recently. He is a romantic – great lover of the romantic poets, in fact – and Ireland beats the hell out of Iran if you are looking for romance. I don’t mean sex per se – there is always Thailand – I am talking about the kind of thing that would ignite my friend’s heart. But he wasn’t trying to pull some lassie out of a nightclub; it was mostly drinking with a traveling companion – another old friend from back in the day at university – and soaking up, like suds from a celestial drip tray, the incomparable atmosphere of The Olde Sod..

It seems he found it.

On his last evening there, just as he was on his way to drop off some used up Guinness from bladder to ‘bog’, suddenly a door at the top of the stairs opened, and a woman, magnificent beyond all reckoning in a certain specifically Irish way (by his account), came bounding down the steps and straight into his arms. Heaven sent. It was instant intimacy, the kind of harmony that the stars above only permit a time or two in life. She was the One. Against the cosmic crush of such an overwhelming vision dancing like a Ledaean swan on shimmering water, no wife in the world would have a chance. Apparently, during their 30 minute impromptu conversation, she never left his arms. One can only imagine the Gaelic lilt in her voice.

Marriage of a different kind. And that’s precisely because it wasn’t about getting laid, copping a feel, jumping bones, pounding the booty – nothing whatsoever like that, although nature might have taken its course, had convenience chosen that evening to companion with the miraculous.

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No, it was a vision. I myself plan a book that is already written and will be published down the road which I have entitled Ephemeral Eternity. I made the phrase up myself and I’m proud of it because I feel that it crunches two opposites – a kind of yin and yang thing I guess – into a single entity larger than either of those mighty words on their own. It means that sometimes we are privileged to glimpse – but usually it’s only a glimpse – what we always wanted, the place we truly belong, “heaven in a wild flower, and eternity in an hour” – to quote Blake. Another way of putting it, I heard said once, is ‘nostalgia for what never was.”

She was eventually called away by her friends – this was at a pub in Dublin – and she told him never to forget “Clare from County Clare.” Then she was gone before he even had the chance to scrawl a number down on a soggy napkin.

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My friend has been bedeviled by the spirit of this woman - this 30 minute conversation on an ale house stair with the gal he must always have dreamed of meeting – even since that night. Now he’s back in a suburb of St. Louis, back to teaching in the Zombie Zone, back with his no doubt revered wife and mental presence of his successful children (grown now and gone) and his friends.

But Clare from County Clare will not leave that stair.

Well, you can chuckle if you like. Cynics would shit all over it; scientists would break it down into the barren molecules that we mistake for genuine emotion, the term ‘endorphins’ would surface on the lips of the winking well-instructed, and the church fathers would mop the sweat from their brows in gratitude that adultery was averted by the vixen’s attentive mates: chaperons of Clare from County Clare.

The Field of Psychology was founded on just such things: ‘displacement’ of this and that, ‘overcompensating’ for one thing or the other, self indulgent fantasizing. Feminists would snort, come forward on behalf of the much abused wife, her noble countenance, albeit frayed by age, sordidly exchanged in the black soul of the bounder for a mere glance at the lewd lassie by the lake. Just another misogynistic old gaffer who needs to get a grip on something besides his own rotting member. Say, are all the children accounted for?

But I venture to say that I understand my friend, and I know that his emotions are on a higher plane than he would ever be given credit for. I have a story too.

I remember London as it was in 1970 – in South Kensington in particular. There was a pub – still standing the last time I looked – called “The Hoop and Toy”, and down the street on 32 Sumner Place was where Nikki Lehtinen lived, a Finnish woman I fell in love with on my first trip to England. She was blond and beautiful with a slightly turned up nose, the self-assured manner of an elegant Russian countess, and possessed of a deep guttural European voice that a callow boy from West Virginia had no hope of resisting. She also betrayed – flaunted in fact – a crazy side and a craving for alcohol that did not bode well for the future, much less a stable relationship with a transient lad in need of guidance like me. A decade remained before she flung herself from a high window in Brighton, having OD-ed on drugs, and curtailed her misery. I didn't find out until 1983 when I was visiting London, boozing all day, and decided to come-a-courting. We had fallen out some years previously, and I decided that now was as good a time as ever for Sir Galahad to reappear. A pallid face made a slit in the doorway and in a terse, pinched voice gave me the bad news.

She never loved me. She fucked me. She tore the skin off my back that first night. Suitably flayed,I was addicted to her for years, until age and her alcoholism and off-the-chain behavior drove the world away from her. But there was a time when she held, having crafted it herself, a kind of magic that other blokes saw in her as well. Most of them shagged her and then were sent packing. Dead now for 40 years. Ain’t that somethin’.

