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The War Graves

by Michael Longley (2000)

The exhausted cathedral reaches nowhere near the sky
As though behind its buttresses wounded angels
Snooze in a halfway house of gargoyles, rainwater
By the mouthful, broken wings among pigeons’ wings.

There will be no end to clearing up after the war
And only an imaginary harvest-home where once
The Germans drilled holes for dynamite, for fieldmice
To smuggle seeds and sow them inside these columns.

The headstones wipe out the horizon like a blizzard
And we can see no farther than the day they died,
As though all of them died together on the same day
And the war was that single momentous explosion.

Mothers and widows pruned these roses yesterday,
It seems, planted sweet william and mowed the lawn
After consultations with the dead, heads meeting
Over this year’s seed catalogues and packets of seeds.

Around the shell holes not one poppy has appeared,
No symbolic flora, only the  tiny whitish flowers
No one remembers the names of in time, brookweed
And fairy flax, say, lamb's lettuce and penny-cress.

In mine craters so vast they are called after cities
Violets thrive, as though strewn by each cataclysm
To sweeten the atmosphere and conceal death’s smell
With a perfume that vanishes as soon as it is found.

At the Canadian front line permanent sandbags
And duckboards admit us to the underworld, and then
With the beavers we surface for long enough to hear
The huge lamentations of the wounded caribou.

Old pals in the visitors’ book at Railway Hollow
Have scribbled ‘The severest spot. The lads did well’
‘We came to remember’ and the woodpigeons too
Call from the wood and all the way from Accrington.

I don't know how Rifleman Parfitt, Corporal Vance,
Private Costello of the Duke of Wellingtons,
Driver Chapman, Topping, Atkinson, Duckworth
Dorrell, Wood come to be written in my diary

For as high as we can reach we touch-read the names
Of the disappeared, and shut our eyes and listen to
Finches’ chitters and a blackbird's apprehensive cry
Accompanying Charles Sorley’s monumental sonnet.

We describe the comet at Edward Thomas's grave
And, because he was a fisherman, that headlong
Motionless deflection looks like a fisherman's fly
Two or three white after-feathers overlapping.

Geese on sentry duty, lambs, a clattering freight train
And a village qraveyard encompass Wilfred Owen’s
Allotment, and there we pick from a nettle bed
One celandine each, the flower that outwits winter.

(c) Michael Longley 2000

Taken from Michael Longley's new collection, The Weather in Japan, published by Cape Poetry.

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Tuesday 14 February 2006