Current Issue Excerpts
In That Dawn
Back in Oxford for a day,
each building and street corner detonating
small puffs of mood and memory:
could be any damp morning
of my first autumn here,
walls of New College Lane
still oozing like mouldy sponge.
Slip into Magdalen porters' lodge;
through the cloisters,
across small bridge
(are the fish still down there?)
and around the park,
anticlockwise always -
so easily, after more than forty years,
back on the old track.
Just here, under this oak,
the girl stood smiling,
twisting the stem off an apple
(a mottled cox it was);
Oh, I could have spoken,
should have spoken,
but the moment passed and sadly,
despite repeated invocations on the spot,
that dryad never reappeared.
Here where St Frideswide's convent stands no more
I had tea with a St Anne's girl,
a dark-haired beauty surnamed Marjoribanks
- properly rendered Marchbanks
as any Oxbridge man might know
or have the good sense to evade;
but which I, introducing her to a friend,
spoke phonetically, colonially:
as it turned out.
Memory of which sends me scuttling
back up Holywell, past the Music Room
where I heard Richter play, - or did I?
Then on toward the siren windows
facing the Kings Arms and Broad Street
where, during one of your rejuvenating spots of time
(I wonder, William, where exactly in my brain
it's stored, and stored so clearly)
I witnessed with astonishment
two delicate female feet in pastel green
descending Clarendon steps.
Catte Street leads me south
past Old Bodley, the Camera
shouldering St Mary's spire,
across and up the High
for a pint and ploughman's lunch
in the smoky dusk of Chequers,
where each swing of the doors
might turn up something special.
Down in the Examination Schools,
magnificent in tattered gown,
J.R.R. Tolkien begins his final set of lectures:
grey head thrown back, eyes closed,
bellowing and growling Beowulf.
"Hwaet's Beowulf to him or he to Beowulf?"
my Aussie classmate scoffed;
and outside on the street,
antenna raised again,
Old English quickly faded to
Required Subject for the Honour School.
Back to First Principles -
and there they were,
the mini - unskirted thighs
of Spanish and Italian girls
cycling to and from
the blessed Swan School of English,
young ladies at St Clare's for finishing,
shop girls at Boots and Marks & Sparks,
and undergraduates too
(though generally thought less choice)
emerging primly in their gowns
from ladies' colleges.
Oh, a feast it was
of famine on those streets of plenty.
And now I'm in Bear Lane,
with a late November
late afternoon shower
washing me along the cobbles
and past the walls of Christ Church,
where my hero Ruskin lay at twenty-one
(his mother lodged five minutes down the street)
stroking his flesh, alone in Peckwater quad.
I've put off till the end,
with half an hour to train time,
the approach to my old college
and the barren high-ceilinged
Gothic rooms on staircase 8
Of my first year away from Saskatoon.
I stand off at a distance,
eyes closed on St Aldate's,
while the smell of car exhaust
and cabbage from the Pembroke kitchens
infiltrates my guts once more
with the old Christminster gloom.
Yes, I'm back in Oxford
with Jude and all the longing
Unbelonging strayed and scattered here
beside the vaulted grandeur of Christ Church,
its great bell booming through wet twilight
a warning to go back where I belong.
JOHN UNRAU was born in Saskatoon. He holds a doctorate from Oxford, which he attended as a Rhodes Scholar. A collection of his poems, Iced Water, was published by Salmon Poetry of Ireland in 2000. From 1969 until moving to Minden, Ontario, in 2005, he taught at York University. With the help of his partner, the poet and novelist Linda McNamara, he is preparing a second collection of poems.