A post in January bigged up the excellent and unaccountably underrated poetry of Drummond Allison, killed in action in late 1943 at the age of 22. Now we have sight at last of Allison’s mysterious inamorata and muse Cynthia Clarke, thanks to a wonderful wartime photo (below), kindly sent by Cynthia’s daughter Charlotte Mackie.
John Heath-Stubbs recalled that Allison was “very interested in girls”. A good many of his poems are addressed to them, named or not. But his poems to Cynthia run from his time at Oxford, through his spell in London (where he rubbed shoulders with Nina Hamnett, Tambimuttu and Dylan Thomas) to his time at Sandhurst. There are seven identified Cynthia poems in all; Allison was certainly smitten!
At the time, I failed to spot “Yorktown Gate Guard (to Cynthia)”, and missed Michael Sharp’s end note in the 1978 Poems, which reveals that this was part of a sequence called “Five poems for Cynthia Clarke”; the others were “Rejection Song”, “December 1941”, “May 1942” and “October 1942”. (Thank you to Stephen Benson, editor of the Collected, for the nudge.) Three of these I have quoted elsewhere, but it seems simplest here to set out below the full sequence of five plus two in what appears to be their chronological order, from November 1941 to October 1942. Anyway, you can’t have too much Allison.
The sequence speaks for itself, and it would be intrusive to comment much here. The end of “Yorktown” is interesting: did young girls habitually hitch-hike solo in 1942? As often with Allison, there are mildly knotty moments due to inversions and coinings – “perspection”; “by slope or slipe”; “aestability” (a summery quality). But “May 1942” is a little masterpiece, from the metaphysical conceit of the first stanza to “the gardener with a gorgeous trowel” and the uncontrollable yo-yo of the second. These seven poems are hymns to, and chronicles of, love – the inescapable re-entrant.
Cynthia Clarke, as Drummond Allison knew her. Copyright Charlotte Mackie.
Walton Street Sonnet (for Cynthia Clarke)
Dimmed headlights, chinks in curtains, lowered torches
Like notes on Walton Street’s obscurity;
The tower that talks at us, the stone-stepped porches,
Wet curbs and scuffled gratings, energy
Of chimney-outlines now hold new solutions
For every problem this November sets.
But when, if fear has broken off relations,
Headlines diminish and they settle sites
For reconstruction; or if still refuses
Oxford in European death to pry;
Eyes of you singers some pale night peruses
Straggling from sherry parties up the High,
Through building-shadows down Cornmarket thrusting:
May book and recollection need no dusting.
Rejection Song (November 1941)
Now from closing car park and last bus stop start
Vehicles whose muffled passengers and drivers
Have worked out true bearings on their loved and lovers,
But explain no variation of my heart.
Now admitting it my error to have thought
You the right reply to each unsure red setter,
To the query in each clockface in each clutter
Of bewildered boulders, every doubtful fort;
Every question mark that forms on spark-scorched grass,
Puzzled stares of Greenline coach and double decker,
Unconvinced old slot machines, the startled knocker
And the flabbergasted spareroom looking-glass;
Now aware not only unity and shared
Hunts for reasons and for purposes, but looking
More than most, but kissing tired and watching waking,
Are like birds that tantalise their leader snared;
Yet before the unlit fire I know my need
Of your thighs your throat your abdomen their movements,
Yet beside the dry-voiced bookcase on pale pavements
I repeat the quite incredible my creed.
Close any pamphlet whose insistence catches
Your heart without its sentries and evokes
Nothing but mercy looting all love’s riches,
Talking but never using. Nor attempt
Hills the despondent labourer forsakes
Immune from all our zeal. But by trite birches
And chairs your seemly customs keep, from truth exempt.
Crossed in our opulent ambition
Yet fierce from each rejection
Neither will dare complete attrition
Till liking leaves the eyes.
Hold back your heart from neat dissection
Inured to boldest lies,
Allow me no perspection.
They pummel in the playground and lift pneumatic drills,
They slack on scaffoldings and cycle from motor works,
Their image lopes behind me, sticks in my books its bills,
with empty plate and mug outside the dining room lurks.
But in the fog elusive, skipping the vital pages,
Hurrying in to meals, I mention special need:
‘Love of the long down-trodden, advance with crucial ages
Must wait, for I am thwarted too, have greed like their greed.’
Given the shortened hours and the bathroom cleaned of coal,
Clinics and cooking-lessons, access to forests, when
Some can afford more beauty, others a change of soul;
Will sorrow be more joyful, ends be less final then?
Or given strength, my dear, to ascend your quieter mountain
Of mind, and luck to stumble under misleading snow
Upon your heart, and time to fritter round the fountain
Flung on complete lovers, where would there be to go?
This was my dread, that I should find
A heart embedded in the mind,
A dream connected by the body.
Now I am liberated from
Yourself and anguish and can frame
A non-coercive constitution.
This was not love, but less and more,
Like an unreckonable score
Or some such maladjusted image:
The gardener with the gorgeous trowel,
The yo-yo that we can’t control,
The inescapable re-entrant.
Yorktown Gate Guard (to Cynthia)
Though in this monstrous moon’s daguerreotype
No shadow shows you sneak by slope or slipe
Or grope behind my back your way through grass,
I’ll never quit my post: you shall not pass.
Not yet the great gate shivers on its hinge
And on the road of pain not yet impinge
Your footfalls; but don’t fear, I’ll not be caught
Napping again who once was in report.
Your aestability surrounds me still;
June had your stealth to undermine my will,
July sent out your agents; but, my dear,
I watched each ditch and understood their leer.
Another August, far too shy to shout,
I flushed and stood aside and let you out;
But now, my bearskin doffed and buttons dull,
A point shall threaten your quiet skin and skull.
Henceforth your last year’s permit won’t avail
And I’ll suspect there’s gas in every gale:
The bombed old buildings of my heart still hide
A Certain Thing whose worth we can’t confide.
So you’d best gather up your floral gown
For good and cadge a lift to London Town
Whither with its impatience and its power
These lonely lorries lumber every hour.
O would the leisurely rain that loves the asphalt
And handles the still-drilling squads
Could fall clean on affection and from reflection
Efface at least those winks as bad as nods.
For I resemble ever the schoolgirl in the gallery
Who takes the shape from all she sees;
My heart and mind are colourblind and astigmatic,
The gods I own too hard to please.
Though derived from our friends’ (the fervent and impervious to comment,
Those who encircle Death with words
And love and the saints and dexterity and two historians),
My views move much too like the bison-herds.
Only the flesh must flash its faultless messages –
Yours is the only cause appealing
For which is justified, lust-for-you the only tradesman
With whom, oh darling darling, I am dealing.