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El Tres de Mayo

April 24, 2021

Recently my daughter the actor Paksie Vernon recorded my poem El Tres de Mayo (from my collection Poetry After Auschwitz). She read it beautifully and there is also a lovely symmetry in her doing so, since the poem was sparked years ago when she told me that sounds never actually die, they simply become ever, ever fainter, and remain in the background forever… You can hear her reading by clicking on the image below.

El Tres de Mayo

The edge of town. A lantern lights the man
about to die. His comrades clasp their eyes.
He kneels: arms spread like sails aloft, he wills
defiance but it’s terror which obtains.

The friar murmurs blessings, swears and damns
the French. The waiting chorus moans and cries,
then ‘tirez!’, muskets fusillade; he spills
beside the corpses slumped among the stains.

Low fearful wails behind the victims’ hands,
the panicked mumbling of the priest who shrives
the doomed, the terse command, the gunshots – still
they resonate, among the faint remains

of ancient susurrus of surf on sand,
dead families’ and lovers’ truths and lies,
muezzin, birdsong, rain on rooftiles, peals
of laughter, angelus and lonesome trains.

Each wave, since noise and atmosphere began,
continuously pales but never dies:
each instant as it passes, pares and steals
a half, and then a half, and half again…

reducing history from the first big bang
towards a point it will not realise:
attenuated, yet its core prevails,
diminishing, but nowhere vanishing.

What’s past is present: faded cryptogram
of sound – no matter if we try to prise
a meaning out of or ignore it – fills
our ears with its abiding, quiet refrain:

the edge of town. A lantern lights the man
about to die. His comrades clasp their eyes.
He kneels: arms spread like sails aloft, he wills
defiance but it’s terror which obtains.

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