The girl in the art exam applies herself
to colour – her brush layers a threatening
blueness across the sheet. The gobbet
of dark sputum on her palette, applied,
lightens to rich navies and ripples of light.
She’s intent on the centre, on the dark heart
of the mystery. But the edges are exquisite –
where the brush leaves the paper are feathers
that curl into air, into whiteness not planned,
into innocence no paint can defeat.

If I turn to inspiration, it is breath taken
because someone cared less about margins,
about what frames the deepest, and most
casual intentions, to deliver an end.

Gliding Through

It’s the first impression that carries the weight,
like the ridiculous wings that stretch to the horizon
and can flex like a butcher’s blade. And incredible
lightness of bearing. Actually gliders avoid puns
and have no need of imagery. They are not birds,
they have no means of being anywhere else.
Nothing moves them. But air. Give them that
and they are all over. Support them with speed
and present them with opportunity, then the
sky opens its secrets, allows them their moment.

A War Quartet

The Mediterranean 2014

Blood on the sand. Salt water runs in the wounds.
It is a hundred years and time heals. A people gathers
At the tide’s edge, swims in a bleary sea
where the genetics of a century mix in water too shallow
to drown, to warm to chill. Affluence is anchored
deeper – hulls gleam in the sunlight, tumblers flash
and are emptied. A youth tombstones the bay.

Belgium 1815

We are gathering the victory at Waterloo, The bodies
of the dead are stripped and flung in pits, their keepsakes
and their bloodied shirts are taken with their unvalued lives.
But a grateful Belgium knows their worth. A few years pass,
the flesh retires, the pits are opened and the bones
are sold for glue. Cowards, heroes, fathers,
sons – are boiled away to bind the books
of civil trade. No trace remains. A mound of earth,
a reputation for its c-in-c, and a boot or two.
No rusted buckles, nor shrapnel harvest in the fields;
no shred of roughened cloth, still lingering, to touch.

London 1914

The world has changed, we’ve left the charnel house.
And it’s a hundred years with many lessons learned.
Censuses have built our families in place.
We all have names, our bloodlines traced like farmer’s
stock. And death is certified, no end is ever lost.
So all are waiting for the test of war when faith
and dream can show their strength against the bullet
and the bomb. Words fill the air like Maxim’s gun.
The rifles cleared and listed. The lads in uniform
and clean. The officers alert and fed on someone’s
wine-red plan. The starter’s gun is fired.
Great engines turn. We’re off! Towards our buffered
ends, with carriaged certainties brought bustling along.
And empires of hope have taken to the skies.

The Mediterranean 2014

It’s a long way to Tipperary. To the marching boys,
the crowds of cheer-on heroes tired of peace.
Now past times hunker in the woods a continent away.
We dig into the sand – our bodies glisten in the heat.
A leisure camp for sunburnt skin relaxing on the
tributes of a distant war. It’s so easy to forgive the past
With so much good achieved. A roll call here
would sound the names our forbears left behind –
on all the monuments of war that shaped
the landscapes of so many ordered graves.
Fall in then and stand your watch with them.

Cousins in Arms

Jo Vince, 551929, 1st/16th battalion London regiment (Queens Westminster rifles)
Charles Henry Vince, S4/128216, Army Service Corps

We cannot know the way their bodies fell,
even though they are our dead. Why some
are less than air and earth.  My father’s cousin, Jo,
he is not found. He vanishes at Arras.  It’s April,
four years in. A spring offensive on the Scarpe.
For this spot of France, the first of many battles,
but his last. 5 days after, Edward Thomas dies,
about whom many words are said. Jo rates
a mother’s grief, a mention on a plaque, these lines
that try to place him here. Lance Corporal Vince.
Late Essex Boy, Late Rifleman, Just Jo.

Charles Henry Vince lies buried in Baghdad.
Another cousin, in the Army Service Corps.
What ends he served are here as silent as his own.
On a November day in 1917
he dies, and with 5 others serving with the same.
No story passes on, except bare facts
of all their graves. A search and sort reveals them
as the company he must have kept that day.
Their cemetery is now a wasteland, too dangerous
to tend, to dry to hope for grass.  Their corner
of a foreign field is now abandoned England.
So Charlie Vince, Staff Sergeant, late of
the Service Corps, a music scholar in your parents’
home, you lie and wait amongst dead friends.

Both boys, your anonymity protects. Were you
ranked cowards, runaways, or insubordinates,
your deaths at dawn would pin you to a mark
of courage as the bullets broke your hearts –
with every detail of your exploits held as proof of
their injustice and your victimhood. Your final
ends on duty mark you down for nothing – but
a nation’s gratitude and a summary forgetfulness.