Sign up with your email address to be the first to know about new products, VIP offers, blog features & more.

You are viewing Poetry

HARLEQUIN AND COLUMBINE

The war was over. My father was dead.

Judith was eight, I was four. Her father,

who survived the Camps, had come here like a ghost.

She and I played in the bushes at the flats.

Our game was hiding-from-the-Germans.

When it got too cold to play, I went

to the panto at Golders Green Hippodrome.

 

I cannot remember which story it was:

no doubt, Harlequin, aided by Clown,

seduced Columbine from Pierrot to Pantaloon’s

impotent rage;

share

THE PATH OF LIFE

‘The Path of Life’, the front covers of ‘The Haywain’ triptych by Hieronymous Bosch, circa 1500

 

A traveller, who looks permanently

the other way, cannot see the hanging

on a nearby hill and is about to step

on the first, cracked stone of a footbridge.

A journey is the oldest metaphor,

next to God. Christ, enthroned, transforms the lucent

angels, falling, into winged plagues.

And the next metaphor. Hell’s ceaseless,

all accommodating horrors are almost

more than image.

share

THE CURE OF FOLLY

‘The Cure of Folly’ by Hieronymous Bosch, circa 1490

 

Here is a cure for madness. The patient,

stupid with pain, credulity or

the random gaze of the mad, the distraught, looks

in our direction. He is being trepanned.

The surgeon, having pierced the shaved skull,

looks modestly away. A monk with a jug

of wine or of water and a nun

with a closed book gesture to the consultant

as if to say, “Thus perish all follies”.

share

GARDEN OF EARTHLY DELIGHTS

The left, centre and right panels of the tryptch, ‘Garden of Earthly Delights’, by Hieronymous Bosch circa 1510

 

Paradise flocks. Christ is blessing Adam, Eve

and, looking our way, us. We know, we

know – but a dirty trick to make evil

interesting! Lords and ladies teem: nude

armies on sensual manoeuvres.

In the nightmare, penis becomes knife, vulva

a cracked, open egg on tree-like legs –

and a man, elbow on the cut-away edge,

is unmoved.

share

ENCOUNTERS WITH HISTORY

In the Hall of Mirrors, many decades

ago, an elderly German couple

asked me to take their photo. I thought of

quoting Heinrich Heine, “’Aus meinem Grossen

Schwerzen, Mach ich die Kleinen Lieder’” –

‘Out of my great sorrows Make I little songs’ –

but weltanschauung trumped chutzpah. I took it.

 

Though the Sun King himself built out of town,

the myth of the metropolis persists.

The city dreams. The world journeys elsewhere

in places too remote for my atlas –

like Belzec,

share

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,

share

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.

share

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,

share

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…’

 

share

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,

share