Only that underlying sense
Of the look of a room on returning thence.
— Thomas Hardy
Downstream of Tower Bridge, where Bermondsey Wall overlooks
a reach of lacquered mud low tide reveals,
I stop to watch some dozen people with buckets and brooms.
They tend a row of nine huge, squared timbers
laid flat, half-sunk, half-risen
in mud, and a larger timber, curved on one side like a rudder.
I don’t know why they’re here—the timbers,
the people. Only, that the picture
of these persons brushing, sweeping, heads bowed
in simple labor, appears like a peasant scene,
a harvest scene. And in the manner of so many paintings,
some of them stand, observing, as if to be of a company
with you, the observer, peering through the frame. Or me,
in this case, who can walk down a stone stairs,
and step into the scene, and ask.
Seated at a table in the Angel Inn,
I thought back to the strange, tide-hidden,
carefully spaced rank of wooden beams, and the persons
attending them. Something about their attention—ritual
and casual at once (porkpie hats, billed caps, wellies)—
Brueghel could have painted them, in the clothing of his day.
Or the Limbourg brothers, for the medieval book of hours.
Ritual: I mean what Pound said of rhythm—
a shape cut in time. A present that is also past;
and vice versa, to turn the times, like the tide, around.
A pint of Sam Smith’s Extra Stout
in the early afternoon: another sort of ritual,
pints in a pub. This my second—during the first
I explored this pub that’s been pouring beer
since before Victoria took the throne:
the front room and bar, the back parlor,
and the smaller parlor to its right—and various
nooks, bays, hearths, and their suggestion
of deeper interiorities; then the balcony, overlooking
the tide, and the stairs where rivermen
would enter from skiffs, for a quick lift of whiskey,
or for bed and board. Rogues, tars, bilge-rats,
and at least one painter, all here at the Angel,
a meeting place between river and land.
And in fact, it was a ship’s rudder,
the man told me, in the tide-mud meeting place
between river and land. A sailing vessel
from the 18th century, dismantled; its timbers
and rudder laid down as skids for a drydock.
Old beams disused, seen anew, re-used:
seated at a table at the Angel Inn, I’m all
cleverness now, afloat on ale:
thoughts slide in, catch the tide, set sail:
the membered past, scrounged and rejiggered, passes on . . .
metonymically in beams and rudder
that once bore a crew, cargo, and a name,
a carved and painted figure on the bowsprit;
to become in time a static staging ground,
threshold of other ships’ sailing forth.
Or as metaphor: I’m looking at this pub again,
rebuilt and refurbished—like a human body, cell
by cell; a rotten rafter here, cracked plank there, nails
winter-loosened. Lanterns replaced
by gaslamps, then wired for electricity.
What is it they’re after? The assiduous crew
of volunteers hauls Thames water in buckets,
“cleaning what can be seen,” they tell me.
How the mud-sunk rudder steers them, still,
toward some aura, like a saint’s relic, a power
not of force, but connection. Aura,
as Benjamin described the pull
of a work of art, that thrill—to be in its presence—
impossible to reproduce.
I’m staring now
at a cheap framed print of Whistler’s painting,
“Wapping-on-Thames,” on the wall of the Angel Inn.
And I’m sitting almost exactly where the painter sat
while painting it. The relic that I’m after
is not so much a thing to see,
but something seen.
Across the water,
the warehouses rise, with old names: Phoenix
Wharf, St. John’s Warehouse, King Henry’s Wharf.
They’re luxury flats now; their prior functions marketed
as charm. The boats are fewer, sleeker now:
police boats and party boats, all waiting
for different events.
Gone, the intricate webwork
of masts and spars and rigging that had so caught
his eye. And yet, even now, the feel of the balcony—the frame
that grounds and gives onto the scene—
is eerily the same . . .
. . . but gone:
those three figures on the balcony.
The two men talking, leaning in over the table
—conspiratorial. The woman, leaning back, gazing out
of the picture, into the Inn. Or nowhere.
Her eyes are fixed, like a carved figure on a bowsprit.
We know her name: she is Jo Heffernan,
Whistler’s mistress. The man next to her, Alphonse Legros,
a painter friend he knows from Paris. Whistler spent years
getting their faces right, to render their expressions
as though they are here, in this moment
the painting presents as the present. Only now,
in the here of the Angel Inn,
where it almost seems I step into the scene,
it is their absence that haunts the balcony.
And the absence has a feel.—But how to say this
in words, except by words’ own contradictions? I say
the actual absence of those now gone, who hewed
that rudder; who steered, rode that vessel:
the tangible evidence of absence.
Three figures seated at a table. I see
three old-timers at the Angel Inn, nursing
their pints, telling stories of boats
they’ve bought and sold: their past dealings
dealt again through telling, vivid
with the gestures of expletives—
th’ fuckin’ boat I fuckin’ bought off fuckin’ Bobby . . .
We come for the past but not the past alone.
We know no past alone,
only what of it we encounter
now: we come to find that bearing
of past on present, and vice versa, to turn
the times, like the tide, around—history and
my living body—my fuckin’ body—
confused: the liminal place. Meaning threshold.
Meaning window, balcony. Tidal River. Frame.
Painting: “Wapping on Thames” by James McNeill Whistler, 1860-1864, oil on canvas, courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.