Poetry – the collection

From agoraphobia to out of body experiences, from love to hate, from cloning cows to the crucifixion, from eco-warriors to criminals, from ignoring war to suffering reprisals because of it, from birth to death. It’s all here in this collection.


 

AGORAPHOBIA

agoraphobia pic

Each morning
Outside
taps gently
on my door,
calling me
to come
Outside
and play.

Oh I would
if only I could,
but Inside
pins me to the floor.
I have to beg
Outside
to go away.


ANCESTOR

You will never know my name,
but all the same
I see that my scattered remains
intrigue you as you bag and tag
that which the earth has preserved.

Take care as you lift up
the precious beads
my loved ones gave me.
Treat with respect
the betrothal cup.

Oh, I remember how
we made our vows
as we walked around
the sacred tree.
How we clasped hands
affirming that I took him
and he took me.

But that was …
when?
Perhaps such knowledge
is in your keeping?

I shall patiently wait
while you construct my face
in wire and clay,
bringing my yesterday
into your today.
For I am as curious as you
to know if I was beautiful
and how long
I have been sleeping.


ASTRAL TRAVELLERS

astral pic

Flying at 35,000 feet
we wave at the planes passing by.
Startled faces gape in disbelief,
oval faces framed by oval windows,
round eyes above round mouths
asking why
and how this can be.

We clasp hands
and laugh aloud as we soar away
to our destination.
They are prisoners of tin tubes
and timetables,
but we fly unfettered,
as high and higher than they,
joyous and totally free.


BELIEVER

The man told anyone who would listen
that his day job was too down to earth
for someone destined
to meet aliens face to face.
He worked in a warehouse
just to earn money for the gear he needed
for gazing into outer space.

He heard tell of a sighting over Romney Marsh,
saw a grainy home video of an object of light
hanging stock-still in the sky
as if sitting for a portrait.
He set off with a map and hot coffee in a flask,
certain that his time had come,
that his friends would wait.

His car was found the next day
on the outskirts of St. Dunstan’s,
its engine still running.
The investigation went on for days,
probing scorch marks on the ground
and inexplicable traces of radiation.
People came and spoke to camera
claiming they’d witnessed a hostile invasion.
The man was never found.


BLITZ

The shop offers empty shelves.
Where once were jars, tins and myriad things,
mice skitter amongst old cartons gathering dust.
Coins dropped from a careless pocket
lie camouflaged on a floor the colour of rust.

Mavis stands at the counter,
pinny in place, smile pinned on face,
waiting for her customers.
Old Fred surely needs a box of matches
to keep his pipe alight.
Mrs. Jones will want a tin of fish paste
for Arthur’s sarnies, he’s on watch most nights.

“They gotta keep their wits about ’em,
the blitz ain’t gonna end any time soon.
You should shut up shop, Mavis

it’s gonna be real bad tonight.
They’re cursing the full moon.”

Mavis didn’t listen.
She still stands behind the counter,
pinny in place, smile pinned on face,
but no-one comes through
the boarded-up door.
There’s no Old Fred, nor Mrs. Jones,
they and all the rest are long gone now.
She doesn’t know she’s a ghost
and that people passing by outside
barely remember 1944.


CHAOS THEORY

butterfly

I am not fragile.
You may think it impossible,
but I really can fly in the rain.
So powerful am I
that the mere fluttering
of my paper-like wings
can cause a hurricane.


CLONE

A hundred cows
with the exact same markings
A hundred noses
that look and feel like slimed silk
They may be cute
They may be safe
but there are questions
their existence poses
and I’m not sure
I want to drink their milk


CONCEPTION

as we lay in love
entwined
like clinging
climbing flowers
another heartbeat
throbs to life
not yours
not mine
but ours


COUNSELLOR

I wait,
counting the silence in seconds,
waiting for it to begin.

A deep breath in,
and the marionette memories
come jerking into the room
as if nothing else matters.

