Queen Mary’s Box

I have a treasure box, passed down through family ranks,
though none to my mind ever fought. A Christmas gift
to all the troops, a confidence in all the upright days ahead.
It gleams with hope. When polished, is like gold.
Inside, a swirl of oxide shows the copper in the brass.
In it I keep a shard of shrapnel from the salient at Ypres.

Somme Victory

Pitmen worked beneath the skin, their charges primed,
to smash each fortress on each bitter crest.
They’d exhale death upon the hour, and time
the start – the steady boys above would do the rest.

Heads down, upfront, the innocent of every land and sin,
crouched serving men from villages and shops.
Firm-hoped, led-on, and keen to finish with a win,
then each proud son of earth could get back to his crops.

Think on them and how it was to cross the line,
to face the day of victories with hope, then chained
to stumble on with slaughtered friends before, behind –
to master enemies within they never had been trained.

The fields of blood are now the fields of corn –
farms have tidied up the broken hearts and bones.
Swept them to cemeteries where stone’s the uniform;
here crushed hopes are found, and each visitor, alone.

MV Norland

In the Antelope Bar strangers of passage
gather to digest their dinner over drinks,
and slip away from England in brochured comfort.

Where we sit, a modest painting disturbs the wall’s
chromatic harmony. Enshrined in brassy light,
it’s artless tribute shows narrow land,
a brief, unsheltering sea, and two ships caught
in the trap of war: Antelope broken in two,
her risen bow an elegant finger of authority
in the defeating air; and Norland, black hulled
and squat, escaping an explosion of brush strokes
in the impassive water at her stern.

Tonight, in pastel pinks and greys, and trimmed
reflectively in chrome, she moves with safety
on the oily darkness, and we can share
with drinks and cigarettes, that necessary
spoil of war, indifference. But in
the disco, on the light shadowed floor,
where now two lines of swaying figures row
to the commands of music learnt in clubs
in safe English towns, they might have brought
the wounded, burned or bloody from the sea,
and lain them, the assault of air and history
still screaming in their ears. Beneath the bleary
excitement of the music, great engines turn.
There is a shiver in the soft clad floor.

And out there, in the stream of night’s ugly
tenderness, Jellicoe’s great Navy grappled
indecisively with the Imperial Fleet
of the usurper, and unvanquishable
dreadnoughts split their sides and poured their crews’
closed lives into the minute’s oceans.
To such tunes of glory as were played,
boys drowned, and ‘our bloody ships’ kept to their
schedules. Over such waters do we dance,
our moving pleasures measured by the closing
of the bar, a final slow paced sway
in careless arms, and coffee served to keep
awake the conversation. Beyond the glass,
a continent of wind sweeps past, unnoticed.

In the daylight, Zeebrugge’s harbour extends
two claws into the grey flecked sea. Norland
sails past immaculate where other tourists died.
The upturned bathtub boat, the TV lights,
the hand beneath the canvas shroud. Ungraspable.

Dawn and sobriety bring closer touches
of such ironies. Shivering from the cold,
we cluster to the funnel, and look out across
the half healed gulf in silence. From the ship’s
steel heart come shudders of warmed air. At last,
we go below to wait our final call.