Friday, 10 June 2016

souda bay

                        to the shade of a New Zealand soldier at Souda Bay,

Ζήτω η Κρήτη, ζήτω ο κρητικός λαός             

Long live Crete, long live the people of Crete!                                   

to say i never knew you
and more, how could i,
much too cold a word
in this place
the slow winnow
of autumn sun
through olive leaves
shadow husks scattered
soft onto dust
the sea fallen still,
to say i never
knew you,
too cold a word
while calling you ‘friend’
would nestle me next
to those
who did, your
mates in the same company
your brothers, sister
yet 'friend' it must be
since we were born of
one southern earth and
are met here abroad.
i look down at your name
and rank cut neat in stone,
kept spic and span by the
children and their children
of those you fought beside,
you with bolt-action rifle,
they, men and woman, with musket,
scythe, pitchfork and cretan blade
you fell so very far from home
on this island of proud ravine
and mountain and for this
doors are opened to us to
this very day and wine poured
and stories brushed off as
we come through town and village.
i imagine your hometown where
sweets were rationed and you were
warned of too much of any good thing
just a main street gay or desolate with season
and where the shacks and marram grass
begin, wrapt round in beach against
a sea that flashes starlight at noon,
white sun at midnight when
the moon's afoot.
you fell far from the homestead
the fields you rode through of morning
dew-sopped hay, the dirt road where
you played cricket with brother
or just the dog to dash hell-bent
after the ball, a home no dying wish
could pull an atom nearer.

i would soothe the
emptiness that burns
your hands through
the years until now
say "you knew your enemy
at least, i know not mine.
what brings us to our knees,
if not the bullet, something more
studied that drains us in its reason dry,
the loss the gain the loss the gain
small mercies we accumulate like
china pieces on the shelf a clutter
we lose the strength to clear away
until the day forgotten in its rising
you hear the sentence delivered in
the doctors’ room, ‘you've had a good run,
all in all'...’ and last the breath is
gathered away in a minute of
blind panic when the cold
explodes through the vein
and vision sinks…”
yet I know to say a life cut
short in what they said was glory
was better than one lived poorly
and long will never ring true
the bitter learning of Achilles’s
stunned shade, know you would
give away a stage of laurels,
the mayoral key, cities of the dusk
and lamp you never got to see,
paris and londons of young women
blinking at your uniform and shoulders,
would give away such spectacle, to be
honoured and gazed at no more
than a statue under a flag, would give
a heaven of sunlight away to have
one more day in this heat, drinking
down a cold glass of beer foaming like
an opened wave, kicking souda bay back
behind you to see with eyes,
not soul's gutted remembrances -
pale sketches of sea, parachutes drifting,
the smudge of fire - to see with eyes
this autumn sun, to hear not sea echoes
within a shell - the stifled thunder of howitzer -
but voices of kin, the kin of those whose
hands you touched in play and sleep
oh, to 'be' and not 'were'
to be not ‘were’

i ask why
your days were
spilled into darkness here
if not to
shout to
who only whisper
of peace

                        souda bay 1983
february 2016

 *The historic setting of this piece
is the Second World War Battle of Crete

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