Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Poem for Liberation Day


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