It was wonderful seeing the article about Rilke in A76. When I was nonteen and a plain-clothes security officer at Butlin's in North Wales, there was a chef in the next room. He'd spotted me reading novels and one day he said, 'Why don't you try reading this,' and handed me a copy of Rilke's poems. I've still got it. It was one of those moments. The hair on my neck prickled.
I wrote to Terry to ask permission to reproduce the letter here. It turned out that the memory dates back to 1970, when I would have been on holiday, down the coast at Criccieth. Butlin's was on the way to Pwllheli, where I used to go to the barber's (sitting on several telephone directories). Terry had been 19 at the time. My father, at 17 (in 1933), was in Germany, where he learned several Rilke poems by heart, in German. Terry sent me a poem he wrote after going back to Pwllheli years later. It has a rather wonderful melancholic rhythm to it. Here it is:
I write a letter to Millie
safe in the knowledge
that she won’t write back.
It’s not important stuff,
and I know she’s moved away,
most likely many times.
Thirty stamps for Finland,
an address that hasn’t changed,
far enough, but not enough,
to know that I shouldn’t return
and that means today and this station
the noise of the train fades away,
I’m standing in tears of sunlight and years
and the lane to the road from Pwllheli
where last night a movie was funny,
the same Picture House where we’d met,
the pub where we both drank Guinness,
I was there and I couldn’t forget.
But in Criccieth I can’t find the café,
the platform’s dirty and sad,
the Porthmadog hotel has changed its name,
and worse, it’s not the hotel.
The streets didn’t meet at that corner,
where is the path to the sea,
it wasn’t this far to the bus stop
and I’ve run out of memory.
I wish I could write to Millie
and ask did I say what I said,
did I feel what I felt or say what I felt,
I’m beginning to think it’s all wrong.
So I’m not going to go to Beddgelert,
my youth can stay where we were,
but I’ll still write a letter to Millie
now I know why she won’t write back.
And just for good measure, here's a bit of Rilke. We had plenty of sea breeze in North Wales.
Song Of The Sea(Capri, Piccola Marina)
Timeless sea breezes,
sea-wind of the night:
you come for no one;
if someone should wake,
he must be prepared
how to survive you.
Timeless sea breezes,
that for aeons have
blown ancient rocks,
you are purest space
coming from afar...
Oh, how a fruit-bearing
fig tree feels your coming
high up in the moonlight.
Rainer Maria Rilke (Trans. Albert Ernest Flemming)