Cliff Forshaw is a poet and painter. His recent books include Satyr (Shoestring Press, 2017) – a topical satirical sequence illustrated by his paintings and drawings – and Pilgrim Tongues (Wrecking Ball, 2015), which travels from Hull to Vietnam and back, by way of Israel, Transylvania, California and Cambodia, continuing the voyages he embarked upon in Wake (Flarestack Poetry Pamphlet Prize, 2009). Cliff’s paintings have appeared in various exhibitions, including the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition 2020.
Cliff has been a Royal Literary Fund Fellow at York University and Hull University, where he was previously a senior lecturer, and is working on a series of large cityscape paintings. French Leave, from which these poems are taken, is a sequence of versions and perversions of French poems by Gautier, Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Laforgue, Apollinaire and others.
FROM FRENCH LEAVE Gautier’s Farewell to Poetry two variations after Théophile Gautier
Come, fallen angel, and let your pink wings close; Lose the white robe; turn off your rays of gold. High time to quit the sky; it’s feeling old. End like the shooting star; fall into prose. Your bird-like feet must learn to tread the ground. You’ve flown enough. No need to any more. Don’t harp on the music you played and how you soared. Lock it in your heart. Don’t make a sound. Sky-child, your song’s divine, but sung in vain: They wouldn’t understand your sweet Enochian. Their ears are deaf to your ancient artifice. But, before you go, my blue-eyed guardian, Seek out the pale one whom I love, and press Upon her brow, one long, last farewell kiss.
It’s time to drop the rebel angel act. It’s getting hard for you to rock that black: the leather and shades – that look’s not coming back. It’s hard to say this now with any tact, but your boho aesthetic no longer shocks, been worked to death by generations of sullen kids. Remember why you first did those things you did. Love or anger? Then why you became a jerk. And here, the cliché – reversed–’s almost true: it really isn’t me, but the likes of you. Get real. It’s over. Leave poetry to the Dead. You played at being Byron, Rimbaud. Kidded no one, though you took yourself so seriously: one eye on the mirror, your verses’ true dedicatee.
Shadowed two variations on “El Desdichado” by Gérard de Nerval (1808-1855) Je suis le ténébreux, – le veuf, – l’inconsolé 1. Device Emblazoned Upon a Lute Shadowed, widower, scion of an ancient line, My domain now lost, withered to a ruined folly. My only star is dead and that rising sign Upon my lute is the black sun of Melancholy. You who consoled me, who lightened my despair, Bring to the night of my tomb Posilipo, the wine Dark sea, the flower which chased away my cares, And the arbour where the rose entwines with the vine. Eros? Apollo? With whose myth was my blood mixed? My brow is still scorched from the kiss of that dark queen. I’ve dreamed where the Siren swims in her marine Caverns. Twice, I’ve won my way across the Styx, Harmonising as I strummed the lyre’s taut strings, The sighs of saints and sprites, the hum of brittle wings. 2. Bloozer Good school. Natch. Got kicked out. Trouble in the City. Did my time. Trust-fund once, didn’t trust trustees, the rest I blew all on my own. My feet, my thumb, got me this far. Bootsoles, truck-stops, passing cars. And now all I’ve got left’s this ten-buck standby for the hocked guitar (Mama’s birthday gift I learned upon): warped neck, fret-buzz, slips in and out of tune, left out too long, I guess, in northern rain, in upland sleet, those months in deep-south sun. But it busks, plays fast and, hey, the slide’s real loose. Things hit. With Fate expect no truce. Too much devilment; forgot what sounds like Heaven; we’re talking flattened fifth and minor seventh. I followed my heart through that sound-hole. Been more than once through fire, highwater, Hell. This wooden box is noisier than the other one, and rings as clear as any churchyard bell. The trick’s to add the words which tell no lies, put lyrics to a bottle skidding wires. If I’m a loser, then let me loose to lose, Augment, suspend, diminish, slide and bend that long leaning note. At last no need to fret! I’ll let Disaster be my Muse! Bring it on. I’m already walking while you’re still talking talking blues.
Ariadne on Naxos loosely after “Ariane seule” by Marie de Guignes (1862-1907) Woke – the sand beneath my cloak was cold. Stretched out to dawn. You were not there. Ran down to just your fading sail far out from shore, day brewing up in the burning blank of sky. And I was all at sea. Alone. And scared. I heard the sudden silence of the birds. And something nearing, thrashing through the scrub. Cymbals hissed where drumskins shushed those birds. Then hooves, and hot upon the pad of paws, strange pelts, immaculately spotted, shone. Muted by sand, the intermittent wind, then the sudden advent of that weird band – all tuning up for opening night tonight just when I’d thought I’d played and blown my part. Ariadne after “Ariane” by José-Maria de Heredia (1842-1905) All bronze and brazen – the din as sun and cymbals clash – stretched naked along the tiger’s back, she catches Bacchus orchestrating his rag-tag band’s slow-motion crash, as he wheels the monstrous orgy throbbing in his wake. The reins fall lightly from her pallid hand. She thrills to the power beneath the pelt, his heat; the beast now snorts, then champs at the flowery bit; retracts his claws, distractedly paws the sand. Her hair falls loose, cascades the roiling flank: gold where amber’s zithered by vibrant stripes. Now deaf to the tiger’s muted bellow, she’s drunk, ecstatic with the god’s deep-ripened grapes. The lover who fled? Long gone. Nothing left to miss. The Bride awaits the Conqueror of Asia’s kiss. You can purchase Cliff's collections and view his artwork at his website: Cliff Forshaw