Infidelity, For Those Held Captive for Decades in Darkness, The Map
...After the first death there is no other.
When the hawk slaked down into the garden and entered
the chittering bud of linnets and sparrows
feeding on the bread crumbs and stale cereal, you
were telling me the story
of how you took it upon yourself to bury, as you would
in the weeks to come most of your own platoon, the young
German—the first man you ever killed—
shot on the concrete forecourt of a textile factory
in Belgium. At close range. With a single bullet.
I need to believe you spent the war
safe from yourself, in reserve, your rifle clean
and unfired; that you woke each morning
alone and hard in your own hand. But the tautness
of his skin dropped away like a sail losing the wind and the wet
purse of his mouth went slack and eased open
to reveal its neat, stained wreaths of change.
After the first death there were many others and they all
rose up through this one. Out in the garden the hawk
rowed up from the earth with its burden, leaving
a panic the colour of ashes and bone. A slim warmth
was caught in the fabric of his battle dress, there were twigs
and feathers of grass in his hair; and when you dragged
him the dark palm of the earth snagged
him by the heels and eased his boots off. But you were tired
and the grave so shallow and small his knees rose up
through the dirt. To shovel soil across his face, you said, dead
as he was, to throw dirt into the gape of his mouth and over
the pale noose of each iris was an act of infidelity
against your own humanity far worse
than squeezing the trigger. That night, laid out
beneath the empty looms of the factory, you dreamt
about that grave at the edge of the wood from which the knees
of a dead man rose like breasts through the dirt and when dawn
came you were ravenous for a woman. Not sex,
but the easy kindness that stands in attendance
whenever women are present. You are married, you said,
to the first man you ever kill, and then you went outside
to gather even the smallest feathers that had drifted
and caught against the hedge. Still, after sixty years,
the terrible competency of your hands. You spaced
those small feathers widely, like seeds, in the wet soil
and were down on your knees so long the mist and the sea fret
stashed their silver among the fine hairs of your jacket.
A man, however well he lives, never lives
his life well enough to justify the harm he commits
with his own hands: he bent at the knees so slowly, you said,
then folded forward gently, with a sigh, like a woman's dress.
FOR THOSE HELD CAPTIVE FOR DECADES IN DARKNESS
What if you had the job of erasing, filling in, and covering over the names of the missing as the missing were found and identified? Surely you could claim you raised the dead for a living?
—journal entry after visiting the Monument to the Missing of the Somme at Thiepval
For those held captive for decades in darkness
I rise in darkness and take up
the tools and utensils of my trade—the trowels
and tiny, flexible palette knives for pressing
cement and mortar deep into the hairpin curves
of letters, into the arches and alcoves of a name.
A name is a word and a word, after all,
has an ambiance. Like a room or a building. I bring
the dead forth out of exile, one
letter at a time. The dead, wrote Whitman,
fit very well in the landscape under
the trees and grass and along the edge of the sky
in the horizon's far margin. Well, I wish I had a heart
like yours, Walt Whitman, but I earn my keep in a country
where the bones of boys and men have been walking
for close to a century now through the soil.
Some will walk downward forever and never be found.
And with so many bones in its mouth the dirt
will never stop singing. And the living
to whom these bones belong must rise each morning
exhausted and homeless; alive but lacking
a small plot of earth beside which they can fall
to their knees and weep. But one remnant, one fragment—
a ring, a tag, the sod-stained, abandoned
chancel of a skull with a few teeth anchored in the sling
of its jaw bone is enough to build a shrine
beside which the living can finally rest. The earth
is our temple and our grave. And a heart won't rest
until its dead have tethered it in one place.
It's a miracle, is it not, that a man can trickle down
to where earthworms rummage through the earth's dark flour,
vanish into the cauldron of his own dead mouth
and spit back, decades later, his own bones and buttons;
that a man amounts to less than a handful of trinkets sifted
from the dirt's top drawer. And when you come here it is best
to forget the tourists and the students with their worksheets
and notebooks; best to pick a single name and carry
it inside you all day and remember how this
was a man once—a tall column of flesh—how his name
must have fluttered all through childhood
like a pennant about his mother's lips; how later,
as a man's name, it was taken captive and held
for ransom inside the willing mouths
of different women. One name. Any name. Any one name
out of seventy-three thousand. I take my time. I erase
him letter by letter until he is a whole man, a complete
body—not a man of war, not a warrior, but a man labouring
under nothing more difficult than his own desire
who lay down in a field and fell asleep
beside a woman he loves; the woman he turns
to and reaches out for, the woman who is fastening
the buttons on the bodice of her dress as she rises, laughing,
out of the warm grass, the sky at her back like god
in his firm, blue helmet. It doesn't matter how
we call the loved one, the lost one, the golem up
from the earth, or that our icons are breath and dirt.
Such are the roots of worship.
Lay down your silence, I say; take up your name.
Pile the bodies high at Austerlitz and Waterloo.
Shovel them under and let me work—
I am the grass; I cover all.
And pile them high at Gettysburg
And pile them high at Ypres and Verdun.
Shovel them under and let me work.
Your father's dead will not leave you in peace.
Last night in a dream you were back
on that corner in Xanten where Jenkins the medic
took a bullet in the neck and your father went down
on his knees and saw the animal
behind a man's eyes breaking its cage and departing;
and Sergeant Rogers, his hands blown off
by his own grenade, was there, tottering
through the rubble and pleading with you to please
open his fly so he could take a piss. And Grant,
of course, in pieces, a soft jigsaw of blood and flesh.
And when you woke you were thinking of Antony
weeping over the ransacked body of Caesar and claiming
Thou art the ruins of the noblest man....
And these were your father's men: people
your father could name. The body, your father
is telling you over his shoulder as you follow
his light-blue jacket along the track on the bank
to the place he's had marked in memory for sixty years,
was nothing, nothing: just a word to describe
what it felt like to know the world was lost to him
already. And what relief it must have been, then,
to leave the battle behind for a while and discover
the permanence of his own flesh when, in its loneliness,
he placed it down beside someone else's loneliness.
And slept. His fear, he once said, was not dying,
but that once all the dying was done there'd be no
women left who were sad enough
to take off their clothes and place their bodies down
against the bodies of soldiers. Smell of brine
and fast moving water, the whine of a car in the distance
climbing up through its gears. And your father
in his brown, wide-fit shoes, with a shine at the knees
of his trousers as if he has knelt, every day, for years,
in prayer. This is how history haunts those
who survive it: yesterday you were walking the streets
of Xanten; and tomorrow you will drive to the warehouse
in Alpon where your father, after calmly questioning
a direct order, stayed awake to watch a full moon lowered
like a host into the lake. And today you are standing
on the bank of a river, on the exact
square of earth where your father was shot.
But it's so peaceful, you say, without thinking: there are tiers
of cloud right down to the horizon and in the flooded
ditches the marsh flowers have all at once
fallen open. But it was the peace, he says,
I hated most of all: those times when it was so
quiet and still you could hear the chill, passive click
of a bayonet being fixed. In a field to your left,
the sound of hooves kissing stone, then a cow's long
sigh like a moist room. To have come so far.
To have waited so long. To find nothing beneath your feet
but the grass, doing its work. To glance back
as you are leaving and see the depressions your shoes
have made in the grass and realize you were standing so close
that your bodies must have been touching.