I cannot let pass the hundredth anniversary of the start of perhaps the bloodiest battle of World War I, (close to a million young men were killed in it ). This poem recollects my visit to the battlefield in 1997.
Before the early fog has lifted
I enter the woods’ canopy
and trip on ridges and craters:
the mired banks of the age of steel.
Spiked helmets of ghostly armies
rise up in the smoking dawn,
the pregnant moon is still red,
hanging over the new day’s uncertainty.
These trees echo an empire’s split
between sons, the hollow slaughter
and bleating soldiers filing past
the shepherds of the nation.
Waxed moustaches, duelling scars
fight hand-to-hand with les poilus
and the Fort’s dark under-ground
transforms into their catacombs.
“Do not by-pass us as you go by;
We are the bayonet platoon,
overwhelmed by earth and rising
into new life with our steeled spines.”
Death of youth. The turf is bone-fed,
those lucky in the ossuary
which, like a giant white bullet,
points at God’s heart in vast reproach.
“Lord, your only begotten son
you gave; a million loves we lost
and mislaid a generation:
your mercy conducts obscurely.”
Sad, stone lion, you have barely strength
to lick your wounded paw and stare
away from the world as if bars
of an invisible cage surround you.
I can bear this death-field no more:
the young men and their promised loves.
Is my life wasted as others
have consumed theirs in blood and pain?
Leaping on my motorcycle
I flee from the past, my conscience.
Lion, summer’s birth sign, you live
in the minds of men everywhere…