No 170 - 2002
Baptism of Fire
He is no kid. He’s nineteen and he’s tough,
a hard man like Maclaren who, it’s true,
is getting on in years and has three stripes,
and three kids, too, at home in civvy street;
but Sergeant Mac’s a tough guy through and through:
he’ll see them right when things get really rough.
They reach the starting-line in night’s disguise.
It isn’t fear exactly that he feels:
excitement, certainly, and something else,
a small black living thing inside his gut
that grows and squirms as sudden livid weals
are slashed across the dark face of the skies.
And, with the flashes, swollen thunder roars
as, from behind, the barrage of big guns
begins to batter credence with its din
and, overhead, death whinnies for its feed
while countering artillery shakes and stuns
with slamming of a million massive doors.
The iron fever of machine-gun fire -
more intimate but no less menacing
spits tracers through the dark; his teeth begin
to chatter in spontaneous mimicry.
Flares’ phosphorescent dahlias climb and cling.
His Company move forward to the wire.
Beyond the wire the sand is sown with mines,
but Sappers have been there to cut a track
of safety through that zone of murderous tricks,
though if death doesn’t burst from underfoot
it whistles through the air and can attack
from any angle and at any time.
Now shells and mortar-bombs explode around
and hurl dry geysers of detritus high;
he smells and tastes the fierce sweet bitterness
of cordites’s pagan incense, then he hears
not far ahead, through mangled air, a cry -
a frail, yet weirdly penetrating sound:
at first unrecognised and meaningless,
a wordless wail, and then crude parody
of Sergeant Mick Maclaren’s normal voice,
or what that voice might sound like if the man
were gelded or flung back to infancy,
a querulous sound of babyish distress.
Then words emerge: ‘Oh mother! Mother! Please!
Oh Jesus Christ! Oh ma!’ Grotesque, obscene.
After the first bewildering shock he feels
vicarious shame, a sense, too, of betrayal.
And then a shell’s explosion intervenes:
blast knocks him grovelling to his contrite knees.
That voice has died away but echoes stain
a corner of his brain as others cry
for stretcher-bearers or God’s aid, while he
is quite alone and lost, as they all are.
Old men at breakfast might know where and why
he’s where he is - it’s called El Alamein.
- 10th Muse
- Angel Exhaust
- Blithe Spirit
- Brando's hat
- Brittle Star
- Cannon's Mouth, The
- Coffee House, The
- Dream Catcher
- Floating Bear, The
- French Literary Review, The
- Frogmore Papers, The
- Global Tapestry
- Grosseteste Review
- Homeless Diamonds
- Interpreter's House, The
- Journal, The
- Lamport Court
- London Magazine, The
- Modern Poetry in Translation
- Monkey Kettle
- Neon Highway
- New Welsh Review
- North, The
- Obsessed with pipework
- Oxford Poetry
- Painted, spoken
- Paper, The
- Pen Pusher Magazine
- Poetry Cornwall
- Poetry London
- Poetry London (1951)
- Poetry Nation
- Poetry Review, The
- Poetry Salzburg Review
- Poetry Scotland
- Poetry Wales
- Private Tutor
- Purple Patch
- Rain Dog
- Reach Poetry
- Review, The
- Rialto, The
- Second Aeon
- Seventh Quarry, The
- Smiths Knoll
- Strange Faeces
- Tabla Book of New Verse, The
- Tolling Elves
- Ugly Tree, The
- Wolf, The
- Yellow Crane, The