There he is. Grinning and unsoldierly,
the despair of the RSM. The joker in the trench.
Except, I’ve no way of knowing if he ever was.
Maybe, Ypres and Mons and Passchendale
meant no more to him than Chapel hymn tune names –
O dass ich tausand zungen haite. Armageddon.
But all the same, a bit of a lad. No more than a lad,
father of four, and husband of (I think)
a small girl, left all alone to scrat and fend.
My grandma, Ethel, who went deaf, who sat
with her head in the swelling horn
of the wind-up gramophone.
Listened to the scratchy tinnitus
of brittle shellac records until
they hissed like the sea on a shingly shore.
Who drowned herself, a poor Ophelia,
inthe beck that ran hot from dyehouses,
than ran blue and plum and crimson red.
Who died (I think) wreathed in bindweed,
those wide white silky flowers,
and the pink of balsam, sour as a sink
I post this most years for Armistice day, though over time, as I learn more about my family …sometimes from strangers, who know more about them than I do…I realise that when I wrote this poem I was writing about a false memory. I believed, at one time, that my Grand-dad Alfred had died after being invalided back from France. I now know that he served in the Territorials as an enthusiastic volunteer…he had been made Sergeant, after all..and would have been off to France with his pals had he not being sent back from the camp, suffering from Hodgkinson’s Lymphoma. He died soon after, in hospital in Chapel Allerton. All the rest of the story is as true as I can tell. While we remember The Fallen, let’s always remember the ones left behind, those women like my Grandma who went on paying the price of war long after it was over. Who always go on paying the price.
This year let me add an extra poem. There are thousands of statues dedicated to “The unknown soldier’. How many are there dedicated to the Unknown Mother/Wife/Sister/Daughter ? This is for them.
A love not much regarded
Who in Eden sewed vine leaves,
imagined thread and needle
in green stems, and thorns?
Who saw that leaving Paradise
empty-handed would be foolish?
Who conceived of a sack or a satchel,
and thought to skin a kid
in the innocent garden,
and with what kind of knife?
Who cut a stave, understanding
snakes must now be pinned, and broken?
Who saw fire in a flash, in the crack of a flint,
who knew to walk in single file,
to walk behind, to carry
all things needful?
Who knew that blame weighed
almost nothing if it didn’t come with guilt?
Who would sleep light;
who would see to children?
Who would listen.