An aching heart shatters
like brittle glass struck by a spiteful stone.
I help to gather up the shards,
rearrange them into different patterns.
But they’re still too sharp,
too painful.

I push the tissues across the table,
sympathise as pastel shades
are shredded in damp, embarrassed fists,
mopping up a lifetime of defeat.

The clock on the wall is discreet
but ruthless.
I uncap my pen and open my diary.
An hour is never enough to solve a crisis.


CRACKING UP (a ‘found’ poem)

My reflection in a mirror
anatomically correct in acrylic and collage
Bisexual, gay, unsure?
For information and evidence
take the right-hand turn
Why am I wearing unmatched socks?

My reflection in the mirror
Claims of the makers of beauty products
airbrushed images of perfect skin
Ladies, gentlemen, other
have you been taken in?
It’s just a five minute show
licensed capacity for 60
beginners welcome

My reflection in a mirror
a temporary installation in a public place
Someone else’s interpretation
of how I came to be here
Please do not touch
Is the emergency exit over there?
There must be a way to escape
my own wretched face

Found poetry is a collage in words, created by reinterpreting images, words, phrases, etc from other sources. In this instance I was taking part in a creative writing course at an arts centre and we were instructed to walk around and take notes of anything that caught our attention. We were then given a short time to shape our poems using our notes.


CULTURE SHOCK

Sit here they said
Music twinkled from a silver box
and when it stopped
there was a parcel on my lap

Expectant eyes looked at me
Someone whispered
others stifled their sniggers
at my bewilderment
When the music began again
I was told to pass the parcel on
and soon we would have cake

I do not understand your initiation ceremonies
In my tribe boys of my age
are sent out alone to hunt lions


DAISY, DAISY

daisy pic
Have you ever
pulled the petals off a daisy
one
by
one
to find out if he loves you or loves you not?

Well, instead of dismantling a harmless flower
Why don’t you just ask him?


DEAR JOHN

Of course I noticed the weight loss
and the change of hairstyle.
My pals said to ask her outright
why she was so late
getting home at night.
But I didn’t ask.
I was in denial.

She bought new clothes
and underwear in black and red.
Once she would have paraded them,
a fashion show just for me.
But not this time, and it’s been a while
since we had a tumble
in our king-sized bed.

In the pub an hour ago my pals nudged me,
said they’d be worried if their wives
behaved like that.
I left early,
my pint glass still half-full,
my heart aching and empty.

After loud music and conversation
the silence hits hard.
There is a plain white envelope
on the mantelpiece
and I know without opening it
what I’ll find inside.
It won’t be a Valentine’s card.


 

DOOMED LOVERS

You live your life in the cool of the moon
I cannot survive without the sun’s heat
We could be lovers you and I
if only we could meet
But you are a night child
A midnight delight child
And I am afraid of the dark


END OF THE AFFAIR

In the beginning the harmony of skin on skin
reached the skies where Beethoven smiled to hear it
Now you fear it,
flinching at the touch that once heated your blood
and brought a blush to your surrendering face

Surrender is a cold place,
a grey room that once held a rainbow.
All those hopes and dreams gone rotten.

The dance steps are forgotten.
You freeze beneath him and he turns his face away,
his desperate, despairing body
shrinking.

Everything is sinking,
drowning in what might have been.
The symphony is over.
There is always silence in the end.


EXHIBIT

exhibit pic

I hang like an exhibit in a gallery.
Crusted blood and rust of nails
bloom on my skin like lichen.

In the crowd of spectators
there is a man clutching a claw hammer.
Has he come to prise out the nails
or was it he that drove them in?
I cannot read his conscience.

I see a woman pouring wine into a cup.
It seeps unnoticed through porcelain cracks,
beading like mercury on the cold stone floor.
When she tips the cup to my parched lips
there will be nothing to quench my thirst.

There is a child, wide-eyed with wisdom,
who reaches to touch my skin.
As the darkness comes, I am content to know
that he understands the message.
He will ensure that my sacrifice
will never be forgotten.


