Sunday, 4 September 2016

Circle

A poem from 2013, written on the notes function of a mobile phone, which is my excuse for the metre sometimes being a bit of a mess.


A dozen miles since dawn in the frozen

Fog, and the weathered Scots in front refuse

To tire. I'm drunk on cold. No: more than drunk,

Already face down, collapsed in gutters

Barely human and barely breathing. Christ,

Can't they understand? It isn't human to walk

This far, this fast, in this tight, relentless,

Brutal chill.



The overgrown fields are stiff

With frost. It's too cold for snow, but they lie

Blue with ice under the clouded light of

A heavy sky. Storm coming, just like all

The other bloody days. Maybe something

More than plantlife lives in those brittle

Fields. I doubt it. Hope never got me far.

Still we tramp. The woman in front has new

Boots. All these Scots do. I do not. And as

I march on this tilted slither of cracked

Tarmac (the remains of a better world)

I feel the boots begin to give way. The

Same feeling as yesterday, the day before,

The day before, the day before. I glare

At the boots in front. Enviously I

Sneak looks at the jackets, battered leather,

Worn but hardy, shielding out the winter.

They wear goggles, masks, or stride in long coats.

I dream of long coats, as I used to dream

Of silk and silver. My own clothes feel thin

Beneath the onslaught of the air. Patched and

Woollen, they'll warp and whither in the rain.

I look nervously to the heavy sky.

Perhaps I'm not the first one to see it.

Above the dense and ghostlike haze of fog,

A shape flutters, silhouette before sun.

Some of the Scots ready their weapons. I

Almost clutch mine. But then the cry goes up:

'A Bird!' A bird! In these ungodly skies!

We haven't seen an animal in weeks.

She dives, she falls, a shadow in the dense

Grey light. And then she rises. One can just

About observe the definition of

A wingtip, and in the mind's eye one feels

The curved, hungry beak, the brace of talons,

The coiled muscle battering the air.

And then she's gone. She flashes out into

The whiteness instantly, as if someone

Had turned off a screen. These men see too much

To firmly believe in portents, but if

A supernatural joy is absent

From the troops, perhaps there's still a touch

Of succour from the sight. Perhaps the bird

Sated some unacknowledged hunger. We

March on.


They do not like me, these soldiers.

Fresh from Glasgow's wreck, with hurricane eyes,

They grip their rifles with unyielding calm

And stare at the horizon - as if Earth

Were a disappointing game. God knows if it's

An act. Yes, they hate my guts, these stiff-backed

Soldiers, with their thick and bitter voices

In thick, bitter accents. They can march and fight

Like rusted machinery, burning oil

Powering clanking, jagged veins. I march

Alongside these weathered, broken giants,

And they are rightly suspicious of me:

A slinking, weaselly English merchant,

Avatar of the ambitious middle

Classes. Yes, there's a world of difference

Between me and these Scottish monuments,

And we both know - that if the need arose -

I would betray them in an instant.

But at the moment, I am not a threat

And this blank-brained rabble of stern fighters

Is all that stands between my life and death.


A stop is called. Our noble protector

(The lovely Anna, clad in steel and scowls)

Raises her tight-gloved hand, displays her palm

To the assembled company, and barks

The order: 'halt!', and, with a smile, 'You've been

Marching since dawn. You bastards deserve rest.'

The troops won't even mutter gratitude.

Instead, it is as if the muscles in

Their backs relax. They have become aware

Of how bitterly hard they've slogged today.

Their frames collapse, as if with shame. Well, I

Don't feel ashamed. Why should I? They are quite

Aware that I am weak, untrained, more than

Debased by all this suffering. And so, alone,

I lie upon the ground, staring up at

The blank white sky. The soldiers muttering

Around me pay no heed. They have their own

Concerns, their own suffering to enact.

A man behind me laughs a hollow laugh,

And the familiar sound of dice on rock

Is heard. (I sold a fair few of those dice.

Amazing what luxuries hungry

Soldiers are willing to pay for). Meanwhile

My aching body rests and I commune

With empty air. No thought but my naked,

Unwashed face and the weak and distant sun

Above it. I can ignore the hardness

Of the frosted road, and without movement

My limbs rejoice. I almost fall asleep

But a spark of self-preservation burns,

And I remember that it's more than likely

That this noble regiment would leave me

On the road to die. Alas, one cannot

Pick one's friends.


