Skip to content

Loss

July 15, 2017

I met you only briefly, twice,

perhaps a dozen years ago

beneath the pinnacles of ice

you feared. I wonder, often: did you sow

those seeds you held, into the melted snow?

 

You stood there slight, but this stood out:

you were a powerhouse of grief;

alone. And certain – way past doubt –

of utter undeception, in whose teeth

you’d lost your grip of comfortable belief.

 

So deep, so deep, you felt distress,

it stayed unburied, near to hand,

from where you vouched your forthright sense

the gods, with arbitrary spite, had planned

to visit drought upon and scorch your land.

 

I screwed my eyes against the glare

of highland light which bathed, and drained

all life, from the deserted square;

I wanted nothing, nothing more, right then

than for you to be healed and whole again,

 

and still, today, I think of you

abandoned – brittle, proud – by grace.

I pray you found a pathway through

the melting snow to reach a burial place

wherein to plant anew; a safer space.

 

(Published by Pennine Platform, 2016)

 

The wall

July 15, 2017

Long peace with France had softened us,

but life at home was never still.

God knows we fought, often enough,

and hard, about money, the mill,

your family – everything – until

 

we wore each other down, and learned

the art of never being where

the other was; and in return

somehow negotiated air

enough to breathe; and layer by layer

 

we built a wall: on your side home,

the church, community; you made

our children yours and yours alone.

On mine, the town, the milling trade,

the rarest snowdrops ever grown.

 

No other thrill can match the lurch

of coiled desire I felt each year

as new-bred snowdrop stems appeared,

and promised petals – unshed tears –

in unseen whites and greens emerged;

 

nor disappointment match my hurt,

that winter every snowdrop failed

to bloom, dissolving in the dirt,

and loosing suddenly a gale

of silence louder than I’d heard.

 

And then, as though you’d waited long

for this, you stepped across the wall

and stilled my silence, broke my fall,

and gave a plantsman lessons on

the way to shelter plants from storms.

 

 

James Allen (1832-1906) – the ‘Snowdrop King’ –

a miller and amateur plantsman, grew over 100

snowdrop varieties in Shepton Mallet, Somerset. But after

decades of intensive breeding, his collection was all but

wiped out by fungal and insect infestations.

 

A slightly edited version of this was runner up at the Shepton Mallet Poetry Competition, 2017

El Tres de Mayo

July 15, 2017

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.

 

Published in the Kent & Sussex Folio, 2016

 

The widower

July 15, 2017

The widower

 

The mourners gone, he felt no need

to mark her passing with a stone:

her ashes swirled into the wind

to fly or fall where they’d be blown,

 

as fields and copses called her name

in silence louder than he’d known,

on hillsides permanently changed,

and paths he’d now patrol alone.

 

He stripped the house on to the lawn –

wallpaper, sofa, tables, phones,

chairs, carpets, clothes – and burned it all:

a perfect pyre of what they’d owned…

 

and turned his back upon the flames

to pick a single rose she’d grown

then sat and watched its slow decay

for days, within their hollow home.

 

Published in Acumen vol 88 Summer 2017

Catherine writes home from the Via Appia

July 15, 2017

After the Romans subdued the insurrection led by Spartacus,

they crucified more than 6000 slaves along 130 miles

of the Via Appia. – Nineteenth century guide book.

 

‘A cold, dry wind blows hollow through the hearts

of travellers from Capua to Rome;

a cross set every thirty paces marks

their haunted progress northward and reminds

them uniformly, order outweighs stone.

 

Uncountable, the undrawn souls consigned

to void, unnamed in epitaph or song…

Conflict is human history’s constant bride;

her dowry underwrites a wedding feast

for which both invitation list and night are long.

 

With fewer wars today, by learning peace

we darkly learn ourselves: is it enough

we see the cruelty in war decrease

and yet sustain it, plainly hidden among

the dancing shadows of our winter hearth?

 

All hurt is felt and meted out by one

and every violence is intimate:

upon each cross a soldier nails a man.

Each night I shrink and tighten, and await

the terror of your voice, your breath, your hand.’

 

Shortlisted and published in the booklet of the 2017 music and poetry collaboration ‘Out of Place’ https://www.facebook.com/nicolaburnettsmith/

 

 

 

1955

July 15, 2017

1955

i.m. Richard Langridge *

 

Magpies love a rabbit halfway dead

to peck its weeping eyes, disdain the rest

then nonchalantly pause and lift their heads,

hop down and pick their way along the vale

of pain to blind and leave undead, the next.

 

Romans loved rabbits, too: their settlers sailed

with does and bucks, as well as laws and peace.

We love them less we’ve placed them on a trail

where gun-green birds glint in the April sun,

imperious at their casual charnel feast.

 

We met the halfway dead, half hidden among

the dead, as we advanced towards Berlin.

 

I lift the stricken rabbits one by one,

take cover from their blank and aimless stare,

then break their necks and set them down within

the shadowed margins of the coppice, where

last autumn’s leaves lie cold and half decayed.

 

The magpies scatter but they reappear.

 

I’m tired of asking if this horror show

would have me save or kill, or kill to save,

and – as I watch myself deal every blow –

if Romans’ clearer view of dying made

them kinder. Perhaps the feasting magpies know.

 

 

 

* Lt. Langridge helped liberate Belsen concentration

camp in 1945. Mixomatosis was introduced to Britain

on his farm in Kent in 1953. Two years later,

he shot himself, by which time the number of rabbits

in the country had declined by 95%.

 

(This poem was shortlisted and commended in the Binsted Arts Festival 2016, and is on Binsted Arts Festival 2016 website).

Abominations

July 15, 2017

Abominations

The plates are shifting. Tremors cause the curs

To raise their heads and bark: no sounds emerge.

Each day is hotter – farmers heap their carts

With what they can and drag them past

The rotting bodies of their wives and sons.

Dictators we thought gone, return, no more undone

By light, than those whose fleshy hands direct

The giant machines to fall upon and shake

And topple mountains.

Governments on which

We were accustomed to depend unleash

Regimes of scarcity, the hospice door

Is barred, and patients roam the roads or crawl

Into a ditch alone, their muttered groans

Subsiding one by one, cadavers overgrown

With weeds. Those soldiers who’ve returned tell tales

In monotone of thankless killing; trails

Confined by restless shadows; plains traversed

In fear and silence; days of endless thirst.

 

Meanwhile our chiefs prepare new wars against

Ambitious nations. Freshly-minted states

Assemble moral hordes to re-invade

Their neighbours, whole societies implode

And bands of zealots desecrate the land

To desert sliced across by silver strands.

 

Each vote returns the day to dark. Each time

A man gives shelter to a friend he finds

Her dead at dawn. Each dressing we apply

Infects the wound, and balsam multiplies

The pain. Our psalms and prayers and countless acts

Of minor good stack up to no impact

At all against this almanac of stained

Abominations stalking our domain.

 

We’ve exhausted every path we knew to please

The gods. We can’t know where this journey leads.

But we do. It takes us from the citadel

Out through the gates, unquestionably to hell.

Each verse and chapter must be told again

From the beginning, merely to defer the end.

 

Shortlisted and published in the booklet of the 2017 music and poetry collaboration ‘Out of Place’   https://www.facebook.com/nicolaburnettsmith/