FALLING

there is no such thing as love at first sight but one day you see a stranger across a crowded room such a cliche but there is no resistance and when your eyes meet the world tilts and creases in the middle making your wine spill from your glass as you swiftly close the distance between you and all the while your eyes do not waver from each other your belly is on fire and you want to rip off her clothes and take her on the table or up against the wall you want her to be there when you come home at night you want her to be the mother of your children you’ve never felt like this and it’s wonderful and as exhilarating as riding on a roller coaster you want to know her name and where she’s been all your life another cliche but you don’t give a damn because you have just discovered the reason for your existence


FOR MY FATHER

dad in desert cropped

You told me of your love for the desert,
how you loved to walk on golden sands
baked by the naked sun
and cooled at night beneath black skies
spangled with a billion stars.

You told me your stories
and I felt your joy in being young,
not knowing what the future would bring,
yet expecting only wonders.

When the time came for you to leave
I stored this one special memory
within me like a seed.

Until today.

Today I walked on desert sands,
my prints soon taken by the breeze
but held forever in the grains.
I gazed up at velvet skies
spangled with a billion stars,
laughing up at a full moon
that knew what I held inside.

When the sun rose on a new day
I took the seed from my heart
and called your name.
You kissed it where it lay
in the palm of my hand
and I watched,
spellbound,
as it bloomed.

for my dad, Thomas Miller Forrest, 1935-2006


GETTING AWAY WITH IT

The map on the wall mocked his own tiny world,
a damp house on a soulless estate where no-one was proud to live.
This place, this life, had nothing to give,
a thousand times he wished he had the money to get away.
But there were no jobs for the likes of him.
He was smart but had no qualifications to prove it.
He’d well and truly sunk in a sink school,
even had there been a life-belt
no-one had cared enough to throw it.

The map on the wall ignited his imagination.
His head went to places his feet itched to follow.
He savoured the names as he whispered them:
Naples, Nairobi, Zanzibar, Seskatchewan.
In his daydreams he picked spices, mangoes, tea,
bartered for silks in a Casablancan souk,
imagining how it would feel to be free.

In the end if was utter desperation made him do it,
but it was the only way.
When the police came knocking on his door
he went quietly and they wondered at his smile.
He humbly explained that the stolen money was gone,
he understood he’d be put away for quite a while.

The map on the wall is his prized possession,
an escape from a space measuring eight by twelve.
They expect the system will break him any day
but they don’t know
that while his body lies on the hard narrow bed
his spirit is dancing a thousand miles away.

With good behaviour he’ll be out in six months,
and he will do what he must.
He won’t be returning to that shabby estate.
He’ll head for where he buried the bag,
retrieve the money and go.
They won’t see him for dust.


GONE but not departed

Ethereal thoughts and hazy memories
sway in your mind
like a field of wild flowers
in a soft breeze

Are you thinking of me?

Your heart goes on beating,
your lungs go on breathing,
but the machines merely imprison a soul
that yearns to fly.

Now you are slipping into my dreams
whispering how time has stopped for you,
that you are suspended between two worlds,
gone but not departed.

It is time to set you free.


GREEN

When they come for us
we shall be wearing Nature’s colours
They have bulldozers and chainsaws
while our only weapons are passion
and placards
but like blunt arrows let fly against steel
mere words fall useless to the ground
and passion alone cannot save the rain forest

Mother Earth stands by our side
and even she is weeping

Why can’t they understand
that all we want is a safe, clean world
for our children?


GRIEVING

I’m trying hard to understand
why I can’t reach out and touch your hand

I know you’re never far away
and though you visit you cannot stay

So could it be that distant sigh
you calling my name as you pass by?

Could it be that breath of air
your gentle fingers ruffling my hair?