My reveries are ended

Before the troop moves out, by a raindrop,

Exploding like icefall, screaming bitter

Murder through my waiting neurons. With

Grim predictability, the sky starts

To swarm with static as the storm begins.

Let the drenching commence. Anna raises

Her hand once more - there's little point resting

In the rain - and the resentful soldiers

Will themselves to action.


And so we march

We march, we goddamn march again, just like

Every other hour of every other

Goddamn day. As if the cold relentless

Monotony were not enough, this rain,

This goddamn rain scars our bruised skin. It seeks

Out and infiltrates each miniscule crack

Or tear or fault in the fabric of our

Clothing. I am marching through a white wall

Of pain. A white wall of pain, and my skull

Is screaming.


We will march for hours. There is

No other choice.


In time, my mind, afraid

Of the burning cold, turns aside. I march

Wraithlike, the pain real but distant. The rain

Is burning someone else; my thoughts turn back

To Glasgow, and gunfire. The docks piled high

With corpses, and the stench of burnt plastic,

As drones dance and duel below a blazing

Orange sunset. Pursued down burning streets

By the low whirr of a faceless monster,

Whispering through the air behind my back.

I trip and tumble, hurtle through the smoke,

Its dread electric mind hears the pumping

Of my blood, the battering of leather

Shoes on broken glass. A bullet drifts past

My shoulder. I can't breathe in this smoke-clogged

Air. Faster, faster, faster. Death will come.

I know it. And as I dive to the best

Of my quite limited abilities.

The drone plunges on, thoughtless, endless, free.


The rain has stopped. I can't remember when

This happened. Somehow, dusk has drifted down.

Somewhere, beyond the fog, the heavy sun

Is setting. I feel my bones crack under

My body's truant weight. I know we won't

Trudge much further tonight. Soldiers begin

To pull torches from their pockets, and light

The dark mist.
 A shape forms in the twilight.

It's by the roadside, some distance ahead.

And as the night gathers around our heads,

The fogbound monument reveals itself.
A wind-whipped ring of seven standing stones,
Grey rock, each standing taller than a man,
Each spaced widely from its neighbours, and hunched
As if against the cold. Their jagged points
Bow faintly down as if with age, struggling
To reach a vast, blind indifferent sky.

Without needing an order, we break ranks.
We pause, then we approach the stone circle,
And I attempt to build a metaphor
That fits the moment. Is this thing a God
That waits impassive for a puny gang
of squawking heretics for it to smite?
Or is it a forest in Winter, the dead
Trees that refuse to speak to us, dry lumps
Of dry wood that signify nothing? No.
These rocks are bones. I imagine, beneath
The hard Earth, an animal's corpse, long dead,
Perhaps once beautiful, or perhaps wise.
But all that remains of its life is here:
A stony ribcage breaking the surface,
Naked and cracked in the unfriendly air.

We walk through the field, between the grey rocks.
The cold wetness of the grass nuzzles us,
But there is a strange freedom here – a break
From the relentless road. The line replaced
by the circle; a reminder that life
Is not simply a thrusting towards death.

And I halt as I pass one of the stones:
An odd charisma in its hooded shape,
Worn raw by centuries of bad weather,
Draws me to it. I place my hand upon
This scar of history. With my finger
I trace lines invisible in the night,
Carvings that are immeasurably old:
The smoothly arching curves of bright spirals,
The sigils of the cults of savage gods:
This place is old. It reaches to the roots,
Of time, the ways of all men and women
Spring from gardens like this. Yes, this is not
A mausoleum, but a living room.
The soldiers mill and mutter through the field,
But are, I think, restrained by something here.
No blood will be spilled tonight.

The fog lifts.
And the stars reveal themselves: hard diamonds
in the Godless deep. The void yawns above.
The moon is an open eye, a marble
battle-scratched, prepared to fall. The cluttered
Watching sky will keep us cool. But Anna,
Builds a fire, and the regiment warms
Themselves around it. I am reminded
Of a ritual I saw, long ago.
But no matter. I am almost content.

Tonight, we sleep here. Tomorrow, we march.



Image Attribution
© User:Colin / Wikimedia Commons, via Wikimedia Commons

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