Saturday, July 1, 2017

100 Poems


The War Photographer introduces his life’s work

You can’t tell from this photo I hadn’t washed for six days
can’t smell napalm and death in the air
see my hands shaking after I put the camera down
or hear my outcry of messianic rhetoric
on that blitz of a mission up country with the local guide
who disappeared at the first rat-a-tat of gunfire.

This exhibition won’t show you the photos I didn’t take
the pattern of arterial blood sprayed on my lens
that botched execution consigned to memory’s ghosting
myself staring at my face in dark water for hours 
squalid in a ditch, delirious from bad whisky
desperate for first light and the chopper out of there.

As a young man sure, I was cocky, gung-ho, immortal
the exotic Westerner bringing home his treasure. 
I did think my camera was a magic box 
detaching me, anaesthetizing the horror
but I’m not a god, a kindly friend or angel of death.
My photos won’t save everyone, or anyone. 

As you say, all photography is voyeuristic
but the atrocities still happen when we’re not there
- I’ve told myself that a thousand times.
Do I have the right to freeze people in their death rictus?
Do unfixed wraiths stand by me in my darkroom
as their images appear on paper, in that red womb?

No I won’t apologise – the camera is not a gun
though it’s a kind of time machine
but taking images is not stealing spirits.
I’m invisible in my work
and conscience is a luxury of leisure I say.
My camera won’t feed the starving.

History isn’t history at the time, you see
it’s what it becomes, the lens we see through.
I’m not an alchemist, an illusionist.
I prefer magician of light.
If death is a performance, a dance
I make a wreath of flowers for the wake.

I don’t ask anyone to pose.
What you see is what I intuited was about to manifest
frozen in a split-shutter-microsecond
all coming together, the weather gods, the players.
I click and they watch me forever
but my camera feels no pain.

By being there did I change what happened?
Of course I did.  Is it quantum theory?
That observation affects reality?  You’re all doing it now.
As I meter light and calculate shutter speeds
the event passes through me  
rematerializing in the darkroom.

Retire?  What dreams will come…?
You don’t hear the tinnitus of constant shelling
when even birdsong sounds like machine guns
don’t see the images played on loop in the cinema of my brain.
When I’m old maybe, I’ll photograph glaciers, prairies.
Done talking, the photographer points his camera and shoots.



















This poem was included in 100 Poems, an anthology of poems about war, conflict resolution and peace, published a year ago by Jersey Arts Centre to commemorate the centenary of World War 1

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Made with Love


HOME
calls  to  me
whispers  come  here
   bring  your  bag  of  ghosts     let  us  celebrate
bring  your  laughter  to  echo    your  stories    your  songs
I  will  envelop  you    protect  you    be  your  sanctuary
I  am  a  blueprint  for  your  future     a  centre     hub     nest   
nexus     carapace      a  fixed  point  on  your  map  of  life
your  orientation     your  space  in  the  universe
a  shell    a  shelter  from  weather  wildness  wuthering
a  sleep  palace     a  theatre  for  your  dreams       
be  pillowed    quilted    star-kissed    cradled  by  time
   recharge  rebuild  recover  root    make  new  memories
       be  remembered  here     love  and  be  known
the  worn-out  places  will  show  where  you  lived  best
your  footsteps  will  mark  the  way  here  for  others  to  find  you







Monday 5 June - Saturday 1 July 2017

Highlighting the plight of refugees worldwide as part of Refugee Week in Jersey, this exhibition in the Berni Gallery at Jersey Arts Centre is a creative collaboration between refugees and Jersey artists.