But in 1970, London was still Old London. Georgie Best was drunk on his ass but meantime kicking footballs as no one in The British Isles had ever done. Henry Cooper fought Joe Bugner for the British Heavyweight Championship. I saw the bout in a pub, and the lone arbiter, Harry Gibb, gave the fight to Bugner, who was the up-and-comer then, and they wanted to keep his unblemished record intact. In truth, old ‘Enery’ nicked the fight. Cooper remained bitter about the decision for the rest of his life. Beyond all that, it was an uninhibited era. Sex, without malevolent internet kinkiness, was exuberantly rampant. Well, maybe a little bit kinky sometimes. South Ken was teeming with fun, and I was young. All that plus Nikki.

The last time – and even that’s been a while – I went for a stroll in South Kensington – it was just another uncharted autumn, the same time of year as when I first met Nikki, and I wandered forth until I stood across the street from 32 Sumner Place. Appropriately, as though blessed by a wizard’s wand or a faultless choreographer, the late October leaves were kicking up, the wind was cutting through my coat, and I just stood there.

I realized that the Nikki I had loved, had so desperately wanted to exist, had either never existed at all, or only for the blink of an eye. But she provided something I saw. The embodiment of every yearning tallied up in one woman part hippie, part Nazi, swilling her Carlsberg Special Brew (“A Very Strong Export Lager” the label said, and so it was), and preparing to swallow up my lust for that evening, but probably not the next nor the one after that. Only when she felt like it. I visited her many times after I had won a place at the University of Bath, and gradually, as she went downhill, I began to regard her with pity and contempt. Then I just avoided her. For years. I came back in 1983, bringing a bag of Special Brew as a reconciliation offer, but by then she was already dead. So I drank the shit myself, sitting, crying right outside the door of her basement flat, and then I wandered off in the rain. (Yes, it really was raining.)

But 32 Sumner Place – just the building itself, tightly flanked by other buildings exactly like it – will always tell a story, and it is the story of something that nothing, not even the sad facts that followed, can banish from my mind. (In truth, there are a couple of other women that I remember in this way, but those are other legends.)

As time goes by, as the future shrinks and the past contains the bulk of our words and deeds, we come to this: my friend and I. We, who met in the past, have become friends with The Past, at least those parts of it that were not too cruel or too dismissive of our yearnings. I visit that place The Past a lot, and I meet the people again whom I want to meet, realizing with wonder, with absolute and inexpressible wonder, that they are just the blink of an eye, an immaculate thought, a gleam of inspiration, away. They are also an eternity away. Instantaneously retrieved, they resist retrieval. Buckets and buckets of tears won’t bribe them; they have already turned to the shadows, having just said hello.

Such is the grievous poetry of life, the goodbyes that we can never ever, ever, fully understand to mean GoodBye. Thus, we place imaginary toads in real gardens and go to watch them morph into princesses and goddesses. That’s not what the poet said or meant at all; she was speaking of something else, and here I go putting it backwards. But this is what we do. Or what I do. For I see clearly now that all I ever loved was as much an act of my own imagination as of anything based in ‘reality’.

Clare from Clare could be found, and my friend knows it. She is not at the bottom of a well or a specter from the Celtic twilight. Like Stuart Little heading north in hopes of finding his little soulmate bird, my friend could ‘ride, boldly ride’ after her shadow because, unlike Nikki, she is out there somewhere. The real person. Would my friend find happiness if he located her? Or ultimately just the peevish tedium that makes up so much of life? Would the ideal thus be mocked by the reality’s gang of snotty clowns that dog our heels, merrily cursing at us, and spitting at our shadows?

Would Clare prove to be Clare after all? Or Henry VIII’s Flanders Mare?

This is why, as every single day slouches into the past, and Clare herself becomes just yesterday while mere minutes lapse, my friend has long conversations with his heart. She is his ghost now, his muse, his siren, even as, in the real hours, she is perhaps the imagined ‘property’ of some bloke called Brady or Liam. In actual Dublin weather. Or back among the downs and rocks of County Clare. Not in a guy’s brain in Creve Coeur, Missouri.. Yet I share his feeling, and I am sure that one evening in the future he will return to Dublin and go to that pub. He will look for her, and likely she will elude him. He will wait for her at the pub or near the station, and she will never come.

But just to think: for 30 minutes there she was, right on the goddamned stair.

Clare from County Clare.

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