Tag Archive: Poetry


A Poem for Ben

A Poem for Ben

Sometimes life’s like chess.
Sacrifices must be made
To gain the game.

Pawns move slowly,
Prey for devious bishops
And leaping knights.

Yet pawns too have their power.
A deft deception:
The queen departs.

Sometimes we’re pawns:
Part of a greater plan;
Minor players on the board of life.

Yet if we play our part,
The plan unfolds.
Checkmate!

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Writer’s Block

I’m watching the computer cursor blink,
Waiting for my thoughts to crystallise
Around an image.

And as the cursor blinks, my fingers move,
Seeking out the perfect turn of phrase.
It isn’t coming.

And I’m not sure quite what I’m waiting for;
Poetry, perhaps.  Or maybe words.
Is there a difference?

The words come easy, sliding off the keys;
Poetry hacks wounds upon the screen.
And there’s the difference.

Siegfried Sassoon’s war poetry

OK, I’m going to do something a little different, since I seem to have “dried” poetically right now. These are NOT my poems (though by God, I wish they were!)

These are five poems by one of my poetic heroes, Siegfried Sassoon. You can read more about him here, and more of his poetry here (but there are a number of textural errors in many of the poems on this site). But in my mind Sassoon is one of the absolute Gods of poetry. First World War poetry to be precise.

He isn’t as widely known or as “respected” as Wilfred Owen amongst the general public, although he is definitely considered one of the very top war poets, possibly second only to Owen; and he had a huge influence on Owen, whom he met and mentored while they were both being treated for “shell-shock” at Craiglockhart Hospital.

Owen himself felt that Sassoon was a vastly more accomplished poet than himself [Owen]. History and literary criticism seems to have decided that Owen was wrong about this; I’m undecided.

But Sassoon IS very different: where Owen is famous for his technical prowess, his magnificent imagery and his unmatched ability to evoke what he called “the pity of war”, what Sassoon specialised in is mordant, savage humour and a bitter anger at the whole war effort, its pointlessness, the incompetence of the leadership, and the way that the ordinary soldier was sacrificed by the million for no gain, without any compunction whatsoever.

Yet Sassoon himself was a war hero, with an almost suicidal personal bravery. His war career is shot through with contradictions – his bravery is only matched by his hatred for the war, and his original zeal transmuted into an intense pacifism and a refusal to continue to fight in a war that is also an example of his personal bravery: he very publicly denounced the war, declared he would fight no more, and was widely vilified for his stand. Yet even in 1918 he can write a poem like “The Kiss” – there does not appear to me to be an ironic twist to this poem. It is as if his celebration of (and attraction to) the most intense violence versus his new-found pacifism represents a split of an almost schizoid nature.

Sassoon survived the war; Owen, tragically, did not: he was shot and died literally a few days before the end of the war, leaving only a relatively tiny output of the most intense and shattering poetry. Sassoon continued to publish after the war, but I find his later poetry curiously unmoving. It’s as if with the end of the war he had lost his way poetically and also lost his poetic subject, the subject that made Sassoon Sassoon.

Frankly I had a hellish job choosing just five poems. Sassoon was prolific and his standard is so consistently high (and I love his poetry so much) that the choice ended up as not “Sassoon’s five greatest war poems” but simply as “five of his war poems”; nevertheless I think they represent his style and range rather well, and Oh Lord! I love all five of them to distraction.

Note – just in case it’s not completely obvious: the fifth poem, “Everyone Sang” is about the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11 month; the end of the war in 1918, what we now know as Armistice Day. I cannot read this poem without weeping. Over the last 30 years I have made endless efforts to set this poem to music (since I am also a musician); I have had no success. It would make a glorious song in the hands of the right composer. I simply do not have the technical skills to do it justice.
 

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Does it Matter?
 
Does it matter?–losing your legs?…
For people will always be kind,
And you need not show that you mind
When the others come in after hunting
To gobble their muffins and eggs.

Does it matter ?–losing your sight?…
There’s such splendid work for the blind;
And people will always be kind,
As you sit on the terrace remembering
And turning your face to the light.

Do they matter?–those dreams from the pit?…
You can drink and forget and be glad,
And people won’t say that you’re mad;
For they’ll know you’ve fought for your country
And no one will worry a bit.
 
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Base Details

If I were fierce, and bald, and short of breath
I’d live with scarlet Majors at the Base,
And speed glum heroes up the line to death.
You’d see me with my puffy petulant face,
Guzzling and gulping in the best hotel,
Reading the Roll of Honour. “Poor young chap,”
I’d say — “I used to know his father well;
Yes, we’ve lost heavily in this last scrap.”
And when the war is done and youth stone dead,
I’d toddle safely home and die — in bed.
 
