The Power That Being Changed Can Give

Albus McInerney edits a literary magazine.

Kim has split up from her partner. She told me of this sad development when we were the first ones to come online at the weekly editorial meeting. ‘She’s run off to pastures new,’ was the way Kim put it.

Kim and I know one another’s views on poetry; we inhabit the same corner of the academic universe, but we’ve never actually met. Her remark about pastures new did rather shake up at least one basic assumption I had had about her. I had supposed that her partner was a man.

‘I’m sorry to hear that,’ I said.

As far as I can gather, the relationship was relatively short (though this, no doubt, is not much consolation to the partner who’s been abandoned).

There was a pause as I contemplated the likelihood that my minimalist response may have conveyed more surprise than solidarity. Then I asked, ‘What’s Mat short for?’

The inanity of the question struck me only after it had been asked (as is so often the case).

Kim was patient. ‘Mattea,’ she said. ‘Her family is Italian.’

‘Oh,’ I said.

Since the question had been inane, the monosyllabic response to the answer may have been apt.

Kim is short for Kimiko, and Kimiko is actively engaged, as a poet and an academic, with the Japanese-American experience. I had assumed that Mat stood for Matsuo or Matabei or something along those lines.

So, wrong on another account.

‘Other fish in the sea?’ I asked hopefully.

I’m not really very good at this sort of thing.

Kim ignored the question. ‘It has put me in mind of Larkin,’ she said.

I don’t suppose a domestic rift would put most people in mind of a Larkin – the poet, Philip, or any other Larkin, for that matter. ‘How so?’

‘It’s a little melodramatic, but I’ve always been fond of An Arundel Tomb,’ Kim said. ‘Those lines about the passage of time – And up the paths / The endless altered people came – the people who visit the mediaeval tomb where the lovers hold hands. You remember the line at the end: What will survive of us is love.

‘That’s comforting,’ I said.

‘It’s more than comforting,’ Kim replied, rather sharply.

I was, I realised, being an absolutely inadequate shoulder to cry on.

‘There’s a harder edge to Larkin,’ she continued. ‘More realism, that’s why it works. The beauty comes amid bleakness.’

I suppose if professors of poetry have to justify the utility of their profession it must surely involve the facility with which, in the midst of day-to-day misfortune, emotional and philosophical insights are always to hand.

‘He isn’t sentimental,’ she said. ‘He’s rather harsh. He speaks, you’ll remember, of girls / In parodies of fashion, and mothers loud and fat.’

‘The Whitsun Weddings,’ I said.

‘Yes, and after he paints an unflattering portrait of tasteless wedding parties, he speaks about all the power / That being changed can give.’

‘Yes!’ I said – clearly, Larkin was better at this sort of thing than me. I gathered that Kim was referring (with commendable fortitude) to the possibilities of the future, post-Mat.

A sense of falling, like an arrow shower,’ she continued, ‘Sent out of sight, somewhere becoming rain.’

‘All things must change,’ I said, ‘sometimes for the better.’

I fear I have shocked you, Kim, said.

I had been found out. Considering now the presumption and ease with which I had entirely misunderstood fundamental and important aspects of a colleague’s life, I was a little ashamed.

‘Am I late?’ Dimitri asked. He emerged beaming onto the screen, first his walrus moustache and then the rest of him.

‘Yes you are!’ Kim teased. ‘We were discussing Larkin. I know he’s a favourite of yours.’

‘Larkin?’ the voice was Rami’s. Her picture came up as a postage stamp and then expanded. ‘I’ve always been a fan.’

‘No!’ Patrice has a way of investing even monosyllables with gallic panache. His mugshot took its place in the top right-hand corner of the screen. ‘Larkin is rather passé and much too British – and there’s a touch of bigotry too.’

‘No doubt,’ I said, ‘but flawed assumptions aren’t limited to time or place. We’re all guilty. Aren’t we?’

‘Oh, Albus,’ Kim said gently, ‘remember the power that being changed can give!’