The poet Vernon Scannell, who died last week, was an interesting chap. He twice deserted from the army, saw action in Normandy, and later became a boxer. He was also institutionalised, apparently after telling his court martial that he was a poet. Luckily the Captain running the institution was an enlightened fellow and made sure Scannell was soon released, telling him: “This is the last place to get well.”
I came across this poem, one of his last, while leafing through The Guardian on Saturday afternoon. The bar I was in was quiet; the only sounds those of the barman replenishing his fridges, and the few other customers turning the pages of their newspapers. It’s been a long time since a poem has moved me the way Missing Things did. The sense of reminiscence it evoked was extremely powerful, and not a little painful.
I felt the thread of my own life more keenly than I have for a long time. . . the sensations of careering through sand dunes, first kisses, pub gardens in late summer. Long-buried, impressionistic memories unspooled in my mind, reeling me in until the feeling of submersion was complete.
I’m very old and breathless, tired and lame,
and soon I’ll be no more to anyone
than the slowly fading trochee of my name
and shadow of my presence: I’ll be gone.
Already I begin to miss the things
I’ll leave behind, like this calm evening sun
which seems to smile at how the blackbird sings.
There’s something valedictory in the way
my books gaze down on me from where they stand
in disciplined disorder and display
the same goodwill that well-wishers on land
convey to troops who sail away to where
great danger waits. These books will miss the hand
that turned the pages with devoted care.
And there are also places that I miss:
those Paris streets and bars I can’t forget,
the scent of caporal and wine and piss;
the pubs in Soho where the poets met;
the Yorkshire moors and Dorset’s pebbly coast,
black Leeds, where I was taught love’s alphabet,
and this small house that I shall miss the most.
I’ve lived here for so long it seems to be
a part of what I am, yet I’m aware
that when I’ve gone it won’t remember me
and I, of course, will neither know nor care
since, like the stone of which the house is made,
I’ll feel no more than it does light and air.
Then why so sad? And just a bit afraid?