BOOKS / Out of Danger: Four Poems

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
A new collection by one of our leading poets shows that the tradition of war poetry is far from exhausted - and adds a surprising strain of love poetry to a familiar affection for the surreal, and for ballads.

OUT OF THE EAST

Out of the South came Famine.

Out of the West came Strife.

Out of the North came a storm cone

And out of the East came a warrior wind

And it struck you like a knife.

Out of the East there shone a sun

As the blood rose on the day

And it shone on the work of the warrior wind

And it shone on the heart

And it shone on the soul

And they called the sun - Dismay.

And it's a far cry from the jungle

To the city of Phnom Penh

And many try

And many die

Before they can see their homes again

And it's a far cry from the paddy track

To the palace of the king

And many go

Before they know

It's a far cry.

It's a war cry.

Cry for the war that can do this thing.

A foreign soldier came to me

And he gave me a gun

And he predicted victory

Before the year was done.

He taught me how to kill a man.

He taught me how to try.

But he forgot to say to me

How an honest man should die.

He taught me how to kill a man

Who was my enemy

But never how to kill a man

Who'd been a friend to me.

You fought the way a hero fights -

You had no head for fear

My friend, but you are wounded now

And I'm not allowed to leave you here

Alive.

Out of the East came Anger

And it walked a dusty road

And it stopped when it came to a river bank

And it pitched a camp

And it gazed across

To where the city stood

When

Out of the West came thunder

But it came without a sound

For it came at the speed of the warrior wind

And it fell on the heart

And it fell on the soul

And it shook the battleground

And it's a far cry from the cockpit

To the foxhole in the clay

And we were a

Coordinate

In a foreign land

Far away

And it's a far cry from the paddy track

To the palace of the king

And many try

And they ask why

It's a far cry.

It's a war cry.

Cry for the war that can do this thing.

Next year the army came for me

And I was sick and thin

And they put a weapon in our hands

And they told us we would win

And they feasted us for seven days

And they slaughtered a hundred cattle

And we sang our songs of victory

And the glory of the battle

And they sent us down the dusty roads

In the stillness of the night

And when the city heard from us

It burst in a flower of light.

The tracer bullets found us out.

The guns were never wrong

And the gunship said Regret Regret

The words of your victory song.

Out of the North came an army

And it was clad in black

And out of the South came a gun crew

With a hundred shells

And a howitzer

And we walked in black along the paddy track

When

Out of the West came napalm

And it tumbled from the blue

And it spread at the speed of the warrior wind

And it clung to the heart

And it clung to the soul

As napalm is designed to do

And it's a far cry from the fireside

To the fire that finds you there

In the foxhole

By the temple gate

The fire that finds you everywhere

And it's a far cry from the paddy track

To the palace of the king

And many try

And they ask why

It's a far cry.

It's a war cry.

Cry for the war that can do this thing.

My third year in the army

I was sixteen years old

And I had learnt enough, my friend,

To believe what I was told

And I was told that we would take

The city of Phnom Penh

And they slaughtered all the cows we had

And they feasted us again

And at last we were given river mines

And we blocked the great Mekong

And now we trained our rockets on

The landing-strip at Pochentong.

The city lay within our grasp.

We only had to wait.

We only had to hold the line

By the foxhole, by the temple gate

When

Out of the West came clusterbombs

And they burst in a hundred shards

And every shard was a new bomb

And it burst again

Upon our men

As they gasped for breath in the temple yard.

Out of the West came a new bomb

And it sucked away the air

And it sucked away at the heart

And it sucked at the soul

And it found a lot of children there

And it's a far cry from the temple yard

To the map of the general staff

From the grease pen to the gasping men

To the wind that blows the soul like chaff

And it's a far cry from the paddy track

To the palace of the king

And many go

Before they know

It's a far cry.

It's a war cry.

Cry for the war that has done this thing.

A foreign soldier came to me

And he gave me a gun

And the liar spoke of victory

Before the year was done.

What would I want with victory

In the city of Phnom Penh?

Punish the city] Punish the people]

What would I want but punishment?

We have brought the king home to his palace.

We shall leave him there to weep

And we'll go back along the paddy track

For we have promises to keep.

For the promise made in the foxhole,

For the oath in the temple yard,

For the friend I killed on the battlefield

I shall make that punishment hard.

Out of the South came Famine.

Out of the West came Strife.

Out of the North came a storm cone

And out of the East came a warrior wind

And it struck you like a knife.

Out of the East there shone a sun

As the blood rose on the day

And it shone on the work of the warrior wind

And it shone on the heart

And it shone on the soul

And they called the sun Dismay, my friend,

They called the sun - Dismay.

THE JOURNEY

Every girl has four vaginas.

Boys are one vagina minus.

In the vagina of the hand

Every festival is planned.

In the vagina of the mouth

All the compasses point South.

In the vagina of the dark

There's no decent place to park.

But in the vagina of the moon

A boy may swim too far, too soon,

Beyond the reef, beyond the bay,

Beyond where all the breakers play

And, like the snorkeller, turn again

To see his childhood flecked with rain.

For every girl and every boy

Seeks a journey to enjoy

And four plus four, and three plus three,

In god's numerology

Comes to nought, and three plus four

Comes to a bundle at the door

And they unwrap the wretch to see

Is it four? Is it three?

For every girl has four vaginas.

But boys are one vagina minus.

I'LL EXPLAIN

It's something you say at your peril.

It's something you shouldn't contain.

It's a truth for the dark and a pillow.

Turn out the light and I'll explain.

It's the obvious truth of the morning

Bitten back as the sun turns to rain,

To the rain, to the dark, to the pillow.

Turn out the light and I'll explain.

It's what I was hoping to tell you.

It's what I was hoping you'd guess.

It's what I was hoping you wouldn't guess

Or you wouldn't mind.

It's a kind

Of hopelessness.

It's the hope that you hope at your peril.

It's the hope that you fear to attain.

It's the obvious truth of the evening.

Turn out the light and I'll explain.

TIANANMEN

Tiananmen

Is broad and clean

And you can't tell

Where the dead have been

And you can't tell

What happened then

And you can't speak

Of Tiananmen.

You must not speak.

You must not think.

You must not dip

Your brush in ink.

You must not say

What happened then,

What happened there

In Tiananmen.

The cruel men

Are old and deaf

Ready to kill

But short of breath

And they will die

Like other men

And they'll lie in state

In Tiananmen.

They lie in state.

They lie in style.

Another lie's

Thrown on the pile,

Thrown on the pile

By the cruel men

To cleanse the blood

From Tiananmen.

Truth is a secret.

Keep it dark.

Keep it dark

In your heart of hearts.

Keep it dark

Till you know when

Truth may return

To Tiananmen.

Tiananmen

Is broad and clean

And you can't tell

Where the dead have been

And you can't tell

When they'll come again.

They'll come again

To Tiananmen.

Hong Kong, 15 June 1989

'Out of Danger' by James Fenton will be published by Penguin on 2 December at pounds 7.50.

(Photograph omitted)

Comments