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Memorial Tablet

Squire nagged and bullied till I went to fight,
(Under Lord Derby’s Scheme). I died in hell—
(They called it Passchendaele). My wound was slight,
And I was hobbling back; and then a shell
Burst slick upon the duck-boards: so I fell
Into the bottomless mud, and lost the light.

At sermon-time, while Squire is in his pew,
He gives my gilded name a thoughtful stare:
For, though low down upon the list, I’m there;
‘In proud and glorious memory’ … that’s my due.
Two bleeding years I fought in France, for Squire:
I suffered anguish that he’s never guessed.
Once I came home on leave: and then went west…
What greater glory could a man desire?
 
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The Kiss

To these I turn, in these I trust;
Brother Lead and Sister Steel.
To his blind power I make appeal;
I guard her beauty clean from rust.

He spins and burns and loves the air,
And splits a skull to win my praise;
But up the noble marching days
She glitters naked, cold and fair.

Sweet Sister, grant your soldier this;
That in good fury he may feel
The body where he sets his heel
Quail from your downward darting kiss.
 
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Everyone Sang

Everyone suddenly burst out singing;
And I was filled with such delight
As prisoned birds must find in freedom,
Winging wildly across the white
Orchards and dark-green fields; on–on–and out of sight.

Everyone’s voice was suddenly lifted;
And beauty came like the setting sun:
My heart was shaken with tears; and horror
Drifted away … O, but Everyone
Was a bird; and the song was wordless; the singing will never be done.
 

A walk in Kings Park

 

Silent decay in silvers –
slivers of bark still
depend from shattered limbs
memories of the living tree.

Beneath, the thirsty earth
receives each dropping gift.
Each bark-morsel a benison;
already new life sprouts.

 

*****************************************************************

 

A group is something
one joins.  No choices here:
joined forcibly with strangers,
sharing nothing but pain.

 

Even that we may not share;
quiet tears, perhaps; not more.

 

No sharing horror.  No sharing
pain that rips itself from minds
and mouths in messy gobbets.

 

The Group Norms poster says so:
“Such sharing may distress
other group members; please maintain
these norms for the benefit of all.”

 

Far better pretend we are fine.
Making progress.  Discharge beckons.
A normal life.
Therapists make Notes, discreetly.

 

Meanwhile we wail within,
gobbets well concealed.

 

Such things are for
secluded soundproof rooms.
Notes are made, of course.

 

No, it would not be therapeutic
for ‘the group’ to know
we suffer as they.

 

Our horror is as theirs;
we too long to scream.

 

Acknowledgement, acceptance, respect:
too much to ask?

 

For those unable to fulfill group norms:
alternatives.

 

Occupational Therapy:
fill endless mindless minutes
with puzzles, trivia, guessing games.
Attempts to still the raging mind,
the surging seethe of thoughts.
Notes are cursory in OT.

 

Art Therapy is good.
Torment becomes … acceptable.
In poster paint on butchers’ paper,
or charcoal scrawls
on stiff cheap coloured card,
pain is distanced, horror allowed,
officially encouraged. But Noted.

 

The thin, thin girl with the naso-gastric tube
Draws endless stylised vaginas
in wax crayon.  They gape
in wordless yowls.
She calls them flowers.
The Therapist nods approvingly,
and makes a Note.

 

A man spends an age cutting card
into ever smaller pieces.
The scissors are quite blunt;
bandaged wrists say
he knows too much of sharpness.
Another Note is made.

 

Me? I don’t do art. I’m a musician.
But there’s no more Music Therapy.
Not since the anguished boy
garrotted himself
with a steel guitar string.
That Therapist no longer makes Notes.

 

And nor do I.

 

********************************************************************************************

Group Therapy Notes

 

I always thought a group was something
one chose to join.  No choice here:
assigned to a multitude of strangers,
sharing nothing but our pain.
And even that we may not share;
quiet tears, perhaps, but not more.

 

No sharing the horror.  No sharing
the pain that rips itself from minds
and mouths in bloody gobbets.

 

The Group Norms poster says so:
“Such sharing may distress
other group members; please maintain
these norms for the benefit of all.”

 

Far better to pretend we are fine.
Making progress.  Discharge beckons.
A normal life.
Staff make Notes, discreetly.

