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Poetry Magnum Opus

Pro Patria Mori {Rx: some salty language in context}


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Votre diner, monsieur, tout a été arrangé

á la maison de cousine de ma femme dans Auchonvilliers.

I have already made the telephone.

Son mari est, comment dirai-je, une victime de la guerre?

Il n'est pas … tout a fait mort: a guarded look, a warning.


Les mots ne sont pas nécessaires.

Je vous remercie, Alphonse.


A twitch of the lips, a nod of the hideously scarred visage,

and with a grave revolving of heavy hips, he ponderously limps away,

a stolid relic, a living reminder of Verdun. Ils ne passeront pas.

Darling? My pale vision of English vicarage gardens,

Daphne, my wife, descends, appearing distinctly ill.


Has that awful man gone away? Yes, my dear.

He was rather done up, you know. Oh, Billy,

I wish you would stop talking about that frightful War!

What with all these people talking such vulgar French.

Yes, yes, I hastily agree, it’s a regional variation.




We share an open motor with Bunty Wilberforce,

once adjutant of the second battalion, accompanied

by a rather brassy lipsticked blonde, not I think his wife,

with whom Daphne is decidedly frosty. We arrive in Bapaume.

It took us five months to get here in 1916, slogging up

the Roman road from Albert, all of three kilometers.


The houses are still in tatters, all blown to shite,

and with the shell holes overgrown with grass and poppies

the landscape takes on a jaunty, not quite serious air.

It was serious enough back in the day. Bunty goes broody

and the brassy blonde calls out for tea: oodn’t tha be naice?

Daphne offers a chiily nod, Bunty glances criss-cross at me.


Oodn’t tha be naice, I grin, and he pulls over.

We are in La Boiselle. La – fuckin – Boiselle I ask you!

The Australian – Jesus fuckin Christ, the Australian …

Got a tinny from home, myte, the sister sent it on,

sheer bloody lovely grub, meat pie, good as Mummy made it.

God, it was delicious! But what are you doing in red socks?


Fack off, Pommie cunt. I could read what he was thinking.

I’m fookin Irish, all right? So tell me, so, yeh dangerous dandy!

Ah, the sister. But, Paddy, shouldn’t you be at home with your own lot?

We’d had the Easter rebellion back in Dublin, that was in April,

and this was July. Nah, aren’t we fighting for poor little Belgium?


Look around you, pal. He snorted and fucked off away to his mates

and that was the last I saw of him, but not his sister’s socks.

I picked them up the next day with his foot still inside them

and not another sign of yer man to be seen. Shell, more than likely.

Never even caught the fucker’s name. You never do, really.




Tea? What? Oh … sorry. I was away with the fairies.

You chaps fought over these battlefields, dinachew?

It’s Bunty’s blonde. Daphne is bored and inspecting her nails.

In a manner of speaking, says Bunty. He doesn’t look at me.

He can’t look at me because he remembers all too well.


I found him cowering in a funk-hole when the lads were going over,

crying and shitting his pants, not the first or last to do so.

I can’t, I can’t, I can’t. You’ll go over Captain Wilberforce,

you’ll go over or I’ll fuckin shoot you here and now.

He went over. So did I. By the grace of God we both survived.


He was all right after that. We never spoke about it again.

Now, perfect timing, he remembers. His cheeks go purply-grey.

I never never even think about it. Worse things always happened.

Your nerves could get so jangled you couldn’t think or move

and people did get shot for that. But Bunty can never forget.




We have tea. We sit in a convenient none-too-clean roadside restaurant

about which Daphne makes remarks. Blondie, naturally, backs her up:

the French don’t know how to make tea, I mean they simply don’t know!

They know how to water their beer all right, how to dilute their wine,

how to sell it to shuddery, muddy, very frightened Tommies back from the line.


One day I remember, you always remember unimportant moments,

since perhaps they possess, if no lasting meaning, an intangible grace.

Some French Hussars, mud-stained and weary, defeated really,

had come to join us at one of the better, as we thought, estaminets.

The eyes of the patron darted hither and yon as he begged them,

frantically, not to speak so loud. Then, as if needed, we understood.


