Poetry plays a vanishingly small part in peoples’ lives these days, and the only reason it plays any part at all in mine is that I was taught about it by an inspirational teacher in the lead up to my A Levels. I don’t read a lot of it, but sometimes it provides a good vehicle for saying stuff when prose has run out of ideas. I wrote this first one about ten years ago as the central prop of a novel that I was thinking of writing about moving on, in this case from the tragedy of a World War 1 bereavement. I posted it here a few months ago, but forgot to say it was by me, with the consequence that it got read in various remembrance services as a war poem. Below it is an extract of a book of poetry I wrote after my mother’s death, and which was sold to raise money for Macmillan, who had looked after her so carefully. (I still have copies, available for a fiver, payable direct to Macmillan).
Words from a final night in hell
A curious cradling this, where soldiers get
Cold fitful sleep beneath our parapet
This lifeless August night. Till watch hands stop
And whistles blow, and we pass o’er the top.
God! All those childlike, lousy heads that seem
So peaceful now, so unafraid to dream:
They dream of two tomorrows. One is blood,
And rats, and lice, and shells, and noise and mud,
And all the bloody things they’ll wake to chance
In this grotesque normality called France.
That chilling exhortation to fight on
Till death has run its course, and sense is gone.
The endless scream they’ll hear, the backlit sight
Of corpses rattling past them in the night.
I cannot sleep. I fear that I could die.
I dream of two tomorrows, too, and yes,
There is another one that pains me less.
It comforts me to see her kindly face
Constructed in the starless reach of space
That I can see from here. The loving pain
That was, still is and will be mine again;
The perfect angel fingers that will touch
My head again, when grief becomes too much.
Who waits in her own Ithaca, whilst I,
Her pale Odysseus, counts his dead friends by.
Happy for precious hours we were, and how
My tortured soul craves each bright second now.
This hell will end. Sweet Jesus knows the price,
But we shall touch again in Paradise.
I cannot sleep. Tomorrow I might die.
And, if I fall, weep only what you must
As you return my body to the dust
From where it came. For I have known your grace
For gilded hours, and I have held your face.
And far more blessed were we to love in truth
Than we had rights to hope for through our youth.
To cling to me when I am gone would hide
The thousand things I meant before I died;
Would sacrifice the years ahead through tears
And compromise the love some other bears.
So let me go, instead, and freely give
The best you have to life you’ve still to live.
The finest fate ahead will be to see
That you found perfect joy long after me.
I did not sleep. This dawn will see me die
Found in a shell-hole in Delville Wood. 9 Rifle Brigade. August 1916.
This next was the middle of about ten that I wrote about the observation of my mother’s death from cancer on 2009. It sounds miserable, but wasn’t entirely. She survived almost exactly the six weeks that the surgeon had given her, and was able to do so at home, and surrounded by her close family. Ridiculously perhaps, I looks back on it as a surprisingly happy and uplifting time. The Clock describes the night of, and morning after, her passing.
You did not so much die, as cease to breathe,
Not raging at the night, but letting slip
That buoy that held you to the ebbing tide.
The act of lying quiet without the pain
Seemed like a strange extension of your life,
Acknowledging the days that went before.
The days and weeks in which we knew for sure
Where this would end, could not prepare our minds
For the enormous gulf that lay between
The bitter fight for life, and lack of breath.
The days when all we hoped for was the end
Became utopian when you breathed your last:
The talking done, now we could see instead
Where your line stopped, and ours were forced ahead.
For whom will chime the clock’s discordant notes
And mark the passing hours at it has done
These fifty years or more? And who will wind
Its complex discs now you have gone away?
Who heeds the silent tears before they drop?
What lies beyond the end when the hands stop?
On which shelf will it stand? Which hall will hear
Those urgent passing moments that it marks?
That hour has drawn near; the rules have changed
Perceptibly. The outcomes that we craved
Now spin and alter as each phrase is said.
Who shines the torch now we have lost the light?
The beam of self-delusion shines no more,
But seeps away below the bedroom door.
What lies beyond the sunset? All those years
The question never rose; until that point,
Cold-fingered, rising up through other thoughts
It came to dominate the fragile hours.
Connected patterns of a thousand lives
Had been so certain, self-assured and strong;
Then, suddenly, those conversations squeeze
Themselves into this tight normality.
Anticipated change beyond my world
Becomes, if not the norm, then half routine;
Who brought you to this world will leave you now,
Whose every trace will forge some memory,
~Present it like an anthem for the dead,
And beat its drum-like rhythm in your head.
And when I walked the dog in that pale dawn
Which followed on, I marvelled at the gulf
Between our loss, and all the quiet routine
That carried on, as ever, all around.
It seemed just then that what we had to tell
Did not belong as breakfast table chat
In busy, day-break kitchens. Soon enough
The news would drift like smoke among the bricks,
And soon enough they’d see the dark men come
To carry you away; and then they’d know.
Besides, for now I could not find the words
To tell it in the way it should be heard.
A world so altered had no business to
Continue on its orbit without you.