The pain is like searing burn
the price of loving you and being loved in return


HEALER HEAL THYSELF

Struck twice by lightning her dark eyes saw angels,
they gave her pale hands the gift of healing

for a while she felt blessed

She walked the planet, but there were too many people
begging for a cure, too many people draining her life force away

The gift turned to poison as the desperate and despairing
clawed at her or held out their children for just one touch

the gift had become a curse

Now she sits in shop doorways
now she is the one begging

Coins fall chinking in the hat on the pavement
while her healing hands stay hidden


HOLIDAY ROMANCE

you open and close
your eyes with the tide
breaking waves
pound at your pride
his promises lie torn
at your naked feet
thinking of him
is bitter sweet
you gave yourself
on the salty dunes
how long will it take
to heal your wounds?
you call his name
only a seagull replies
you were another victim
of his practised lies


HUNGRY

We’re hungry, we say to the moon
but the moon stares back
an eye in the sky with no reply,
as cruel in its coldness
as the sun with its killing heat.
So we go on praying to the gods.

The sun rises and the earth bakes.
We huddle in our huts,
wailing over the ruined crops,
tired after the midnight sacrifice
that went unheard yet again.
Some dare whisper,
Are we praying to the right gods?

The moon waxes and wanes
and we are on our knees again,
spilling useless blood
while day after day
we and our children starve.
The whispers grow louder:
We are praying to the wrong gods.


IRRECONCILABLE DIFFERENCES

Pleading waves recede unheeded
as he walks along the shore.
He knows his love is waiting
but his heart is breaking,
for they can’t go on any more.

From the sea she watches him,
sees the message in his tears
and in the dragging of his feet.
How can her heart continue to beat
if they have no more days and years?

They come together at their secret place,
hold tight as they face what they must.
Their utopia ever was as brittle as glass.
The sorry sky weeps a shower of stars
for hopes that have crumbled to dust.

When the sun rises on a new dawn
they force their hearts to freeze.
With a flick of her tail she is away,
the spray swallowing her goodbye.
His farewell floats away on the breeze.


LIFESTYLE

lifestyle pic

She offers me tea
I want coffee but know better than to say so.
I know that the water will be filtered.
The teapot is superfluous
for a bag that has a tag attached
saying to brew for five minutes
or to taste.
She puts out homemade biscuits,
sugar-free and likely vegan, I’m sure.
But I’ll endure.

The cup is placed at my elbow
on a sustainably-sourced cork mat
that protects the mahogany table.
She is careful to tell me the wood
is from managed rainforests.
The tea is muddy green, smelling of nettles.

I sip and nibble and smile,
looking forward to the not-so-noble comforts
of my own plastic-filled home.
I’ll open a tin of cookies,
put the kettle on to steam.
I’ll make myself a cup of coffee,
with two sugars
and lashings of real cream.


 

MINDSICK

I was ill once
my world turned upside down
I remember when it happened
you looked at me and frowned

I was ill once
something went wrong in my head
I lost my grip on reality
you looked at me with dread

I was ill once
but I’m much better today
I came to say hello to you
but you turned your face away


NATURAL ALCHEMY

nat alchemy pic

Dandelions unravel
their seeds of silvery down
and like dancers in delicate tutus
they spin and prance
to their destiny.
A wonder to behold,
these dandelion ballerinas,
skimming on air
to land somewhere
where they will grow
by Nature’s command
into flowers of glorious gold.


NEGLECTED

This morning I noticed a brooding quality
about my curtains.
Years they have hung there,
opened and closed,
closed and opened
with nothing to say.

But today
there is a certain something
that alerts me to their dissatisfaction.

And like a chain reaction
the carpets are joining in.
so too the bookshelves,
table tops and other surfaces.
All my possessions are loudly objecting
to the weight of grime and dust.

Seems I have betrayed their trust.
I had no idea inanimate objects
could be so eloquently angry.
But there’s no mistaking their meaning.
It’s time for some serious cleaning!


PHILOSOPHY CAFE

Huddled in a cafe in a rain-slicked street,
refusing to even contemplate defeat,
old philosophers whisper ways
to put the world to rights.
They know danger lurks in sugar pots
and in innocent-looking spots
on the rims of cracked ashtrays.
They drink it in with every mouthful here,
exhale it in breath made bitter
with coffee, cigarettes and blood-freezing fear.
Every word might be heard,
soon might come the day
when those word-brave men will pay.

