"Cardinal Points" litetrary journal: www.stosvet.net

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Sean O’Brien

THE LOST WAR




Cousin Coat

You are my secret coat. You’re never dry.
You wear the weight and stink of black canals.
Malodorous companion, we know why
It’s taken me so long to see we’re pals,
To learn why my acquaintance never sniff 
Or send me notes to say I stink of stiff.

But you don’t talk, historical bespoke.
You must he worn, be intimate as skin,
And though I never lived what you invoke,
At birth I was already buttoned in.
Your clammy itch became my atmosphere,
An air made half of anger, half of fear.

And what you are is what I tried to shed
In libraries with Donne and Henry James.
You’re here to bear a message from the dead
Whose history’s dishonoured with their names.
You mean the North, the poor, and troopers sent
To shoot down those who showed their discontent.

No comfort there for comfy meliorists
Grown weepy over Jarrow photographs.
No comfort when the poor the state enlists
Parade before their fathers’ cenotaphs.
No comfort when the strikers all go back
To see which twenty thousand get the sack.

Be with me when they cauterise the facts.
Be with me to the bottom of the page,
Insisting on what history exacts.
Be memory, be conscience, will and rage,
And keep me cold and honest, cousin coat,
So if I lie, I’ll know you’re at my throat.


The Iron Hand

I once loved a boy with an iron hand.
He kissed me and he said:
Come for a walk on the old black path -
You can sit on my iron bed.

When I sat on his iron counterpane
He kneeled down before me and said:
Kathleen slip off your sensible shoes
And lie in my iron bed.

I’ll bring you whisky and silver,
A bird in an iron cage.
I’ll read you this poem and let you look
At the other side of the page.

It’s true I loved my iron man
From the depths of his iron bed.
I loved him and my life ran out
And I was left for dead.

I learned how his poem continued
On the far side of the page -
The hero could never distinguish
Tenderness from rage,

And locked me in the iron bed
From dawn till dead of night,
Mending children’s jerseys
While my coal-black hair turned white.

I gave him thirteen children
And ten were dead at birth.
Professor now you tell me how
To estimate my worth.

It’s true I loved my iron man
From the depths of his iron bed.
I loved him and my life ran out
And I was left for dead.


Fantasia on a Theme of James Wright

There are miners still
In the underground rivers
Of West Moor and Palmersville.

There are guttering cap-lamps bound up in the roots
Where the coal is beginning again.
They are sinking slowly further

In between the shiftless seams,
To black pools in the bed of the world.
In their long home the miners are labouring still –

Gargling dust, going down in good order,
Their black-braided banners aloft,
Into flooding and firedamp, there to inherit

Once more the tiny corridors of the immense estate
They line with prints of Hedley’s Coming Home.
We hardly hear of them.

There are the faint reports of spent economies,
Explosions in the ocean floor,
The thud of iron doors sealed once for all

On prayers and lamentation,
On pragmatism and the long noyade
Of a class which dreamed itself

Immortalized by want if nothing else.
The singing of the dead inside the earth
Is like the friction of great stones, or like the rush

Of water into newly opened darkness. Oh my brothers,
The living will never persuade them
That matters are otherwise, history done.


The Citizens

We change the river’s name to make it ours.
We wall the city off and call it fate.
We husband our estate of ash,
For what we have we hold, and this
Is what is meant by history.
We have no love for one another, only uses
We can make of the defeated.
- And meanwhile you have disappeared
Like smoke across a frozen field.

What language? You had no language.
Stirring bone soup with a bone, we sip
From the cup of the skull. This is culture.
All we want to do is live forever,
To which end we make you bow down to our gods
In the midday square’s Apollonian light
Before we ship you to the furnaces
And sow you in the fields like salt
So that nothing will grow there but death.

We fear that the fields of blue air at the world’s end
Will be the only court we face.
We fear that when we reach the gate alone
There will be neither words nor deeds
To answer with. Therefore, we say, let us
Speak not of murder but of sacrifice,
And out of sacrifice make duty,
And out of duty love,
Whose name, in our language, means death.


The Lost War

The saved were all ingratitude,
The lost would not lie down:
Reborn, their sacred rage renewed,
They razed the fallen town

And in the graveyard made their stand
Just east of heaven’s gate.
We are the same. It is all one
Whom we exterminate.