 

Meanwhile we scream internally;
the gobbets well concealed.
Such things are for private consultations
with nurses, registrars, consultants,
in secluded soundproof rooms.
Notes are made, of course.

 

No, it would not be ‘therapeutic’
for our fellow-patients to know
we suffer just as they do.
That we too long to scream our horror.
Acknowledgement, acceptance, mutual recognition:
is that too much to ask?

 

For those of us unable to restrain ourselves
there are alternatives. Occupational Therapy,
where we fill blank mindless hours
with puzzles, trivia, and guessing games.
All to still the raging mind,
the seething thoughts.

 

Art Therapy is good.
Somehow a scream of pain
becomes acceptable when it’s
in poster paint on butchers’ paper.
Or charcoal doodles
on stiff cheap coloured card.
Pain is distanced, allowed,
Even encouraged.

 

The thin, thin girl with the naso-gastric tube
Draws endless stylised vaginas
in wax crayon.  They gape
as if in wordless screams.
When asked she says they are flowers.
The therapist nods approvingly,
and makes a Note.

 

A man spends an hour cutting card
into ever smaller pieces.
The scissors are quite blunt;
the bandages on his wrists say
he is over-familiar with sharp objects.
Another Note is made.

 

And me? I don’t do art. I’m a musician.
But they don’t have Music Therapy any more.
Not since the tortured boy
garrotted himself
with a steel guitar string.
That therapist no longer makes Notes.

 

And nor do I.

 

********************************************************************************************

 

Do you remember your first drink?

I do.

Oh, not the sip of froth off Dad’s beer,

or the little glass of watered wine on special occasions:

Christmas, birthdays, wedding anniversaries.

I remember my first drink like it was yesterday,

40 years ago, or near enough.

We stole a bottle of Beenleigh Rum

from Greg’s Dad’s liquor cabinet.

He never even noticed it was gone.

Plenty more bottles in the walnut veneer bar,

with its padded leatherette stools and bullfight posters.

And we sat in the little Bondwood caravan

at the back of my house,

and drank it neat from plastic cups.  Mine was orange.

And we choked it down and felt like men,

12 years old and desperate to be older.

And as it hit, it was as if some great God

had entered me, and flaming fiercely

raised me to the sky.

For the first time to feel as others must surely always do –

or so it seemed.  I felt I was a human being.

The feeling of fellowship; of commonality: of normality.

The thoughts that crucified me vanished.

They fell from me like a feather weighing tons.

Gone the fears,

the constant thoughts,

the ceaseless shame,

the secret guilt

– hidden, always hidden –

for things I knew I had not done,

could not have done.

For that brief moment I was free,

I knew them for delusions:

the glowing God incinerated all.

Too soon the God departed.

Draped limp around a lamppost, I vomited him up.

And some Samaritan brought me home

and took me to my Mother,

who murmured “my sweet baby” as she sponged my brow;

gently held my head over the bucket as I retched

until all that was left was bitter slime drooling from slack lips.

And even as I heaved and shivered,

even as she laid me down,

even as she watched over me that night,

I knew that I would seek the God again

and steal the coruscating fire that seared my fears,

and held me pure, perfect, whole: blazing in the sky.

Pattern and Patina

I took my soul out; shook it a little

to get the wrinkles out.  Held it up to the sun.

Frayed around the edges.  Slightly grimy.

Needs a wash, I thought, turning it in the light;

chuck it in the machine with a cup of detergent –

perhaps some NapiSan for the ground-in dirt.

Still turning it, I looked beneath the stains.

Patterns emerged in the warp and weft:

tightly woven knots of experience;

the denim of hard times; embroideries of joy.

It’s not dirt, I thought; what do you call it?

Patina.  Patina, that’s it.  And put it back.

For Linda, with thanks


 
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Briefly: I wrote this as a way of thanking my clinical psychologist, Linda, after two gruelling years of the most intense and challenging therapy. Without Linda’s therapy there is no doubt in my mind that I would have died years ago. None.

After working with Linda I had 7 years of stability – not one drink, not one hospitalisation. Life was VERY good. I still had my ups and downs (that’s inevitable when you have Bi-Polar Disorder, Type 2) but I could cope with them and manage them.

It’s only in the last couple of years that things have slipped again. Basically, I got over-confident, I stopped doing the things that helped me maintain my stability and as a result the last 2 years have been pretty hellish. Many drinking binges, many hospitalisations in psychiatric clinics, my working career thrown into chaos, my life totally unmanageable.

I have returned to therapy with Linda and again, it’s going to be very long and hard; but I am confident that I will get my stability back once more. And life will once again be VERY good.