Tuesday, 22 October 2013

Ypres: “City of Peace”

Season of mists and melancholy, really,
Wandering through Hansel-Gretel woodcut Bruges,
Driving through the Fields of Flanders,
Ghosts crawling cross the brown-ploughed landscape,
Through Sanctuary Wood, Railway Wood, Polygon Wood,
Around the Messines Crater and Hellfire Corner.

I was looking out of the window,
Skimming Ivor Gurney’s Severn poems,
Then reading Owen and Sassoon,
Underneath the Menin Gate,
(“Pro Patria, Pro Rege”,
Or Owen’s “old lie”?)
Before I saw the names of the Glosters
Among the other 100,000 or so names,
For whom “The fortune of war gave no known grave”,
 “Their names liveth for evermore”,
Like the Singhs from the Punjab,
Who gaze in reverence at their ancestral VCs;
They stand there, scanning the Portland Stone,
The stone of choice for the imperial 20’s,
When, unbeknown, the British Empire
Was already approaching vanishing point,
When widows, sisters and tearful parents,
Would follow the paths of Kipling and Conan Doyle
With table-top messages to the glorious dead
Of our island race, its dominions and colonies;
Spiritualists and mediums radiating across the ether,
Across the regiments of newly hewn gravestones,
Across the adamantine Portland Stone,
(Shakespearian trope in an uncertain age)
To where the bones of the young lay in fields
That were not the fields of England,
Where the rusting, rotting detritus of the war
Lay waiting to kill, blind or maim again,
Or fill the varnished cases of private museums,
Shells, gas masks, belts, insignia, helmets, caps,
Machine guns, rifles, pistols, bayonets, field glasses,
Barbed wire, mortars, boots and uniforms,
Old Curiosity Shoppes, with bandaged mannequins
Standing side by side with a grinning Oliver Hardy,
And red capped garden gnomes standing sentinel
By the fox holes’ brackish water and muddied trenches,
Seven Euro entry, payable to the rich hard-faced man
Who still does well out of the war.
As Paul Nash said,
“I have seen the most frightful nightmare of a country
More conceived by Poe and Dante than nature...
Sunset and sunrise are blasphemies.”
But in re-built Ypres, see St. George’s Church,
And the museum’s filmic exhibitions,
(English soundtracks and German subtitles),
The Last Post,
That every night
“Sends goose pimples down my back”,
Said the barman at the Menin Gate.
And this is how they are remembered
At the rising of the sun and the going down of the same,
But what will happen when the waters rise?

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