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Saturday, 20 March 2010

Babes in Arms

One time this would have been a holiday:
hardly a soul about; few staff, no kids;
an empty playground, drive and car park,
myself, a telephone and piles of paperwork.

This is no holy day, the children are at war,
their papers came and off they went.
Only the men and women left to hold the fort.
(An ageing population, all too old to fight.)

An hour has gone, no sign of movement,
even the sun on hunger strike, black
as a black cloud, in lieu of clouds
precipitating rain - a dirty rain,
to catch the feel of altered memory.

It might be nothing more than memory -
a single, half-forgotten recollection
half-wiped from some computer,
which in the wiping found itself
beyond salvation, buggered, bound for hell,
somehow diverting to the here and now.

Dan, obsessive dresser-up, born
actor-out of childhood's fantasies,
never plays himself. Today
A turban for his head has slipped across
his eyes - seen closer though,
it is a bandage flecked with blood.

Dan and Peggy
(never before so aptly named),
an amputee, are led by Steve,
face hidden by a plastic mask -
the surgical variety, concealing burns
and missing skin.

The end of the procession
and an ancient tractor
wheezing through its tall exhaust
hauls in its wake two trailers
piled high with bodies. (Whether
wounded, dead or dying
is difficult to tell.) Trailed behind
the trailer on a long rope
to his ankle, bumps a half-
familiar figure (fallen from a pile?)
from whom a blood-stained puttee,
gravel-torn, unravels in the rain.

The brain consults its image store
and holds the closest match
up to the boy: a pair of images,
which even as we look, converge,
fuse to a single shot: a Tudor criminal
hung, drawn but not yet quartered,
then gutted for his crime.

21 comments:

Matangi Mawley said...

good one ! :)

Gwei Mui said...

Very powerful and sadly so relevant though your poetry speaks of past conflict as well. When I read your words I am immediately taken back several years to a memorial service that I attended as child n memory of "The Few"

Elisabeth said...

The horrors of war, Dave, the trauma of awful unprocessed unbearable memories. This is so powerful and disturbing, truthful and provocative.

I will need to read it again and again to take in more fully its full impact.

steven said...

dave by coincidence i passed through a documentary on the russian component of the second world war which featured women and children of all ages. what was horrible became numbing in its depictions of what constituted normal for mankind during that time. your poem is a perfect parallel for my feelings after watching the program. steven

Kass said...

"...a dirty rain, to catch the feel of altered memory."
The convergence of all the images of man's horrible thoughts, played out with strategy and weapons. This is a TERRIBLY beautiful poem.

Derrick said...

Hi Dave,

The childhood memories of Dan, Peggy and Steve compared to their horrible reality are powerful.

Barry said...

A disturbingly powerful post, Dave. And what an excellent title. It is our babies we send to war. For shame on us.

Madame DeFarge said...

This is, in its own way, rather unsettling. But it is a good read and full of excellent imagery.

Leatherdykeuk said...

A powerful piece, Dave. It will give me bad dreaams tonight. Well done indeed.

Tommaso Gervasutti said...

Dear Dave, the ending plunges us into history...coincidentially I am reading now "Will" a novel where William Shakespeare talks with a lawyer to write his will, and images like the one in your last lines are powerful and continuous...."on our way to dusty death..."
I wonder how you found yourself in this poem, with its vivid and gruesome picture.

Rachel Cotterill said...

Very powerful.... and horrible. I want to read it again, and yet I don't want to at all. Maybe tomorrow.

Reya Mellicker said...

I got a chill reading this, thinking of all the generations of soldiers who have fought valiantly, often at the expense of themselves and their families.

What a beautiful tribute. Thank you!

Jim Murdoch said...

Very evocative, Dave, but it feels like you can do ‘evocative’ in your sleep; I’m quite jealous. The third stanza stood out for me even the “black / as a black cloud” which I would normally criticise as a weak simile because you it sounds like “black as a very black thing” but for some reason it works here and I’m not sure why it doesn’t rankle me.

