Archive for November, 2016

THE FALL OF EUROPE

Lucheni had waited all day in the pines

above the lake. When she passed, he begged.

Her equerry dismissed him. As always,

self-absorbed, she saw nothing: an anarchist

with a grand and personal design.

On the quayside at Geneva, a week

later, Lucheni, the labourer,

stabbed Elizabeth, Empress of Austria,

with a homemade knife. Her husband foresaw,

like her assassin, anarchy: armies

entrenching in Bohemia; riders

galloping from Buda; at the Hofburg,

Jews and republicans!

 

The Empress and her only son discovered

the twentieth century. Rudolf

was cavalry, and a liberal. ‘ After

a long period of sickness,’ he wrote,

‘a wholly new Europe will arise

and bloom.’ Father misunderstood him.

At Mayerling, Rudolf shot Marie Vetsera

and then himself. Elizabeth travelled

from grief or disillusion: obsessive,

dilettante, naive and beautiful.

They died before their time, believing

their neuroses symptoms of the age, the world’s

contours shaped like their hearts.

 

On Corfu, she built The Achillean,

a kitsch imitation of the attic.

She peopled the palace’s emptiness

with statues of soldiers and poets –

like Heine, her favourite. “Another

subversive Jew!” the Emperor observed.

‘Ich hatte einst ein schones Vaterland.’

The Dying Achilles, nude except for

his helmet, was turned to face the north – Berlin

Vienna, Sarajevo. After

her death, the Kaiser bought the palace,

sold off Heine and replaced her Achilles

with his, The Victorious.

 

Franz Josef, Emperor of Austria,

King of Jerusalem, Duke of Auschwitz,

wore, on his wedding night, dress uniform.

He signed his letters to Elizabeth,

‘Your lonely manikin.’ After he had read

the telegram informing him of her death,

“No one knows,” he said, “how much we loved

each other.” ‘Es traumte mir von einer

Sommernacht.’ Across the darkening straits,

lamps are lit on the Balkan mainland.

On the empty terrace, a march or perhaps

a waltz wheezes from the orchestrion.

Fireflies blink with passion.

 

 

Note: The poem was first published on the site in May 2010.

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BLIGHTY WARD

After the halting journey from Calais,

via Waterloo and the main line north,

to be carried that autumn afternoon

in the estate’s wagons through the park gates,

past the grazing deer, to be greeted

on the front steps by his Lordship himself

with a small speech about sanctuary,

the first of the curable invalids –

trench foot, shell shock, TB – must have thought

they were in some temporary heaven.

 

They called it ‘Blighty Ward’ – the Garden Salon

with windows that overlooked the parterre

where the last of the roses were blooming.

Brisket, pork and occasional venison

and chrome ash trays to stub out your fags

and the always pretty nurses smelling

like girls, even his lordship’s own daughters,

they knew were too cushy by half for them.

Fattened, in spring they returned for the big push.

Those who survived would never tell, had no

permission to speak, were silent to the grave.

 

Someone still puts a small wooden cross

among the ferns in the Orangery

for the Gardener’s boy lost at Paschendaele.

No one ever spoke of the Cook’s conchie son –

of his courage refusing to bow

to the bidding of the officer class,

refusing to take the tainted shilling.

The red poppies grew in the ravaged soil.

They did not grow because of the dead.

They have been purloined – men and flowers.

 

 

 

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AT THE ELEVENTH HOUR

The Armistice was agreed at 5.10 –

in Foch’s personal railway carriage

– among the cigar and brandy fumes.

The Chancellories of Europe knew

thirty minutes later. Big Ben was rung

for the first time in four years and gas lamps

lit in Paris. There was dancing, and streamers.

 

Foch insisted the truce would not take effect

until 11.00  – ostensibly

so the news could be keyed and carried to

each trench and dugout on the Western Front.

 

Thousands of soldiers were killed that morning.

The last to die – at 10.59 –

was Private Henry Günther from Baltimore,

advancing with comrades in ignorance

through the wild woodland of the Argonne.

The division’s history records: ‘Almost

as he fell, the gunfire died away

and an appalling silence prevailed’.

 

 

 

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WITNESS THIS ARMY

During the interval, after act three

of Glinka’s opera, ‘Ivan Susannin’ –

pre-revolution, ‘A Life for the Tzar’ –

Stalin would leave his box at the Bolshoi.

In the fourth act, Ivan, the peasant, lures

the Polish Army out of Smolensk

and into a profound, winter forest.

They are lost. In the last act, they kill him.

Deep in the Katyn woods near Smolensk, pines

darkened the clearing where thousands, thousands

of Polish officers turned to earth.

So many crimes unpunished, dead unnamed.

‘O, Polnische Kamerad, wo sind

der Juden?’ ‘Majdanek, Chelmno, Oswiecim.’

An epoch has the tyrants it preserves,

even for an eggshell.

 

 

Note: The poem was first published on the site in January 2010

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THE GOOD WAR

for Alan Horne

 

They seldom mentioned it and never

to the boys at the town’s Grammar School,

thinking they might mock it as vain-glory –

or just mock it, with their disregard

for school uniform, their penchant for

RAF great coats and graffited knapsacks,

their puzzlement on Remembrance Day,

and the Vietnam War flickering nightly.

 

It was usually only as an apt

aside, at break or dinner time, to those

of us young enough to be their sons,

about a colleague: Edward at Tobruk,

André a Japanese POW,

Ken at Dunkirk, Bernard the navigator

in a Mosquito, John on Sword Beach…

 

 

 

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