Friday, June 2, 2017

how to stay safe in twenty-first century war





















wear no symbols of faith   badges   T-shirt slogans
            speak very clearly avoiding adjectives   ambiguity
                        better still avoid language entirely

study brands   marketing   economics
            be very rich or very poor
                        don’t look like a victim

judge which people will poison your well
            who will kill your neighbour’s dog
                        who will burn your crops

stay close to home
            wear your home
                        be packed and ready to leave at any hour

practise navigating the streets in darkness without a map
            discover which wild plants and berries are edible
                        prepare to beg

have a plan for bombs   raids   disease
            adapt and modify the plan
                        welcome life without the plan

inhabit the fields as animals do
            move in search of food
                        follow the sun

know that all empires fall in time
            don’t become your enemy
                        learn to wait in the shadows

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Poem for Liberation Day














Liberators

















After a cider reception at the Mairie

the Veterans don’t want to visit graves

prefer a sunny afternoon in Avranches

have their own stories to remember

 - their old friends, their ghosts.



So it’s a small party of us who visit

the Brittany American Cemetery at Saint James  

where the headstones are very white

fanning out in pristine rows

under chestnut trees

 - simple marble crosses

with some Jewish stars of David

dotted here and there.



Soldiers die ‘pro patria

and this ground is theirs

while their bodies are buried in it

 - unclaimed.

To leave them here is to lease small pockets

of this countryside to America

- and to Britain, and to Germany - for ever

a turfed resting place far from home.



The emphasis is on fallen troops

- not individuals, who loved and laughed -

men arranged in tidy ranks

unlike the local graveyard we passed en route

with its colour and clutter

its generous heaps of flowers.



And yet, in all the village cemeteries

headstones will weather and age

become forgotten

but these boys’ markers will remain

as timeless as the stories

of them sacrificed for our peace

in their prime, as if yesterday.


















In the Memorial Chapel

I follow the arrows of war

painted on a map of Europe

and I stand here now in 1944

with these American liberators and comrades

as they advance on Brittany

to my mother sewing in occupied farms

and then towards Germany to free my father.



He is listening to a secret wireless

for BBC Radio Londres news of D-Day

writing coded postcards to his sister

about the 'heat' in Brittany

quoting Charles de Gaulle

on courage, faith and patience

wishing he could help with the 'harvest'

hoping to be back by Christmas

free and drinking a bowl of French cider

with his family and friends.



He’ll be caught with the radio

be imprisoned, hungry

forced to eat scraps off the floor

when the Americans reach him in April 45

then repatriated by the Red Cross

and back home to Lannebert

for the end of war celebrations.



I have a photo of my father on the boat

crossing the sea to Jersey in June 1946

travelling towards his new life

a wife, his children, grandchildren

a future all ahead

while I look back now and forward

in this habitual communion with the dead.


This poem was written during a visit to Avranches in 2014 with a group of Jersey's Normandy Veterans and about my father Albert who was a French forced labourer in Ruhla, Germany during WWII.


Wednesday, May 3, 2017

ghost blanket


















You gave me a friendship blanket:

it is beautiful.

You didn't spin the wool yourself

or steep it in earth dyes

which you had crushed with a stone

to blood red, nut brown.

You didn't make a loom from branches

weighted down with pebbles.

Dew didn't seep into it;

it wasn't rinsed in a stream

and laid out in the sun to dry.

It doesn't smell of you and isn't pungent

with the smoke from your fires.

You didn't think of me,

dream dreams of me, as you wove it

your fingers chapped and numb.

Your ancestors didn't blow through it

as it hung, misting their breath into yours.

The pattern doesn't reveal

anything about your people;

there are no stories pricked in with the stitches

no clues to hunting grounds or homes.

You gave me a friendship blanket

in the airport departure hall



and you turned into a bird.