But that was yesteryear.
Now young philosophers gather here,
so bright, so lively, so proud.
Young things exclaiming loud
through wine-fuelled nights
how they will put the world to rights.
War is what they’ve read in books,
ruinous mistakes their forefathers made.
Never have they felt truly afraid,
nor cowered from gunfire in the street.
Danger seems absurd somehow.
Only illicit lovers need whisper now.


SCORPIO

scorpio pendant

He looks at the Scorpio pendant, says
beware the sting in the tail.
Such a tired joke. She sighs,
takes a sip of wine,
looks over his shoulder
at a more interesting man.

But for the moment this bore
has her cornered,
stupidly sure of mutual attraction,
quite oblivious to the danger.

She caresses the necklace,
making molecules shift,
re-sculpt themselves,
until a ragged form wriggles free
from molten gold.
Scorpions and Scorpios are not so different,
they both have the capacity
to paralyse their prey.

Still he witters on, unaware
of the menace scuttling across his tasselled shoes,
crawling swiftly upwards on his designer clothes.
Its segmented tail is upcurled,
like a beckoning finger.

She glances with amusement at his shoulder.
He follows her gaze and gapes,
silenced at last by the sight
of such a deadly creature.

She glides away, her pansy eyes
set on the other man.
We can only hope this one pleases her,
that he is as entertaining
as he is handsome,
for she wears a Scorpio bracelet too.

Beware the sting
indeed.


STARGAZER

She knew the names
of all the constellations,
whispered them to me
even as I lay in her womb.

She gave me a star name,
raised me in dreamy days
and stellar nights.
She taught me to always look up.

Together we explored
the secrets of the stars.
Side by side, gazing skywards,
we found joy in each other
and the eternal search.

She is long gone now,
and I wonder if she knows
that the day I laid her in the ground
is the only time I have ever looked down.


 

SUNBLIND

The sun must have been in my eyes
when I first looked at you
Bedazzled, blinded
I just didn’t see the secrets
you kept hidden
I fell hard,
breaking every bone in my body
only to find out
that it was all a lie


THE BALLAD OF MICHAEL McPHERSON      

Michael McPherson was a scientist person
who invented a rain machine.
Whenever a country was hit by drought
McPherson was soon on the scene.

In big galoshes and plastic mac
he consulted his charts with a frown,
he twiddled knobs and adjusted dials
until the rain came tumbling down.

One day he had a desperate call
from the king of a faraway land,
they’d had no rain for many months
and things were getting out of hand

They begged the professor to have pity,
he had to help them out.
They needed him and his rain machine
to save their country from drought.

So Michael McPherson the scientist person
packed up the tools of his trade
and swiftly flew to that faraway place
where a nation waited and prayed.

They gazed in awe at the huge machine,
gasped at his galoshes and mac.
They hailed him as their saviour,
the hero who’d bring the rains back.

Such was their faith in Michael McPherson
that the king had a monument raised,
a noble statue of the scientist person
that the nation hailed and praised.
For three long days and three long nights
the machine sent its rays to the skies,
and when the rain poured down at last
the air rang with exultant cries.

The jubilant people and their joyous king
danced and pranced in the rain,
and Michael McPherson the scientist person
joined in the happy refrain.

But I’m afraid there’s no happy ending,
for the rain kept on pouring down,
until the crops were ruined and useless
and whole villages began to drown.

Pour Michael McPherson the scientist person
finally lost their trust
when the machine just sputtered and died,
its mechanics eroded with rust

The poor professor couldn’t stop the rain
for the ‘off’ switch was eaten away.
The people turned on him in rage;
it was a most unfortunate day.

Poor Michael McPherson the scientist person
was laid to rest with his machine,
beneath his statue in that faraway land
where there’s perpetual rain on the scene.

