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Missing Dates

Binning Wood, East Lothian, Scotland

In memoriam Rab Shiell

(Cape Town, January 8, 1940–Edinburgh, May 12, 2024)

Shattered our story now—there’s little left that works,

but though the dates have all gone completely missing

in the bright shards the pattern of some meaning lurks.

On Lykavittos in the Sixties, you lent me

your typewriter. At Odos Xoida No. 2,

I was writing my first novel then and you knew.

Traversing Aegina in your red MG,

Fix beer we declared "slipped down awful grateful"—

demotic folderol repeated with glee.

I picked up such expressions, chameleon-like,

from you, and they've stuck in my mind for ages now

—over half a century. I don't know where you

got them. Not likely, one would think, at New College!

Perhaps from some colleague at the British Council?

"Mo-o-o-o-st unpleasant!" we said as well when

we reckoned something to be not good. I confess

I thought that, too, watching your brave coffin descend

into the ground amid the trees in Binning Wood.

Born within a few miles and months of each other,

our ways split wide apart when we were just small boys.

You were schooled at Wet Pups,* Bishops, and Oxford,

while I unfailing took a quite different path.

Yet we became fast friends—how to explain that then?

Of the totem texts in your scholar-gypsy's stash,

T. E. Lawrence’s The Seven Pillars of Wisdom

and the complete works of your idol Robert Graves

combined might perhaps confect an explanation:

You danced a Scottish reel in Anatolia,

your cat’s called Percy Buttons, as I well recall,

Loch Fynne kippers you insisted are best of all.

These Sherlock Holmesian clues I can’t resist!

What was it we wished for? Should we have wanted more?

Yelling Empson’s shattering poem “Missing Dates”

at each other bathing on some Cycladic shore

—Kea? Sifnos? Milos? I've forgotten the isle—

we chanted by the sea, with grave frivolity:

“It is the Chinese tombs and the slag hills

Usurp the soil, and not the soil retires.”

“It is the poems you have lost, the ills

From missing dates, at which the heart expires."

Barbara and Rab Shiell in the 1970s

*Western Province Preparatory School, Claremont, Cape Town, South Africa


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