A Broken Sun

You must understand
That it is easier than you think
To commit acts of evil.

Take myself for instance.
In medical school I dreamed of
Becoming a doctor
Among villagers in the remote mountains

Of Japan,
Such simple folk who
Lacked adequate access to
The marvels of modern medicine.

But then the war,
And China.
How can I put it?
I lost this ability
To imagine a softer world.

The strict, enforced obedience
To the leviathan of flame,
The soul-rotting acceptance
That this world was alight,
And life was the fuel.

And then, my own chosen profession,
As one who deals with the body
Like an instrument to be fixed,

Somehow this too inured me
To the obscenity of pulling
Apart humans for the sake of
My nation’s science.

The rot had set into the living,
Into those of us charged with
Ameliorating ancient suffering.
We told ourselves,

In dissecting our enemies
We were completing a noble quest,
To cure the bodies that mattered,
Our own, of tragic diseases.

At first, I will admit,
I felt squeamish,
Hands trembling as I cut open
Some poor soul, un-anesthetized,

His pleading, pitiful cries
That turned guttural at the sight
Of his own insides.
Who wouldn’t be shaken?
I was still human then,
Even after all I had seen.

But after two, then three, then four
Vivisections,
My hand became steady,
As cold and precise as the instruments

It clasped.
Had I gained some new plane of
Existence,
Was I beyond good and evil?

What, after all, was life
But the fuel for something
Incomprehensible, mysterious,
Beyond all individual pain,

Propelling us all
Into a future vaster and more
Terrible than a devouring sun?
Was I not merely an instrument
Of this god?

But then suddenly,
With blinding violence
That sun arrived,
And the grandeur was gone in an instant.

No longer a surgeon to the
Imperial Army of Japan,
To the men of steel and death,
I returned to Japan.

I set up a quiet and humble
Practice in the remote
Mountains among the villagers.
I specialised in treating the

Children of farmers,
Tuberculosis cases,
Whooping cough,
Sprained ankles.

I had a normal kind of life.
But I was no longer human,
And when I placed my stethoscope
To the chest of one of my simple hearted patients,

Even without a word,
They recoiled instinctively from my touch.

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A Woman Guerrilla in Vietnam

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You did not make this war,
but it came to you anyway
and it has cleaved you into a woman of fury.
It was the steel men
disgorged from the bellies of their steel beasts,

who knew nothing of
the abundant tenderness of your terraced paradise,
they were the ones
who spread these black scars across the bright jungle,
and tore the villagers from their earth,
scattered their bones in the ruined dykes.
They inflicted the black scar in your youthful heart.

Once, you were the strong peasant child,
girl of the rice husk,
arms browned by the ancient years of a limpid sun,
those smooth pillars of Vietnam,
which held up the beautiful cities of Hue and Hanoi,
the poet scholars, the plaintive music of the gulf,
the ancient palaces cupped by an indulgent flower.

Now, you have the steeled body of the warrior,
and your strong arms have learned to
wield their own iron righteousness.
The jungle is your skin and the enemy cannot see you,

nor does he reckon with the violence of
your threatened womb.
You will avenge the child, the child not yet born,
the hope of your Vietnam.

Gallipoli 2015

Three thousand dead on the fingertip of a dry old empire,
and they were just a drop of blood for the larger conflagration,
in which they now lie embalmed.
If it was a senseless war, universally agreed,
the bloom of Europe snuffed by a red frost,
then how much more indefensible
the loss of these young lives of a young world
ten thousand miles away?

What did they die for?
Tell me the return on their fields of flesh.
A doomed and arrogant empire, a generation without death?
Or was it simply war for war’s sake?
Very modern,
that love for a colonial boy’s adventure,
and uniforms for smitten girls, and the brotherhood of mud,
and the arousal of violence, let’s not forget that.
So, was it just one big glorified blood sport?
The World Cup on steroids and ten storey high guns,
a way of sorting out the wusses from the men.