Tourists now visit McPherson’s memorial,
their guidebooks providing translation
of the plaque at the base of the statue
placed there by a furious nation:

“Let this be a warning to all scientists
Though they be clever and kind-hearted
If you intend to tamper with Nature
Be sure you can stop what you’ve started”


THE FICKLENESS OF CATS

fickleness pic

I acquired her some years ago,
he moved in a little later.
He preferred dogs, he said
but Cat soon won him over.
It was a matter of feline pride.

My man and me, we have our differences.
He likes steaks and hamburgers,
I eat stews of lentils and herbs.
Mouth full, he speaks freely,
his grammar lively but not always accurate.
I chew slowly, concentrating
on my adjectives and verbs.
Cat always sits by his chair.
She knows whose plate
to beg scraps from.

In the evenings we sit side by side,
holding hands while we watch TV.
He loves sport and action movies,
I prefer documentaries
about things like GM foods and BSE,
things he doesn’t like me to mention.
Cat leaps onto his lap, circles and settles.
I reach out to stroke her,
but I think she senses my tension.

He sleeps on the right-hand side,
dreams swiftly sweeping away
the minor worries of his day.
I lie awake fretting about whether the bed
meets the criteria of Feng Shui.
Cat always sleeps at his feet,
disliking my insomniac manoeuvres.

We manage to co-habit in harmony.
living proof that incompatibility
is no deterrent to love.
But I know that if ever he were to leave,
my house as well as my heart
would be empty,
for Cat has shown where her loyalties lie.
She would go with him.


 

WAR & SOAP

A wet Sunday afternoon,
nothing to do but watch TV,
633 squadron and a cup of tea.
Isn’t that the man from Coronation Street,
the one that owns the factory?

The theme music still stirs,
I’ll be humming it for hours.
Celluloid death still moves me
but I won’t lose sleep over it
because it isn’t real.
It is still raining so I’m not going anywhere.
What is the name of that actor?

He looks good in uniform,
RAF blue reflecting in his eyes.
If I’d been a rear-gunner,
shooting the enemy down in flames,
I’d have wanted him
to be a crew-mate.

But I don’t have to worry
about things like that.
War is professional now.
Computer-controlled lasers,
remote-controlled drones.

The film finishes at five.
I’ll have time to prepare dinner
and pour myself a glass of wine.
I’ve got until seven-thirty
before Eastenders starts
and at nine there’ll be another film,
a romance this time.

Think I’ll skip the news tonight.
There’s bound to be real war somewhere,
and I don’t want to hear about it
or see real-time pictures
of real-time killing.
I need my sleep tonight.

(if you need to know, the actor’s name is Johnny Briggs)


WATERCOLOUR

Out of the darkness of a stretched canvas
he paints his watercolour world
the sky dazzles
the trees astonish
Nature could learn from him

He paints a woman in a sea-green dress
arms open wide, scarlet mouth laughing
I didn’t know it was possible
to convey such exquisite joy
with a sable brush

Now he caresses her hair
with a tender touch of gold
and I can’t help but sigh

He pauses, silent, waiting,
knowing that I don’t see
what his eyes see

Because the woman in the painting
that radiant, beautiful woman is me
and I don’t know her at all


WOMAN SCORNED

woman scorned pic

Handy with a kitchen knife
I twice tried to end a life
Attempted murder, but he survived
Tried suicide, but I’m still alive

They decreed I was far from well
and locked me in this padded cell
Mad and bad, abandoned here
Haunted by images, horribly clear

Not-quite-snuff-movies in my head
Stab and slash scenes, oh! how he bled
So much gore and blood and stuff
that turned out not to be enough

I wonder does he think of me
imprisoned for life while he runs free
I’m sure he thanks his lucky stars
while simpering women admire his scars


