Poem of the week: Nocturnal by Paul Bailey | Paul Bailey



I knew a man who wished he hadn’t been born.
He meant what he said.
He was not a poser.
In the bright few years I knew him
He never spoke for effect.

He said what he meant, I remember,
quietly, thoughtfully,
over tea and scrambled eggs on toast
one of those perfect mornings
who always follows
a night of delight.

He had a bright way of speaking
of those who are in the deepest despair.
He was happy to be with him.
He saw the fun side of almost everything.

I knew he meant what he said
when he left with dignity
with sleeping pills and vodka.
No noose, no razor blades, no blood in the bath,
And nothing so wickedly inconsiderate
like a sudden plunge under an oncoming train –
he appreciated the understatement.

I will not reveal his name.
He wouldn’t have wanted me to.
He really preferred oblivion.
It was his favorite habitat.

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This week marks a happy return to the poems of octogenarian writer Paul Bailey. Bailey recently bestowed her gift for memoirs to the key to poetry. Her newly launched second collection, Joie de Vivre, celebrates survival and looks back, in mischief and love rather than anger, to the varied past. “Now I’m darkly gay, or darkly gay, / and philosophical,” his speaker concludes in Raised by Hand. There are smiles, painful or not, warm laughter and memories of loving pleasure in Joie de Vivre’s assorted poems, translations and delightfully subversive prose anecdotes. While being “darkly gay” suggests a possibly painful note to homosexuality (in both ancient and modern senses of the word), the pain couldn’t be further from Bailey style. Nevertheless, the gently sunny landscape has its shadows. Death, too, receives the “philosophical” treatment, in the everyday and colloquial sense of philosophical which implies tranquility and a certain detachment. These qualities are emphasized in Nocturnal.

One of its charms is that the narrative tone itself evokes the nameless protagonist, the man “who truly preferred oblivion” but “saw the fun side of almost everything”. No questions are asked by the narrator, no psychological investigation is launched. The protagonist is not a “poseur”: his remarks are perfectly reliable, his stoicism perfectly legitimate. Elegiacly, the poem is perhaps less an elegy than a “refusal to mourn”, just as it is a rejection of the laborious virtue of positive thinking. A classicist would get it immediately. As WH Auden interpreted the ancient Greek perspective on existence: “Not to be born is best for man.

Bailey’s title, Nocturnal, hints that there’s a reason to grieve – and even what the reason might be. The loss is felt more intensely at night, especially if the nights were shared with the lost person. Mourning, memory and reflection are nocturnal “creatures” – like lovers.

If the title is an invitation to emotion, the first lines, crisp and abrupt, divert it. They affirm emotional distancing, not as a self-imposed strategy for dealing with grief, but as a means of both building character and honoring that character, the man who “had the brilliant way of speaking/ those who are in the deepest despair” (“of” here meaning “belonging to”).

The joy of a lover remains irrepressible: there are “radiant years”, nights of “rapture” and “perfect” mornings. Bailey gets away with these platitudes of romantic love, because they’re the kinds of utterances an ordinary non-literary person would choose, sincerely lost for smarter words, without ironic quotes. Such words have the brilliance of spotless frankness. These are not the words of a “layer”.

Entering the colder zone of vocal pitch, the fourth stanza is particularly agile. Bailey manages to contain the potential horror of the suicide methods listed within a framework of lightly plotted verbal humor (“gone appropriately”, “wickedly inconsiderate”, “he valued the understatement”). There is no mockery: again, the poise of the speaker seems to reflect the spirit of the man portrayed, to support his own sense of proportion, wit, tact and carelessness. It would be lacking in love to regret the oblivion that the lover has preferred and chosen.

Bailey handles the storytelling in an informal and simple, yet eloquently uncluttered style. The free verse stanzas form naturally musical paragraphs, with the rhythmic “punctuation” of line breaks exactly timed (although the care is slightly worn). Euphemism, transparency and (especially) the lack of literariness are old-fashioned and rare among the “poems” that make up the curious composite of the 21st century, “poetry”. Bailey’s work offers pure refreshment. He has the right subjects for his style and a beautifully urban voice, unique but never proclaiming uniqueness. Driven by curiosity, he always favors the stories and the characters to which they belong.

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