Part Four



I suppose
someone must have been
Byron's skipper

at one point
Byron asked him below
in the turmoil
of another storm
for a game of cards

as the sea   storm  & night
got further out of hand

everything & everyone
went everywhere

Byron staggered
back to the table
before anyone else
had worked out
where they were

he gestured to our
farouche captain
to reshuffle & deal

con piacere signore
growled the dogged Venetian

eliciting a wink
& a punch on the arm
he can still feel
from Childe Harolde


as night fell &
sky thickened
around our tilting
fairground shed
I saw every gilded stitch
& satin panel on
the sailor's faded
clothes which suddenly
became the absence
of all ambition
fetid groping
raddled posturing
glowing myth

I'd already sailed
away with ghosts

Shelley washed up

9½ stone of crab bait

we'll go no more a floating

yet we got no nearer Leghorn
the currents of the night
undid the western evening breezes
we stayed in sight of Nice
for three whole days
until a terrifying Alpine northerly
plunged into the ship
& all its rigging shuddered
the captain ordered too much sail
which dragged us drenched & shaken
at an unholy angle to the choking
                        but Italy bound


churning into the Gulf of Spezia
at midnight the storm
impossibly worsened &
tried to tear us from the world

Byron's skipper gripped a soaking rail
& swore through his teeth at this
suicidal captain slapped against the helm
& fifteen sails still set in the black
imploding heart of the tempest

suddenly a great gust stamped on the ship
& nearly plunged her under
our hearts & tongues capsized
as the captain sprawled & flailed
under stampeding herds of barrels

at that moment Byron's skipper
grabbed the wheel himself
ordering the crew through the storm
to stop pestering God & the Madonna
take in the screaming sails & release
the throbbing tensions from the ship
which straight away stood up & eased
the barging winds out through its rigging

so we dragged into Livorno harbour
like a dog with a broken back leg
a mad wind still singing through one snotty sail

we stowed ourselves in the Black Eagle inn
wet & cumbersome luggage      dead weight

passport control      Villa Medici      Cafe Greco
put them in order of vacant squalor
as your starter for 10


when in Rome
why not do as I did
pace  fret  & moan
& go to Florence
to wait for the French post

yet when it finally arrived
it fisted a cheap corkscrew
into my heart
Madame Moke announces
the engagement of  Camille
to Mr Pleyel
the toxic French ink swam in my eyes
with Florentine light

ah the mad Renaissance clarity

I would kill them all
then end it all
& drain the mucky lake for good


my intention gift-wrapped
I plunged into the French milliners
overlooking the steady
flow of the Arno
& in front of the owner's expressionless eyes
began some serious post-revolutionary
retail therapy

she promised faithfully
that by the time the mail coach
left for France at 6 o'clock
I would have my dress
my hat & veil  in deep green
a maid's outfit to be proud of

I recrossed the unaffected Arno
in a fit of personal climate change
en route to the Hotel des Quatre Nations
& completed my deranged free-range
arrangements noting on the score
of the Ball Scene from the Symphonie fantastique
this is unfinished


if you perform it in my absence
just double the flute passage
with clarinets & horns an octave lower
when the theme returns for the last time
then let the full orchestra
have the final chords
as at least some kind of ending

I closed the annotated score
packed a few clothes
loaded two double-barrelled pistols
& packed my little bottles
of  laudanum & strychnine
then wandered twitching
through the gorgeous Tuscan afternoon
like a cocky dog with rabies


at 5 o'clock I went back to the shop
to try on the frock
what a perfect fit
you can't beat the French
for hang  & cut

the till girl tried to tell me
I'd overpaid
the owner
quickly stuffed the extra notes
into the drawer
& was very sincere

ah sir you are charm itself
your performance
will bring the house down


I caught the coach
& swayed northwards in silence
my mouth stone-dry & closed

the coachman had sensibly
unloaded & hidden my pistols
in case we were attacked

but as we entered Genoa
the urchins fishing with
chicken-foot bait
& pungent  urban folksong
the awful realisation docked
at the weathered wall of my consciousness:
I'd lost my disguise
                                      we'd changed coaches
at Pietra Santa & my avenging angel kit
was still stowed aboard the first carriage


more shopping
in the first four dress shops
they threw up their hands
at the monstrous demand:
an appropriate ensemble
in less than six hours
in green
sir you joke
but the fifth nodded sagely
& mobilised a crack platoon
of Ligurian seamstresses
game on


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