The very definition of ‘philistine’ is one who thinks that the actor, poet and playwright Harold Pinter was over-rated. They are wrong. Late last night I watched, in a fit of insomnia and for the second gruelling time, Pinter perform in Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape. An old man, alone in a room drinking and listening to tapes made of himself many years earlier when he was in his latter thirties (my age now). Staggering. This morning, still staggered, I picked a slim volume of Pinter’s late, overtly political works from the shelf called Death etc. Pinter increasingly worked through poetry toward the end of his life; poems that are as short, sharp and brutish as the deaths, personal and entirely impersonal, that they chronicle.
Now here I am, drinking coffee comfortably on a cloudy morning in quiet Ypsilanti and reading words inspired by cluster bombs, blood-spattered basements and the cheap, anonymous murder specialized in by powers great and small and feeling queasy for doing so. So, in the spirit of solidarity, I thought I would share my discomfort. Most of us will not be confronted with death today, not immediately anyway. Most of us will not be tortured. Most of us will not be murdered. Most of us will not be raped. Most of us will not be beaten. Most of us will not be gagged or tied up or shocked with cattle prods. But some of us will, as will the loved ones of some of us. This very mundane morning there are people getting their teeth kicked in. Four by Pinter then.
Are you ready to order?
No there is nothing to order
No I’m unable to order
No I’m a long way from order
And while there is everything,
And nothing, to order,
Order remains a tall order
And disorder feeds on the belly of order
And order requires the blood of disorder
And ‘freedom’ and ordure and other disordures
Need the odour of order to sweeten their murders
Disorder a beggar in a darkened room
Order a banker in a castiron womb
Disorder an infant in a frozen home
Order a soldier in a poisoned tomb
After Lunch (2002)
And after noon the well-dressed creatures come
To sniff among the dead
And have their lunch
And all the many well-dressed creatures pluck
The swollen avocados from the dust
And stir the minestrone with stray bones
And after lunch
They loll and lounge about
Decanting claret in convenient skulls
God bless America (2003)
Here they go again,
The Yanks in their armoured parade
Chanting their ballads of joy
As they gallop across the big world
Praising America’s God.
The gutters are clogged with the dead
The ones who couldn’t join in
The others refusing to sing
The ones who are losing their voice
The ones who’ve forgotten the tune.
The riders have whips which cut.
Your head rolls onto the sand
Your head is a pool in the dirt
Your head is a stain in the dust
Your eyes have gone out and your nose
Sniffs only the pong of the dead
And all the dead air is alive
With the smell of America’s God.
Finally, here is Pinter reading 1997’s ‘Death’ from his monumental Nobel Prize acceptance speech.
Where was the dead body found?
Who found the dead body?
Was the dead body dead when found?
How was the dead body found?
Who was the dead body?
Who was the father or daughter or brother
Or uncle or sister or mother or son
Of the dead and abandoned body?
Was the body dead when abandoned?
Was the body abandoned?
By whom had it been abandoned?
Was the dead body naked or dressed for a journey?
What made you declare the dead body dead?
Did you declare the dead body dead?
How well did you know the dead body?
How did you know the dead body was dead?
Did you wash the dead body
Did you close both its eyes
Did you bury the body
Did you leave it abandoned
Did you kiss the dead body