Calais

My boy, I dragged you out
of our besieged night,
our piles of books and cupboards of food,
places we’d kept neat
for mothers and sisters,

because the years and the State
and the extremists
had turned against
those who think and talk and
dance with their neighbours.

Three times we’ve criss-crossed the ocean
in weeping ships,
seen ports brown as hulls,
walked brigand deserts
that plundered our coats
and expelled us onto
cold, dawnless shores.

We’ve caged rides on barges
taking scrap metal to Marseilles,
hooked our blind souls to migrating lorries,
unrolling the thinning strand
of life as far as Calais.

And no one once took notice
of two stray Syrians,
ejected foam of the earth.
Now we live on this edge
of an angry channel

where date trees would wither
under snow that falls like smog,
slowly erasing us from all records.
We scrape the animals from our eyes,

bum dimes from dark hats
heavy with hatred,
sleep in tarpaulin bags
full of damp families.
My son, I kindle the hope that warms in you
to keep me moving closer,
back to life.

But when you shut your eyes
to the sound of the trains
rolling out of reach in the night,
and I’m left alone with all my loss,
then I see only the walls that shut us out,
and the high fences
that pen us in.

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Lavender Bush

How you could snap
under the salt of these harsh seasons,
so near that you’ve wrapped yourself tight within
your softest colours,
and wear your consternation like old world dignity.

And we see in your hurt shrinking
from these sudden thrusts of foreign air,
that you expected to bloom in
the warmer hues of that land of baths and frescoes,

and its wandering troupes
who sang the birth of language
as they passed your dipping purples and translucent greens
that not even the sun could cast shadows upon.

Do you remember your weightless dreams
planted along those chalk white roads
that meandered from monastery to monastery
in the deep wine of endless afternoon?

But now, this antipodal sky,
harassed by its own southern sea,
sows its wild blooms, burnt too close by the wind,
all about you,
the bright laughter of unfamiliar flowers.

And your fragile strength, despite yourself,
like the quiet urgency of a refugee,
feeling your way through the crowds of unwritten faces,
to take a seat in their midst, half unsure, half fleeing,
yet utterly sensitive to the tingling newness,
the touch of a world that is yet to name you.

Invaders

I

 

They left that old land

hoping the sea spray

would wash away its gray memory

and its hatreds.

 

But the worst was to come,

deep in the dripping caverns

of those ships full of England’s castaways,

who coughed up cholera

and dead infants,

offal for the

green wastes of the sea.

 

And those interminable months

in the thick, wet air of that womb

waiting to be born,

what could they do?

Learn to read, learn to write,

a name, a catechism,

learn how to build cities?

 

Dreams could expand like lice

in those holes,

honey from the new land

would ooze in their ears.

While the dying poured into buckets,

their dreams grew hard and dark

in the stomach,

fanatics multiplied, intoned,

it is an empty land,

a promised land.

 

II

 

When at last

the choked exiles arrived,

disappointment fell like an anchor,

the ship was a gangway

aimed at a land

as untaught as the sea,

a slow lizard

dripping its own grayness,

 

and the settlers could only

huddle and dig sodden gardens

and starve through wet years

while the forests constantly leaked

and the rivers fell from their beds,

drowning their delusions.

 

But they had their hard dreams,

their grim books

that afflicted them like dropsy,

and with blunt tools

they built new Shropshires,

poorer ones that often caved in,

they grafted familiar

sounds and scents

onto the alien soil.

 

And at night they cowered

in their wattle kingdom,

clutching useless muskets,

as the native land closed in

brandishing its own weapons,

carrying its own unbreakable treaty.

 

III

 

By the time the first children

grew up, they were already strangers,

arrogant, rough, more certain,

 

the new land plundered everything

the parents poured into it

and returned nothing familiar.

Some dreamed of reverse journeys,

of second exiles.

 

And when it came time

for the vigorous, young colony

to celebrate its aged pioneers

it was hard to know

who these foreigners were,

the relics of a defeated, grey country,

who seemed, to the youngsters,

like strange invaders.

 

Copyright Ricky Barrow 2014