Beautiful imperfection - Marie Colvin and Cerys Matthews
By Alan Jenkins
Shortly after Marie Colvin was killed in Homs the Sunday Times called me and asked if I would be trying to write anything for or about her. No, no, I protested, it was far too soon, too early even for grief; I was in shock. In the small hours of that night I woke with a start of deep shame at what Marie would have thought of my maidenly blushes. Over the next few days and nights I wrote a poem I called “Reports of My Survival May be Exaggerated” – Marie’s words on a Facebook update posted a day or so before her death, when, having filed her ST report from Babr Amr and got safely out, she decided to go back in, to witness the next stage of Assad’s war on his own people. Reporting wars was, after all, what she did. Writing poems is, after all, what I am supposed to do.
Though not herself an artist, Marie sought perfection of the work and not the life – a perfection as unattainable in our world as it is in hers. And imperfection, as if we needed reminding, is always waiting to ambush us. The poem was printed as part of the ST’s handsome tribute to Marie, the weekend after she died. It was word-perfect – that is, the text appeared just as I had submitted it. Soon after, a friend of Marie’s and mine, commiserating with me on our loss, added his regret at the misprint in one of the poem’s lines: “Rie, get up off that bloodstained floor!”. “Rie” should surely have read “Rise”, no? No no, I protested again, “Rie” (pronounced Ree) was my affectionate abbreviation of Marie, what I had in fact called her for most of our twenty-five-year friendship. When it was reprinted in the Order of Service for Marie’s London funeral, I altered the line to read “Marie, get up off…” etc. Next was another request from the ST, this time to read the poem at her memorial service. No maidenly blushes now, weeks after the event and the funeral. Again, the poem was printed in the Order of Service. This time the same line read “Marie, get off that bloodstained floor”. As I read I was careful to revert to the original.
That memorable service included beautiful renditions by Cerys Matthews of “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “Crazy”, the Willie Nelson song made famous by Patsy Cline – both Marie’s public and private faces thus unforgettably present. A few days later, another call from the ST. Cerys had liked the poem and hoped she might read it herself, in the poetry slot on her radio show. Of course, that would be wonderful – only, one thing, could she please be asked to make sure she read “…get UP off that bloodstained floor”? – As, when the time came, she did. A moment later she also read my line (in the poem, spoken by Marie herself) “Can’t you take in that I am dead?”, “Can’t you take IT in that I am dead?”: correct, perhaps, strictly speaking, and even idiomatically speaking. But Marie’s American-English idiom included lots of little departures from correctness, especially when she was tired and/or emotional, and it was this I had somehow meant to suggest. There was the metrical issue too… Then came the line, “In Chechnya or Chiswick Eyot” – Chiswick Eyot being the little island in the Thames a few yards from Marie’s house, Eyot an alternative spelling of ait and in the poem rhymed with “hate”. Cerys: “In Chechnya or Chiswick EYE-ott”. Does it matter? Probably not. The whole thing sounds fragile and haunted beyond anything I had dared to hope or expect, and Marie would have loved every second of it.
Listen to Cerys Matthews reading "Reports of My Survival May be Exaggerated" (at around 1h39), available until May 26th http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio/player/b01hz3tm
‘REPORTS OF MY SURVIVAL MAY BE EXAGGERATED’
(Marie Colvin, February 20th 2012)
How can you be lying there?
Immodestly, among the rubble
When we want you to be here
In some other kind of trouble –
Luffing up, in irons, perhaps,
Just downstream from the Dove,
Lost in South London, without maps,
Or capsized in love.
What’s keeping you? A kind of dare?
Come back and tell us how you stayed
One step ahead, how you gave fear
The slip, how you were not afraid –
As we are. Look – here’s my idea.
Come back – this time, for good.
Leave your flak jacket and your gear
In that burnt-out neighbourhood,
And fly home, via Paris. You’ll be met.
I’ll buy a bottle from the corner store,
Like old times. You can have a cigarette.
Marie, get up off that bloodstained floor!
Tonight you threw your thin brown arm
Around my shoulders, and you said
(There was this unearthly calm)
‘Can’t you take in that I am dead?
Learn to expect the unexpected turn
Of the tide, the unmarked reef,
The rock that should be off the stern
On which we come to grief?
The lies, the ignorance and hate –
The bigger picture? No safe mooring there,
In Chechnya or Chiswick Eyot.
Those nights I drank my way out of despair,
And filling ashtrays filed the copy
You would read – or not read – with
A brackish taste and your first coffee
Contending on your tongue; while Billy Smith,
My street cat rescued from Jerusalem,
Barged in, shouting, from his wars….
As many lives as his – and now I’ve used them.
I wish I’d made it back to yours.’