Contemporary Poets: 17 Tony Harrison

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Tony Harrison's play Square Rounds (text from Faber pounds 4.99) opened on Thursday, and his television-poem The Gaze of the Gorgon (Bloodaxe pounds 5.95) was broadcast last night. Born in Leeds in 1937, his best-known poems include The School of Eloquence (elegies on his working-class childhood and his parents' deaths), v. (the vandalising of the family grave), and A Cold Coming (the Gulf war). In this extract from Square Rounds, Fritz Haber, Nobel prizewinner and father of chemical warfare, celebrates in rhyming couplets his creative / destructive powers.


With my elegant invention I put to sleep

The unsuspecting enemy entrenched at Ypres.

As my silky releases hissed and swirled

for the first time ever in the history of the world

I have to confess that I felt rather proud

of the simple device of my suffocating cloud.

The Prospero of poisons, the Faustus of the front

bringing mental magic to modern armament.

Lacework lassos on the springtime April breeze

wafted through the Maxim-shattered trees

that this spring won't see bud or put out leaves

and curled round the trunks like handkerchiefs.

And then the doldrums of trench warfare broke

when I cast over it my magic chlorine cloak.

The stalemate that had seemed so everlasting

I broke through instantaneously by casting

my green cloud, my magic silken pall

over the panicking troops and killed them all.

So non-violent the way the green veil floats

through the atmosphere straight into men's throats.

All that Maxim weaponry so brash, so crude, so loud

was brought to a standstill by a quiet hissing cloud.

. . . I thought as I watched my cloud of doom descend

that my genius would bring the war to a quick end

and by hastening the outcome I would save

half of Europe from an early grave.

(Photograph omitted)