Except, the men and the wusses all lie in the same stiff holes.
How can you tell the one from the other now?
What have we learned after going two rounds
in that bloody century of our brave new world?
As we remember one hundred years on, lest we forget,
a sickly tone of glory sneaks home.

We paint the glorious dead larger than life
in both their virtues and their sins,
colossus that now looms over our fraught tomorrow.
Imposing monuments, the blare of trumpets,
the fanfare and parades of the shell-shocked dead
hide a more prosaic truth;
we really don’t know why they went,
but we cannot tell them that.

I fear the nightmares of the past
still lurk in the cupboards of all nations,
dusty empires still stalk the crowded continents,
and there’s still a quick buck to be had in the cynical grab
for the spoils of the afflicted masses.
Everybody jostling on a shrinking stage,
lighting powder kegs for hot Julys.

And if it does blow up in our faces once more,
will we go off happily to other people’s wars as we did then,
bristling for the good fight, as loud in our certainty
that it will all turn out for the best?

At the exhibition on “our boys” at Gallipoli,
fathers point to the soldier mannequins,
all with faces like star rugby players, unreal athletes of a great game,
that any Sanitarium kid could one day hope to play.

Refugee

I cage a ride out of Africa,
a boat packed with war-torn emissaries,
a crew of blind, leprous kids.
Behind me,
only the afternoon of a broken sun.

Here, the sea alone, is sea,
time alone, can be without hours of dread,
air alone, without the indrawn breath,
and the sky, an arc into all directions.

Out here, what is state,
or territory for the unmoored?
What is symbol?
The ocean takes us all in her abundant folds,
like a flag or a body bag.
Here, at last, we are free.

But my fellow refugees
know no other way
than how to recreate ancient animosity,
and replay the whole hopeless farce
of our scorched memory
on this waterlogged plank.

Already the society of worms
breeds in our midst,
division of skin,
and words sharpened into toads.
Already the new world is old.

Those who die,
we slip into the quiet, waiting water
and watch them float like buoys
marking the failure of our diplomacy.
We could have rebuilt a country of love
on this raft lost beyond the dry earth,

a brief paradise
between the weapons we left behind
and those that await us.
Countries and martyrs revolve
in our starved minds.
We send our dead ambassadors
ahead to shore.

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.

Gallipoli

The boats left
laden with men and streamers,
and my son.
And the people, great crowds
that spilled down Queen Street
onto the quay,

held out tiny blue flags to the boats,
as if the whole city
wanted to grasp,
just one more time,
the fingertips of those
who had already departed.

Then letters came sailing back
over that same thread of ocean,
that all who remained behind
feared would fray.

He wrote of Gallipoli,
poetic names that
leaped from my tongue.
He wrote of fierce seas,
fierce men, fierce disease,
and the fiercer sun
that flung its own bullets,
claimed its own share.

This was not your homeland,
this was not your history.
But the men persisted there,
they wanted a chronicle,
they would rush up that hill,
they would fly headlong
into a myth.

And when the ships came home
across the kneeling sea,
he wasn’t one of the cheering men.
And in their own way
the crowds that came out were changed

by the holes in the parade,
the fallen confetti.
But they persisted in their ardor,
and made of my son
a nation,
and set him in stone
where I can no longer mourn him.

Copyright Ricky Barrow 2014

Nineteen Fourteen

1914 was a gorgeous year.

God out did himself.

It was a summer fit for

ennui, revelry,

jaunts in motorcars

along the Cote d’Azur,

the Dover cliffs,

the Austrian Alps.

And the nights,

they were sprinkled

with the laden scent of lavender,

the sound of drunken songs

on the Unter den Linden.

1913 had been awful by comparison,

rained all summer,

and the people,

cooped up inside,

played quoits

or listened to the stiff phonograph

squeaking out Caruso.

But 1914 was splendid,

with balls and picnics

and plenty of love-making

that June and July.

And the fields of Flanders

bloomed with a million poppies,

bloodshot,

like the revelers

who stumbled into them,

drowning,

waking up to a hangover.

Copyright 2014 Ricky Barrow