W. G. Shepherd
This poem by W. G. Shepherd was published in the January 1980 issue of The London Magazine, edited by Alan Ross. W. G. (Bill) Shepherd predominantly wrote poetry collections before moving on to translating – his translations of Horace: The Complete Odes and Epodes and Propertius: The Poems were published as Penguin Classics. Shepherd released one last collection of poetry, Mother’s Milk, published in 2006 by Menard Press, before his death in 2012.
The room had not been heated for thirty-six hours,
The windows were opaque with elaborate frost.
I sat down at the piano, expecting to be able to play
Only for a minute before my fingers were numbed.
I turned to Haydn’s penultimate sonata,
The glorious C major. I became aware
That I had been playing for an hour and a half,
That my hands and arms were bathed in warmth.
Elsie, who is a medium, clairvoyant and faith-healer,
Believes that my mother came to me
From the other side and used a spiritual force
To keep me warm. For when she appears to Elsie
My mother is usually playing the piano herself,
Or expressing concern that I should continue to do so
Regularly, for she believes this to be effective
In combating and preventing depression and anxiety.
In this life my mother’s piano-playing was ambitious
(And now she plays to Elsie what sounds like Liszt):
I recall her often dashing headlong,
Kicking up plenty of spray, into a piece called Alice
(Her own middle name), pitting herself pluckily
Against the awful Schumann upright
With its clashing tone and ginger veneer. Alice
(The guileless tune of Alice, Where Art Thou?)
Moved haltingly amid gratuitous complications
Of runs, arpeggios, chords and trills.
My mother had tackled this piece in the first place
When courting, to ensnare my (baritone) father.
He was an advocate and exemplar of the manly virtues,
A kind of Victorian Cato (almost a Wimpole Street Barrett)
Born out of his time. His creed was Kipling’s If.
Yet my nervous, inhibited mother
Would sometimes hit his bouncers for six.
One morning, eloquent, strident, sarcastic and right,
He chose the breakfast table to set the record straight
On some vexed point. Then, in fraught silence,
The rigid ritual of departure for the office –
She gave him his hat. His briefcase. She opened the door.
He marched out, pointedly neglecting to imprint
On her patient cheek, his daily seal of approval.
As he crossed the threshold, my mother swung
Her right leg vigorously. He jerked his pelvis forward –
Too late. He was roundly kicked in the buttocks.
She slammed the door behind him
And turned to me bright-eyed, pink-faced:
I can still hear, as though it stopped just a moment ago,
Her wholesome, rebellious laughter.