There was nothing you could do. To be honest, you didn’t really care.

In two or three days you’d have to go back up the line.

Fuck these people. In fact, we absolutely hated the French.

The lads murdered a few dozen, I know, some of them out of spite,

and there was never a court martial. We reserved that for our own.




The War showed no sign of ending: it went on and on and on

and on, and the married lads in the platoon stopped writing home

and I asked them, the fuck, lads? and they said narra na point, sir,

Sure, won't we all be fuckin dead before this thing is over?

She'll be needin a new man to help her raise the chisellers.


They were dead serious. I got so terribly depressed after that.

Lost it, if you like. Before that I could talk to the lads

and now they wouldnafucken even listen! They saluted sharpish

in front of the British officers (Sassenaigh) to make me look good,

but they were way gone out of it. Even the corporals would say,

'Fuck's sake, Billy, step out of the way" and I would.


For the thing is, see, in an Irish regiment you have to DIE

before you can be accepted. Everybody knows that.

A subaltern or junior lieutenant is a butt of salacious and obscene japes.

You really need to expire, or else you do something so reckless and stupid

that people wag their heads and talk about it forever.


So that's what I did, by accident. I went and ... well, never mind,

and they chuckled and made me a Captain. Some talk of a medal.

The lads grinned (what was left of the ones I remembered)

and it was then Captain Wilberforce reported for duty.




Well, I don’t think much of their tea, said Dapnhe, distastefully,

to which we all make disapproving, murmured, concerned remarks.

Shall we embark on our chariot? cried Bunty, with an air of false gaeity,

and shortly we did so, after the usual accusatory fuss with the waiter over the bill.

The English are so polite at home. One wonders at their manners abroad.


I am afraid of this place. When we come to the crossroad by the tree,

Bunty wants to make the left turn up to the farm. Oh Jesus Christ,

please leave it alone. Don’t like this place, says Bunty, you don’t like it.

He is grinning at me, alone now, the two of us, a foul breath of wine,

because something happened, Billy, something fuckin happened, right?


He thinks I’m like him. He’s hoping. Well, no, it wasn't exactly like that.

What happened is that I killed a French guy, just some local farmer

who should never even have happened to be there and I’m sorry.

I was frightened. He stood up out of nowhere so I fuckin shot him.

I’m ashamed about that. My Great War: killing a French farmer.




Leave it alone, Bunty. Say nothing. His eyes go through three colours,

hazel, grey and blue …oomh … I don’t know if that means anything.

Probably not. Listen, here in America we don’t care about that goddam

European War. You can go fuck yourselves, all right? We saved your asses.

Blah blah totalbullshit. I love Americans. Actually, I can’t stand them

but they help you in in the end. They wait and wait, you know.


I don’t think I can face it. We drive up the bumpy road to the farm.

Bunty is for some reason puffed-up, belligerent, while the ladies,

keeping themselves to themselves, fan one another in the rear.

It took the Australians a month to get up this road, says Bunty,

with a twist of the wheel, but, hahaha, you know all about that!

What does he bloody well know? Why? Why is he doing this?


A young man comes out to greet us. There is a jolt of recognition.

He spreads his arms in a courteous way. Messieurs, Mesdames?

We should like to take a glass of wine if we may, says Bunty,

and in a lord-like way leads us into the sunken dimlit parlour.

There are photographs on tables, and on the mantel over the fire.

And of course he is there. The father. The man I killed.


Bunty raises his glass, grinning, and says, “Cheers, Old Boy!”




I think of Alphonse.

I think of his wife’s cousin in Auchonvilliers.

I think of the dinner she has carefully prepared for us

and what is the best thing to do.

Shall we go? Of course we shall go.

The ladies, the ladies

always like their food.


As for Bunty? I worry.

I can sense what is coming.

I know what he’s going to do.

I tried to talk to him, he never listens.


I hope he doesn’t involve that dizzy blonde.

No, that won't happen, he’s not like that.


Maybe he thinks he’s the only one

who lies awake nights, afraid to sleep,

seeing too many pale dead faces in his dreams,

hearing too many accents, too many stories and songs.

Drown your sorrows in drink, by all means, but the real sorrows can swim

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