YETI

The footprints are not human.
Pulling notebook and pen from his pocket
he jots down measurements

and prepares to take photographs
and plaster casts before the snow
obliterates them and as he works he

imagines the hordes of scientists
and sightseers who’ll flock here
He thinks of fame and glory, until

a sound makes him glance up
It is everything he thought it would be
and so much more. Slowly

he raises the camera, adjusts the focus
on the fantastic face staring back at him
But no picture is taken, because

something in the eyes stills his hand
A message is wordlessly conveyed,
profound and desperate, before

it is gone, lost in the swirling snow.
Amazed, understanding dawns
and he knows he has a duty to

tear the pages from his notebook
and rip them into tiny fragments
He must let it all go, even though

it means there will be no fame, no glory.
But if he were to die this very minute
he’d die a very happy man


COFFEE & OUZO

coffee & ouzo pic

Sitting on the terrace sipping
bitter coffee, long cold,
he waits for the hibiscus flower
to raise its scarlet face to the sun.
In his kitchen dirty dishes
fuel happy flies
and a forgotten broom
gathers dust to itself
in a dark corner.
Even when the sun is shaking hands
with the twilight sky
and the hibiscus has furled itself away
like a partisan flag hiding its colours,
he is still there.
A glass of ouzo now rests
beside the coffee cup,
oozing aniseed his tongue
no longer tastes.
Behind his milky eyes
play a thousand memories,
sepia images of wild mountain passes,
of guns, of glory,
of men made brave by circumstance
and a common cause.
He will always remember.
Nor will he ever forget
the beautiful face
that grew sad and empty
for the children that never came.
Now she and his comrades
are close, waiting.
He is just biding his time
with coffee and ouzo.


DIASPORA

diaspora pic

Day after patient day she’d sat beneath
the ancient vine shelling almonds
one by delicate one.
Now the aromas of vanilla and cinnamon
drift from her kitchen
to dance on shady leaves.
That vine has shared the secrets
of generations past but
will know little of generations future,
for their home is another country.
Today she is baking biscuits,
a once a year ritual
because her children are coming
with their children, and theirs.
Each year more come from across the seas
where biscuits are bought
from convenience stores.
Their faces bear familiar features
yet they speak a language
she doesn’t understand.
She can hardly see now,
but her fingers know the way.
Her biscuits will be perfection.
Just hours from now they will all be gone.
And so will her children.


KALAVRYTA      (pronounced kal-A-vreta)

The next four poems are inspired by a true event that needs to be told before they are read.

On December 13, 1943, Nazi occupiers marched into Kalavryta, which lies in the east-central part of the regional unit of Achaea, Greece. They ordered all men and boys aged 12 and over to assemble on the hillside that overlooks the small town. Led to believe that they were going to be forced to listen to a lecture, they took blankets with them and some food. In reality it was an act of reprisal for resistance activity in the area, and the soldiers opened fire on them. Very few survived the carnage.

The women and children were locked into the school, and the building set on fire. They escaped, it is said, because a soldier took pity on them and opened the doors.

But most of their men were dead, all their food was taken and the whole town was razed to the ground as the soldiers left.

The hill is now a lasting and very moving memorial site. The names of those who died are inscribed on a wall, and there is a small room built into the hill where lighted oil lamps hang from the ceiling.

montage

Outside the school building (now a museum) is a bronze statue of a woman flanked by her two young children, dragging the body of her dead husband on a blanket. This was commissioned by the son of one of the men who was killed that day and a photograph of it is at the end of ‘The Woman’ poem.

I have visited many times, and these stories came to me just as I describe in the last poem of this sequence, ‘The Tourist’.


KALAVRYTA: THE MAN

We don’t know what to expect,
the townsfolk and I,
but we know enough to be afraid.
We are herded like sheep
away from our homes,
our women are taken elsewhere
to wait and wonder.
the young help the old
as they stumble on stones,
refusing to let them
be humbled by the enemy.
While bright blankets are spread
upon the hillside,
father and sons whisper,
asking the unanswerable question.
I can taste their fear on the air.
Looking across to a group of soldiers
my eyes lock with those of a young man.
His hands visibly tremble
as he raises his weapon.

