22 october 2007

The 1914 Party

Across the lawn a long parade of girls
With buttoned gloves convey unpassing time
And underneath the beech a wide skirt swirls:
               Far out, like rhyme.

Dressed as a major in some abstruse corps
With Sam Browne belt, and crowns upon my sleeves
I slap my bulging cords, not worn before.
               No one believes

My kind of officer. No pips or gun,
Or any polish on his riding-boots,
And my sword-frog and flask are worn for fun.
               If someone shoots,

His make-believe loud shell will make a bang
And faze the ladies, twirling parasols.
Not one of us could march a parasang
               Or fill with holes

A can of beer set up upon a cart
At fifty yards. I stroll, and would salute,
Though rather warily, what might impart
               A distant hoot

Of laughter, a real military man,
This proper major, eighty-six years old,
Stiff on his stick, with keen eyes and a tan,
               Whose fire's grown cold.

Medals come easy, like this DSO
Whose colours nip my undeserving chest.
But his were his. Yes, that was long ago,
               And that seems best.

But still, inside my head, becapped and grey
With middle age, I think a fine salute
And make it stick. We play a game today
               But it takes root.

And in my mind, remembering that war
My father died in, and the one that's done,
Or may be done, this game is played with awe.
               And what's begun

In quirky humour, ends as reverence.
The women furl their things. it starts to rain,
And the Edwardian age, bought for some pence,
               And a frill train,

Is drawn indoors. There sepia photographs
Of Wilfred Owen, and of Hemingway,
Who wears his helmet proudly, but still laughs,
               Preserve our play

And set it in a frame. I turn and pour
Another glass of port for someone new
In ordinary clothes, who likes my floor
               And wants the loo.

Outdoors in the garage, a frail red cross
Indicates where our dressing-station lay.
My old wound stirs, that massive sense of loss.
               It comes to prey

On all I have. Whenever I'm alone
It grips with claws at what I cannot be,
One of those dead who gave past war its tone
               And made me, me.

I watch the tears of water on the pane
Outside the library. I hear the birds
Chatter in fear, as I twist round my cane.
               Words are just words

And these, though mine, change nothing. All this year
The seasons have prolonged forgotten growth
And flowers budded, and my death grown near,
               And we are both,

Lisa and I, set forward in a way
That may preserve the best, and, should we die,
Still honour all the braids of yesterday
               And hold them high.

This feels a duty. To receive our boons
And rinse them, torn like colours from the past,
And, as with these forced rituals, mark some runes
               And nail them fast.

- George Macbeth