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,

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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.

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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,

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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,

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