Gert has always been fascinated by Wilfred Thesiger, the quintessentially British combination of extreme, buttoned-up conservative and extreme, risk-taking explorer, lover equally of Queen and country and of the Bedouin and the marsh Arabs, with whom he lived for seven years. If you haven’t read his classic Arabian Sands, scuttle off immediately and get it. There’s also a terrific biography by Alexander Maitland – Wilfred Thesiger: the Life of the Great Explorer (Harper 2006).
June 3rd is the 115th anniversary of his birth, and here’s a poem about him as an old man:
I think of you always in disguise
burnoosed and bearded, trailing
a whip at one brown ankle, cuffed and bowlered
outside the Travellers’ Club
your posh Eton mumble masking the infidel.
Now here you are togged up
as an old man, and making a good fist of it.
Still just as alarming, though
your eyes have lost their far-seeing desert squint
and your lips fall open
in the gape of age. You are alarming, still.
‘One must stand up to Wilfred’
said your mother. Who ever did, or could?
As well stand up
to the glistening buffalo stockstill in mud
the camel’s inhuman gaze, the sheer
red dunes of the Rub’al Khali
the sands themselves extending silence
into silence. Marsh, desert, precipice
extreme to the pure and stony core
you have the look of someone walking far ahead
where the waterway vanishes
into reeds. The Pleiades are overhead
the moon’s among the stars
the life of man is short, the Bedu sing.
How long will you need this
patience, courteous alien? For God’s sake
– your last words – for God’s sake
let me go.
*This poem first appeared in Triptych Poets 3 (Blemish Press, 2012)
And here’s an article about him: