A recording of author Lawrence Durrell (1912-1990) reading his poem “Alexandria.”
Durrell may be slightly out-of-favor these days, in part because he was a writer’s writer—more interested in method and style of writing than plot and narrative—yet, his books can be profound and very enriching reads, in particular The Black Book, The Dark Labyrinth and of course, The Alexandria Quartet, which made him a star when it was first published. There is also The Avignon Quintet, which has its moments but is too often caught up with its own mythology—think Dan Brown, secret organizations, Nazis and the intricacies of love.
Though Durrell will never be considered a truly great poet—he is more A. E. Housman or Robert Browning than T. S. Eliot—there are always cleverly constructed poems to be found in his work, such as this gem, “Alexandria,” which was written during the Second World War.
To the lucky now who have lovers or friends,
Who move to their sweet undiscovered ends,
Or whom the great conspiracy deceives,
I wish these whirling autumn leaves:
Promontories splashed by the salty sea,
Groaned on in darkness by the tram
To horizons of love or good luck or more love -
As for me I now move
Through many negatives to what I am.
Here at the last cold Pharos between Greece
And all I love, the lights confide
A deeper darkness to the rubbing tide;
Doors shut, and we the living are locked inside
Between the shadows and the thoughts of peace:
And so in furnished rooms revise
The index of our lovers and our friends
From gestures possibly forgotten, but the ends
Of longings like unconnected nerves,
And in this quiet rehearsal of their acts
We dream of them and cherish them as Facts.
Now when the sea grows restless as a conscript,
Excited by fresh wind, climbs the sea-wall,
I walk by it and think about you all:
B. with his respect for the Object, and D.
Searching in sex like a great pantry for jars
Marked ‘Plum and apple’; and the small, fell
Figure of Dorian ringing like a muffin-bell —
All indeed whom war or time threw up
On this littoral and tides could not move
Were objects for my study and my love.
And then turning where the last pale
Lighthouse, like a Samson blinded, stands
And turns its huge charred orbit on the sands
I think of you — indeed mostly of you,
In whom a writer would only name and lose
The dented boy’s lip and the close
Archer’s shoulders; but here to rediscover
By tides and faults of weather, by the rain
Which washes everything, the critic and the lover.
At the doors of Africa so many towns founded
Upon a parting could become Alexandria, like
The wife of Lot — a metaphor for tears;
And the queer student in his poky hot
Tenth floor room above the harbour hears
The sirens shaking the tree of his heart,
And shuts his books, while the most
Inexpressible longings like wounds unstitched
Stir in him some girl’s unquiet ghost.
So we, learning to suffer and not condemn
Can only wish you this great pure wind
Condemned by Greece, and turning like a helm
Inland where it smokes the fires of men,
Spins weathercocks on farms or catches
The lovers at their quarrel in the sheets;
Or like a walker in the darkness might,
Knocks and disturbs the artist at his papers
Up there alone, upon the alps of night.