Where I did stumble was on the period. By the end of the second stanza I believed this was someone talking in the early forties but by the fourth stanza we have introduced computers and by the time the “ancient tractor” appears I’m in the present day.

The second time problem I had was at the end:

        a Tudor criminal
        hung, drawn but not yet quartered,
        then gutted for his crime.

In what state is the image? He has been hung and drawn. He is to be quartered. The gutting reads like a fourth thing but I don’t believe you mean it that way. I think the comma adds an unnecessarily long pause here. Is it really necessary? Also it might help to change “then” to “and”.

Ronda Laveen said...

It makes me think of a story, about who I cannot remember. A man about to be guillotined who was a man of science. He wondered how long the brain could work after the head was severed. So, he had some one in the crowd counting blinks. I believe he got 9 blinks in after his head was severed from the body before the ability was lost.

Elisabeth said...

What a sad, shocking and ghastly story, from Ronda, Dave. Oh my goodness, this poem certainly packs a punch.

Dave King said...

First, to all to tell all!
The image of the boy being dragged (penultimate stanza) came to me in a dream. I woke up with the image fresh and vivid in my mind, but remembering nothing of what had preceded it.
My first thought was to equate the unravelling puttee with the disembowling of a person being hung, drawn and quartered - I may have had that thought even before awaking, I am not sure. The second thought was: what if this would reall happen? (I know it has happened elsewhere in the world, but if it was to get to the point where governments generally were forced to call up young children, that would put an end to war, would it not?) Too glib, of course, but that was the starting point. I did some research on the internet and discovered that the disembowling was not part of the drawing on hurdles, as I had thought, but was in fact an "extra" which took place between the drawing and the quartering. So some of the power of the original image - in which the puttee represented the entrails - was in fact lost to cold, hard truth. I did try to make the image generally applicable and not confined to one place or time.

Matangi
Thanks

Gwei
They are endless, the memories that powerful images or other memories can bring to the fore, aren't they?

Elisabeth
It's good to hear that some of that came through. Thanks.

steven
I had reached the "tweaking" stage of the poem when I read an article in a paper about boy soldiers. Synchronicity strikes again!

Kass
I was initially pleased with "dirty rain", but afterwards became doubtful, so thanks for that.

Derrick
It was a funny mixture. Some of the children I recognised as pupils from my headship days, though one was a childhood friend - in the dream some thirty or forty years younger than me. Some I did not recognise.

Barry
I agree, absolutely. They are exactlt that.

Madame DeFarge
My thanks for that.

Dave King said...

Leatherdykeuk
Sorry about the bad dreams - they were not part of the plan.

Tommaso
My header piece perhaps explains how I got into the picture. I do like Will's phrase, "Dusty death".

Rachel
Tremendous compliment - thanks for it.

Reya
Yes, the families are so often dismissed as "co-lateral damge". I wanted to put them truly in the firing line.

Jim
Very grateful for the critique. I was with you over the matter of the black cloud. It held me up for quite a time. I kept thinking that if someone else had written it I would be cringeing.

Again, perhaps my header piece explains some of your points. I felt it was in the present day, but yet I wanted to make it universally applicable. I do take the point about the computer, b ut the tractor was so much a part of the in itial image, I would fin d it very difficult to drop it.

Discovering that the gutting was a seperate part of the whole did give me a problem. The word "then" was part of the attempted solution. I had originally seen it simply as a man drawn through the town with his entrails unravelling. Historical accuracy precluded that. Maybe I do need to rethink that stanza, though.

Thanks again.

Ronda
What a strange tale. It makes me think of the Christmas turkey my uncle killed and placed in an enamel bath in the kitchen. During the evening my mother went into the kitchen to m ake a pot of tea. The chicken was getting out of the bath.

Elisabeth
I do agree that it's sad, shocking and ghastly. Thanks for the comment.

readingsully2 said...

Great poem, Dave...as always makes me think. :)

Dave King said...

Readingsully2
Much appreciated. Thanks.

Helen said...

Gruesome and fascinating at the same time ... it deserves to be read more than once.

Dave King said...

Thanks Helen, much appreciated.