Archive for November, 2011

POPPY DAY

Newly returned from Helmand, almost intact,

the Regiment stands to in scattered rain.

City dignatories and citizen privates

remember. They sing: ‘Where, Grave, thy victory?’

The Bishop blesses them all. A boy whimpers.

 

Old men, straight-backed, march singly into town,

medals jingling like choices. November wind

troubles the eye: remembering mates,

remembering merely being young, not dead

merely. This is a willing grief: forgetting

means that, for principle or custom,

death is merely dying, and the so-called

blood and treasure contract merely words.

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NORTH WAZIRISTAN, INDIA, 1937

As he lay in a slit trench, in the dark,

next to the howitzer – smelling the gun oil

despite the cold, shivering despite

the army issue blanket and a tribesman’s

sheepskin tunic he’d bartered for – he thought

of tomorrow’s oven heat, turned, looked up.

Before he came to India, he’d never seen

so many stars. He’d eleven months to go

before his discharge – better counted that way

than in days or weeks. But maybe he’d sign on

for another tour. There was still no work

in the cotton towns. His mam and him

had lied about his age. Better that than

hunger and the workhouse. He thought of his dad,

in the madhouse with shell shock, dying there,

gripping his hand, shouting that poem:

‘Up lad, up, ‘tis late’, his mam sobbing…

 

He thought of the Pathans. ‘Ten thousand,’

the officer had said, a moustached Colonel,

who’d cut his teeth as a subaltern

in the Amritsar massacre. ‘And lead

by the mad Fakir of Ipi. By contrast,

we are fifty thousand – British, Gurkha, Sikh.

Ten brigades, five divisions, armoured cars,

tanks and a squadron of Wapiti bombers.

We shall prevail.’ They’d hardly ever seen

the enemy – but caught the endless sniping,

the frequent roadside booby trapped bombs.

When they did get close, the treacherous,

ruthless, suicidally brave buggers

flitted over the Afghan border.

He’d vote Labour when he got home. Change things…

 

He suddenly remembered Quetta, the earthquake –

and felt the guilt like a knife. His unit

was piling corpses from the native quarter

into a two ton Bedford when one of them

moved. He knew him, Kassim, the battery’s

char wallah, a young man his age. They had talked,

laughed. ‘Please. I am not dead, sahib.’ ‘It’s Kassim,

Corp,’ he called to the NCO in charge.

‘He’s alive.’ He watched the Corporal go to the cab,

bring back a pickaxe handle and cleave

Kassim’s skull. ‘He’s dead now, son. One down.’

The Corporal grinned at him. He looked away.

No one had spoken up – one had even laughed…

 

The eastern sky was lightening. He’d sometimes dream

of Kassim, good dreams, from which he’d wake

bereft. There was no one he could tell.

He remembered the end of that poem

his dad recited again and again.

‘Up, lad: when the journey’s over There’ll

be time enough to sleep.’

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JOHNSON’S WAR

‘This is not a jungle war but a struggle for freedom on every front of human activity.’

Lyndon B. Johnson, US President, 1963-1969

 

From the silent village on Hill 192,

a girl is torn by soldiers into

darkness and raped many times: discarded,

dead, with Coke cans and expensive shell cases.

All but one of the men shake the landscape

with her screams. Imagining her horror,

its hugeness, knowing its fear, he suffers,

saves it for somewhere of tomorrows,

legality – and vilification.

Though, in the discarded subways of home,

girls are held open and torn, in the quiet

counties of peace, sisters, mothers

of poor, murdering boys know instant

righteousness.

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A PLACE AND A NAME

Of the nine men in the photograph, eight

are soldiers, their boots as yet unblemished.

One of them cuts the ninth man’s hair and beard.

Though his prayer shawl is trailing on the ground,

his waistcoat is firmly fastened, watch chain

still in place. He is standing stolidly

as in a queue. His eyes only we see.

He looks through the lens with – not fear – contempt.

The burning of children, of millions deceives.

‘If I forget thee, O Jerusalem…’

 

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THE CITIZENS’ ARMY

Dawn on the auto route and the surprise

of place names: Thiepval, Bapaume – Kitchener’s

nonchalant, Citizens’ Army rising,

at breakfast time, to walk unwaveringly

into the cross-wires of machine gun sights.

 

The First World War dead of Sharp Street, Hull,

have their own memorial – enamel

on tinplate behind glass with French, Haig,

Foch and Beatty like seraphs at its corners.

 

Through Flanders, there is a danse macabre:

graveyards are laid out like city streets, rows

of white and well kept stone.

 

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