Sunday, 23 February 2014

Sunday Poem

I saw them. They came like ghosts out of ground-
mist, moving
over ruined earth in waves, running, 
no, walking, shoulder to shoulder
like a belt of bullets or like
men: tinned meat lined on a conveyor belt as the sun

exploded in thin shafts on metal
buckles, bayonets, the nodding
spires of helmets. I heard faint battle cries

and whistles, piercing through the shriek
of fire and iron falling, the slurred
cadence of big guns; as they funnelled

like a file of mourners into gaps
in the barbed wire I made quick
calculations and slipped the safety catch.

But held my fire. Alongside me
the boys in the trenches worried them with
rifles, pistols, hand grenades,

but they came on, larger now, their faces
almost resolving out of hazed, hot
distance, their ranks at close quarters amazing

with dumb courage, numb step, a sound of drugged
choking in gas and green mud, steaming...
Who were these men. I saw them penitent,

sagging to knees. I saw their dishevelled
dying. And when finally they broke
into a run it came to me

what they had always been, how I'd always,
really, seen them: boys
rushing towards us with arms

outstreched, hands clenched as if in urgent prayer,
sudden welcome or a reunion
quite unexpected. Yes. And more than this

like children, chased by something behind the lines
and hurrying to us
for rescue—

I spat and swung the gun around. Fired,
felt the metal pulse
and laid them three deep in the wire.
From Stalin's Carnival (Palimpsest Press, reissued 2013) by Steven Heighton

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