'On a Deserted Shore' is a sequence of 130 short poems by Kathleen Raine searing to memory her relationship with the naturalist and writer, Gavin Maxwell, following his death.
It is not memorialised through detail for that one must read her Autobiographies but through a meditation on love and loss, on the soul and its relationship with embodiment and the beyond, on the offerings we make to one another and the guilt of our failure to fulfil the grace and mystery of those offerings.
It is, I think, one of the finest long sequences of poems in English in the Twentieth century and her testament as poet.
I read it first at school and read it with a philosophical eye, dispassionately, probably noting how its underlying spirituality is what I understood as neo-Platonism!
Reading it yesterday evening in the Agenda volume that is a tribute to Kathleen, it struck, and struck home, with a very different sense of depth and resonance.
Midway in my own life, I find questions of both origin and departure equally arresting. As Jung notes, it is now, in mid-life, that you must find a way of accomplishing a living narrative, felt and real, for whither I have come, who I am, and where do I go?
By now I have accumulated some encounter with grief, with its persistence, with the way that its tracks guide one's own; and, with its companion love that has been won and lost, by which I have been carried along and borne along.
Such that lines as these, take on a new significance:
Anguish, small pregnant seed,
Becomes a worm that gnaws through years
At last quiescent lies; not dead;
Till waking, what winged impulse takes the skies?"
That the person loved and lost in passing time yet through time becomes, as eternity presses nearer, the veil lifts, to you, as they are, continually present, in that presence that is always now. People become winged, themselves, not your burning loss of them, and burnish brighter in a different kind of remembering. As my mother did recently, waking one morning, to find her long dead father utterly present to her mind and knowing all that he felt and was, a complete picture of his wholeness.
"In heart's truth I declare
What most I fear
To find beyond death's veil:
Not legendary hells of ice and fire
But a face too merciful
For my own devil-peopled soul to bear."
This an absolute summation of how I feel as you look at yourself honestly - all the cumulated sins of commission and omission - that will be, are greeted in a forgiveness that is so pure that in "God there is no forgiveness" (to quote Julian of Norwich). My bravado could face a punishing devil, my bravery cannot compete with an all merciful God and wants to run and hide!
These can only be glimpses of the cumulative whole of this remarkable sequence but one other strand bears mentioning (and does bring me back to the underlying Platonism) that is the sense that they were indeed 'given' to one another to live out (or fail to) a mystery of love betwixt one another; and, the implication is that we all are. Think of it though not (as here) a grand transaction of love but of the daily passage to and fro of life: each person I meet on my way is a gift, an offering, to which I can respond in joy (or not).
And how fabulous it is when you meet this attitude in the daily round, like the wonderful Jamaican woman at the bus station in Hammersmith on Monday who noticing I was studying the wrong map jovially called me over and sent me on my way, with such obvious pleasure in her job, in her life, as if my confusion was a gift to her (as it was).