Centenary

Dartford 11nov18

Silence falls on the sunlit square of turf
outside Dartford’s library. A soldier
with a rifle, all plinth and age-stained bronze,
looks on. Poppy people stand with closed-eye stares.
November colours shuffle in the trees.

The silence is the thing: the unfilled gap
between. I think of dugout silence,
the fire step, the Woodbines whiled away;
the rat-lice trench-foot days that screwed the minds
with silent screaming shells of wasted fear.

I think of letters written to and from;
the scareful hope of waiting for the post;
the silence in the reading of the words.

I think of silence in the unlived years;
the stories that cannot be forgotten
because they did not happen. I feel cold.

I walk back up the hill to where young George
is playing Sunday morning football. There is
no silence here. Teams of boyish men
criss-cross open fields, fighting foot-to-foot,
attacking and defending, launching volleys,
and firing shots on goal. Then, as a cloud
bursts, an arch of rain-refracted light
crowns the shouts of peace and freedom.

péage

No prayers nor bells: we shoot in scuttling shells
up and down the line. We go and return,
passing Arras, Béthune and Neuve Chapelle,
the Bois de Noulette, Messines and the Marne.

From Calais, past Flesquieres and Verdun,
with only the Alps in mind, we hurtle
through demented days, dusks gilded by sun
and black rain, in skirmishing battles
of the road. Through grey-day pallor we see
the brown, wide-open acres where they fought;
and sense the eerie emptiness reploughed.

At night, headlamps flare and brake lights bleed
sudden fear of hasty death into my heart,
spearing the tensioned tedium like a dart
whose aim is true, then redirected, then gone.

All around here they died for us;
now they lie under stones etched and erected
to the left and right, at Mametz and Loos;
at Langemarck, Vendhuile, Cambrai and Lens;
on either side of this paid-for auto-route,
dotting countryside, cresting horizons.

Between Le Touret and Richebourg L’Avoue,
on land once used by field ambulances,
thirteen thousand men of no known resting
place are remembered. It’s ground holding
my great uncle Jack, too. There, inside a fence,
under mown lawns, lies John Wesley Davies,
31, of the Royal Welch Fusiliers.

Further on, teams of gleaming windmills now stand
where once cold trenches were dug. In place of mud
and bloody hell, turbines mourn in silence:
generating clean warmth, dry light, hot food.
These are monuments also: testaments
to doomed youth on euro no man’s land.

In volleys to and fro, we, the fragments
of dead men’s shattered futures, pass fast and
glide, stuttering only at péage
queues. In our comfortable distress, our health
and holidays, our years, we have the breath
they did not have. In our petty rages
we drown the fading echoes of their cries,
their tender patience, their lingering goodbyes.