With cold and sorry fingers
Fate reaches out and touches me
and I see clearly
what is about to be lost on this hill.
I push my son behind me,
shout a warning to the others,
but my words are obliterated
by the blast of merciless guns.

I am just one of twelve hundred
men and boys condemned this day.
I feel my knees give way
and I gaze down upon the church,
the church were I’d prayed yesterday,
the church where I might be buried
tomorrow.

I cannot shut out the cries of pain,
of disbelief, of anguish.
How has it come to this?
I close my eyes so not to see the horror.
My mind recalls with sweet clarity
the beloved faces of my wife and children.
Are they safe?
What will become of them if I die this day?
If we all fall never to stand again,
what will become of Kalavryta?


KALAVRYTA: THE SOLDIER

Sweat almost blinds me
as I sweep my gaze across bright blankets
being spread upon the hillside.
Men and boys are talking,
asking the unanswerable.
I want to shout out that I have the same question:
how has it come to this?
I can smell their fear on the air,
and I know that what is to come
will haunt me all my days.

I catch the gaze of a man standing,
his hand on the shoulder of one I’m sure is his son.
The expression on his face is as sorrowful as my own.
I know many of my comrades do,
but I don’t hate these people.
I don’t want to be here.
I don’t want to do this.

But the order is given.

With cold and sorry fingers
I raise my rifle, take aim,
pull the trigger.
The man pushes his son behind him.
He is shouting, but how can he be heard
above the cacophony?

We both fall to the ground
as the guns blast,
his knees giving way to the bullets,
mine buckling with horror
at what I’ve become.

I know that when I get home,
if I get home,
I will remember this day
with shame and rage.
I will forever curse the men
who dragged me to war
and brought me to my knees
in Kalavryta.

photo of massacre


KALAVRYTA: THE WOMAN

Wild animals have scavenged in the night.
The sweet-sour smell of death
taints the cold December wind.
We had to beg to be allowed
to bury our men while there was still
enough flesh to know them.
How has it come to this?

The search is dreadful,
all of us trying to find our husbands,
fathers, sons, brothers.
There is so much lost here this day,
we are unable to imagine
how we will carry on.
Our homes and fields are destroyed,
all our food taken.

We struggle to wrap the bodies
in bright blankets,
the cold and bloodied fabric resisting
the contours of stiff limbs.
The frozen air is silent and still,
the ice-flecked blades of grass
salute us as we relieve the hillside
of it’s terrible burden.

With cold and sorry fingers
I trace the face of my husband,
summoning the strength
to take him home.
I wonder how I can possibly explain
this terrible day to our children.
Will they be so haunted
they will eventually leave
never to return?
Or will they find the strength
to rebuild Kalavryta?

kalav statue


KALAVRYTA: THE TOURIST

I stand on the hillside in respectful silence,
then, unbidden, the story unfolds itself.
I see bright blankets spread upon the grass,
fathers and sons thinking the unthinkable.
I close my eyelids, screw them tight,
but the images relentlessly roll on.
They will haunt me all my days.

They must have haunted the young soldier
who says he was forced to follow orders.
I see him now, his tired eyes widening
when they meet the gaze of a man,
the gaze of one who knows what is coming.
They lock, those two pairs of eyes.
The man pushes his son behind him,
he calls out a warning to the others.

The order is given.
The soldier raises his rifle.
Takes aim.
Pulls the trigger.

I flinch at the deafening gunfire,
watch, helpless, as the man’s
legs give way in a hail of bullets
and the soldier falls,
both brought to their knees this day.

Darkness falls.
The wild animals come,
but to them I am invisible,
just a spectator from the future,
held in horrid fascination,
longing for the morning light.

But when it comes,
so do the women.
A silent procession
that scatters on the hillside
as they begin their search.

What they have to do
is surely too much for them to bear.

With cold and sorry fingers
I wipe away my tears.
How had it come to this?

I will never forget Kalavyrta.

The Memorial sculpture