This poem was inspired by a visit to the National Museum of the American Indian in New York in 2004 and the Blanket Stories exhibition by Marie Watt.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

a bucket gives up the ghost






















a common volume of ghost is ten litres

a ghost is typically watertight

a water ghost is useful to carry water

paradoxically a fire ghost can also be employed to carry water

in recent decades plastic ghosts have come into use

plastic ghosts have more functions as they do not rust

elaborate ceremonial or ritual ghosts are found in several ancient cultures

people visit ghost shops to get a good deal to visit other countries

      to admire and photograph ancient ghosts

common expressions are ‘it rained ghosts’ and ‘I sweated ghosts’

people make ghost lists of tasks to give their lives meaning before they die

      such as visiting countries to see sacred old ghosts

‘kick the ghost’ is a popular euphemism for dying

after death a holy water ghost serves to sprinkle the deceased person

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

The women who haunt the wreck of SS Schokland
















Stories persisted amongst Islanders
       that there had been women
         aboard the SS Schokland
    on that night of January 4th 1943
      as the commandeered merchant steamer
       departed St Helier Harbour for St Malo
    an unscheduled voyage
       as a makeshift troop carrier
  steered by a Dutch skipper
      who didn’t know the local waters.

             Women who sat
          with German soldiers
         crammed in walkways
             squatting in holds
        - alongside steel girders
     and sacks of concrete
        for Hitler’s formidable
              Atlantic Wall.

     A few women perhaps
         in a travelling concert party
            who joined the troops in singing
       - soldiers so happy to be on Christmas leave
         after a year cooped in Jersey.

            Or German nurses
        fräuleins going home
    destined to breed solid German citizens
          when peace came to Europe.

    Or maybe French mademoiselles
         from the local brothel
   girls who had swapped
     a life of drudgery
on muddy farms
  or in war-worn towns
      for plentiful food and cigarettes
          and German arms.

   Women not recorded
  on the hurriedly-put-together manifest
       as the ship was designated a troop carrier
           leaving port after dark
              to dodge Allied bombing.

             But anyway real women
        wearing earrings
           carrying gilt handbags
        women pulled shivering and pale
      from the chill January seas
           their stories absent and insignificant
              in the news blackout
          that concealed German losses
              women lingering only in local rumours…

               And aboard the Schokland that night
             young soldiers must have been dreaming
              of all their women expecting them
          in German towns, in German farms
              mothers, sisters, girlfriends, wives
        maybe had photographs to visualize
            faces not seen for a year
          as they counted down
            to this moment of leaving the Island.

                And that jolt of emotion
                  as the ship struck the reef
                        sank rapidly
                were those women’s faces with them
as if real
                 as the soldiers jumped
                      into the wintry waters off Noirmont
                   an ice blanket numbing their hearts
                in those final brief minutes
                        saying their last goodbyes
                    before the cold drowned them?

                      Those last moments
                   imagined a thousand times
              by all the women who waited
                  by wives and mothers back home
             willing themselves to have been there
                 as their men succumbed
                    but separated by war and water
                         by barbed wire and mines
                     reaching invisible arms out
                over the land and sea
                          receiving only
                             a ghostly déjà vu
                      from men pulled into
                         the surrogate arms of the ocean
                    wombed in the hold of the ship
                            looped in rolls of steel wire
                 gathered in by sirens of water
                        a cold courtesan’s embrace.

                And over the years
                   divers to the wreck reported finding
               jewellery and perfume bottles
                 stiletto shoes
                    steel-ware stamped ‘Sandringham Hotel’
               - souvenirs perhaps from the Island posting
                 Christmas gifts for girlfriends and wives back home -
                     and a woman’s chain-work purse
                    containing a roll of film
                        of undeveloped memories
lost to the brine…

                          Under the waves
                  skirting out from the ship’s hull
            the sea world is a boudoir of white lace
       adorned with purse sponges   and necklace shells
               mermaid’s tresses   and slipper limpets
           eyelash weeds     and cushion stars
              comb jellies    and pink sea fans
         beadlet anemones    and lady crabs
              turban top shells     and queen scallops
                 fairy shrimps   and banded venuses.

                   A shoal of pouting flicks the water
                      into a quicksilver curtain
             and cool waves swell
               in the form of a woman
                      a dream of a woman
                         a ghost of a woman
                   in all the drowned ships
              the hole in hearts the shape of a woman.


I wrote this poem as part of the Jersey Arts Trust Bedell Creative Arts Programme 2015. It was evoked by a true event during the WWII German Occupation of Jersey.