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Old Possum (1888-1965): Courtship Song of J. Arthur Prufrock

Translated by Timothy Adès

“If I thought what I say to you would go / to anybody bound for
worldly light, / this brand would stop pulsating and fall still.
But nobody’s got out of our abyss / living, if I’m told truth;
and so, I shall / inform you, unafraid of infamy”.

OK Vamos, you and I,
Now that dusk is sprawling on its backdrop sky,
Aping an invalid whom chloroform’s put down;
Vamos, through various not-that-busy ways,
Susurrating slinkaways,
Insomniac nights in short-stay low-class inns
And sawdust snackbars flush with crayfish skins:
Ways dogging you with boring how-d’you-do
Cunningly bugging you
To bring you a tyrannical conundrum…
Oh, do not ask, “What is it?”
Just carry out our visit.

Backward and forward trips posh totty
Talking of Italy’s Buonarotti.

That sallow fog that rubs its back on window-glass,
That sallow smog that rubs its jaws on window-glass,
Licking its lingual prong into nooks of dusk,
Hanging round pools that stand in drains,
Took on its back soot-falls from filthy stacks,
Slid by a run of doors, did a quick jump past a gap,
Wound simply round a flat, took a nap.

And this won’t fail: an opportunity
For sallow smog that slips down murky ways
Rubbing its back, again, on window-glass;
An opportunity, an opportunity,
To fix a phiz fit to quiz any phiz;
To go all homicidal, or to bring
Good things to birth; for works and days of hands
That lift and drop conundrums in your lap;
Your opportunity, my opportunity,
To wallow in a thousand doubts of mind,
A thousand visions won, a thousand lost,
Partaking finally of Whittard’s Black, and toast.

Backward and forward trips posh totty
Talking of Italy’s Buonarotti.

And this won’t fail: an opportunity
To think: “Am I so bold? Am I so bold?”
To turn again, go down that stair
With a bald spot as hub-cap of my hair,
(Folk will say: “How his hair is growing thin!”)
My morning coat, my collar mounting firmly to my chin,
My cravat rich and unassuming, with a thrifty pin—
(Folk will say: “Just look at his limbs, how thin!”)
Am I so bold
As to carry out a cosmic discommoding?
In an instant I can find
Ultimatums in my mind, with an option of swift unloading.

For I know it all, right now, oh I know it all:
Know of dusks, of mornings and long-past-noons,
Counting out my days with mocca-spoons;
Know of small-talk dying with a dying fall
Which a distant music laid out cold.
  So how should I wax bold?

And I know of orbs of sight, I know it all,
Orbs that fix you in a formula, a way of saying,
And caught in that formula I’d sprawl, stuck fast
On a pin and wriggling against a wall:
Say, how should I start
Spitting out ciggy-butts of my days and ways?
  And how should I wax bold?

And I know of arms, right now, oh I do know it all:
Brightly dight with bling, skin unclad, lily-fair
(Though in lamplight, downy with light brown hair).
Is it a fragrant frock
Brings on my logic-block?
Arms laid along a board, or wrapping round a shawl.
  And am I to wax bold?
  And how should I start?

Shall I talk of going at dusk through narrow ways
Watching vapour curling up from solitary souls
Smoking with no coats on, hanging out of windows?...

What if I wasn’t I, but two tatty claws
Scuttling on salt floods’ tranquil floors…
. . . . . . .
And noon is napping placidly, and dusk is too!
Stroking of long digits:
Laid out… lassitudinous… or it fidgits,
Lying long on this floor, by yours truly, and you.
Should I, upon a cuppa char, a pastry, a cassata,
Push this occasion into ultimata?
With orbs in flood, and off my food, my orison was said:
I saw my balding topknot on a tundish, most unkind,
But I’m not Giambattista and I don’t much mind;
I saw my opportunity of triumph slip,
I saw God’s Footman hold my coat, and curl his lip
And in short, I was afraid.

If I had, was it actually worth it, anyway,
Following two cuppas and a fruit-slop on a spoon,
Among china crocks and a chat about us two,
Was it actually worth it, to do,
If I bit off such a topic with a grin,
If I shrank God’s cosmos into a ball
To roll it towards a gigantic inquiry,
To say: “I am Lazarus, I’m an apparition,
Giving you my story, I’m giving you it all” –
If a lady, comfortably placing a cushion,
Should say: “That is not what I had in mind at all;
  That is not it, at all.”

Was it actually worth it, anyway,
If I had, was it actually worth it?
What with nightfalls, dooryards and civic hosings-down,
Works of fiction, cups of Lipton, a trailing skirt or gown,
And that, and much on top of that? -
I can’t possibly say what I’m driving at!
But as if a magic gizmo put my ganglia in graphs upon a wall:
If I had, was it actually worth it,
If a lady took a cushion or was throwing off a shawl,
And turning toward a window, should say:
  “That is not it, at all,
  That is not what I had in mind at all.”

No! I’m not that Danish royal, not cut out for it;
Just an auxiliary lord, who’ll do
To bulk out a walkabout, start an act or two,
Advising HRH; no doubt, a handy tool,
Knowing my station, glad if I do good,
Politic, cautious, acting as I should,
Full of high opinion, but as thick as wood;
Now and again, almost ridiculous –
Almost, in fact, his Fool.

I grow old … I grow old …
I’ll roll up my turn-ups, I’ll turn out bold.

Shall I part my hair abaft? Might I munch a mango, coolly?
I shall walk damp sand in plus-fours, tint of lily.
I saw nymphs with fishtails, singing songs, mutually.

I do not think that choir will sing for yours truly.

I saw nymphs riding on salt surf to far horizons,
Combing foaming hair of salt surf blown back
By wind that blows on surf both milky and black.

You and I may tarry in old Triton’s halls
With nymphs wrapt in salt-grass crimson and brown
Till human music warms us and charms us to drown.

© With copious thanks to Fabbro & Fabbro (Old Possum’s old firm which also holds all copyright of his works)

Published in Long Poem Magazine

Translation: Copyright © Timothy Adès