February is over – in the orchard after midnight,
muffled up against the cold, whiskey on the table,
head back, staring skywards-
I raise a glass to him- two months dead now-
The grass white, crunchy as sugar,
His ghost, moth quiet,
Steps out of nowhere and is beside me.
Blue shirt open at neck, fawn slacks, sandals-
No coat needed against this worldly frost,
He smiles, takes a chair opposite-
Falls through it, grimaces, nods OK, tries again.
Not used to this being dead stuff, he says,
Sits finally, breath smelling of ice and apples-
Underfoot, violets turn mauve in the moonlight,
Tendrils of river mist drift through him.
Somewhere an owl takes out its oboe.
I pour him one ghost glass after another-
We down the bottle – who cares if we get smashed now?
Celia is up in London- can’t see us.
The stars are bubbling away nicely, he says.
It’s Gods soup, spilt out across the heavens, I reply.
We exchange banter, his ghost and I; best of mates still.
Little wonder that poets frequently explore the power and effect of remembrance, as the high degree of selectivity in poetry often mirrors the sensory intensity of recollection. We remember lost ‘things’ intensely because our senses alert us to what we knew before. Who has not hear a song and suddenly ‘found’ themselves back in another place, perhaps with a different range of emotions re- experiencing an event from our previous life?
Here the poet Brian Patten situates his narrator/self in a wintry orchard, remembering a friend who has died only two months before. We feel the sense of warmth and playfulness between the friends despite the wintry setting and the underlying sense of loss, for this a poem about reunion and intimacy, unstoppable even by mortality. If alcohol has increased the receptiveness of the poet to his visitor then so be it. That seems part of the poet’s original relationship with his friend and the drinking seems a form of salutation and communion
If men are sometimes accused of being less expressive emotionally, then the warmth and humour of this poem reminds the reader that friendship needs mourning and that Patten has managed to find considerable pathos and relief in his acknowledgement that : ‘We exchange banter, his ghost and I ; best of mates still. ‘ How resonant is the last word of the poem-‘still.’ . The poem reassures both poet and reader. Affection and connection survive death. I particularly liked the way that both poet and ghost found reassurance in being together again. It’s a poem about reciprocation and mutuality.
I also enjoyed the witty reflection that ghosts don’t need coats against the ‘worldly frost.’ The frost is differentiated because it is of this world and the ghost cannot catch a chill or become ill, as he is already dead. We also note the ghost is dressed in his familiar clothes yet cannot sit easily on the chair. The poem quirkily explores the condition of being dead and invests the friendship between poet and friend with a relieved tenderness. The wife is away. They can play again!
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