No 1 - Spring 2001
The young Sinatra
For my father
you do not often talk about the ship. I find it
hard to see your young hands, blistered
by bombs and over-work, fitting guns, fighting fear,
exhaustion; find it hard to see you stripped
for action, photographs the nearest I can come.
They show the young Sinatra, smiling:
the morning reasonably bright, blue sky, thin cloud
drifting in the south, the dawn's pink blushes
crush the greening hill, the air like wine
dripped from the gods' high table; small birds
scour the leafless oak and scrub,
hunger unassuaged, the long day's foraging
a certainty. This is a day for mountains
(green hills not enough, though dear and kind, safe)
to touch the sky, you must climb, you
have always known this
intoxicated by sweet air and youth, you plumbed the seas
about Salerno, in a broken hold
patched badly, primed with all the rotting dead
of that unequal fight. The ghost ship
took you to America before the concrete yielded
its ripe harvest, water-logged.
You did not volunteer to scour the hold:
nights and days with those dead angels tapping
gently tapping, sapped the will for fortitude;
weeks at sea swelled blue incomprehension
in you and them, their bloated features
Now, when you meet old shipmates aged
by nearer oceans, you relive Salerno where
you might have died. You nearly did. Instead
you landed in America, drank beer. And yes
there were girls. How could there not be?
sweet Americans with nipped-in waists, red lips
their perfect teeth a clichÃ?Â©, and oh so different
from all the girls back home, whose mouths
held different pleasures, some clean, some rotted:
just like Vera Lynn with better teeth, you often said,
Vera Lynn, with longer legs, silk stockings
and uniforms that fit. Still, in America,
holding Shelley, Mary-Jo or Sue
you ached for Joyce, for Jean, for Winifred,
all the known names rippling, a prayer
found only in the losing, a hapless litany
Shelley's breasts were heavy, full
like Jean's; to shut your eyes, nudge their soft warmth
was nearly right, but not the perfume
not the sharp seductive scent
(Jean smelled of lavender, damp towels
coal tar soap.)
Sue was different, a laugh, her boyfriend overseas: Sue
waited to hear all about the England
she thought he was based in, over-sexed, over-paid.
You didn't tell her what you thought of Yanks
like you told Mary-Jo when in the drugstore
she ordered a poor black out of the queue,
dashed his basket to the floor.
You retrieved his meagre goods in disbelief.
The old man took them, disappeared
while you told Mary-Jo just what you'd learned from her,
her perfect teeth as white as Colgate could ensure.
You got drunk that night, your last on-shore
we still use the striped potato dish (Meakins)
all that now remains of the full dinner set
you shipped your mother from Vancouver;
cream and red, with gold-chased handles
the porcelain had travelled, like yourself, across the world
and back. They must have packed it well.
Not that she lived to use it. She did not read cups
for nothing, did not need the settling leaves
to show the cancer tending to infinity.
You nurse her through the last days, tell her tales
of Sicily, of Tunis, like the day you get some wine
crawl into a chicken coop, safe from military eyes
to drink the sweet red bottle dry;
she would like that story, help you
pick the straw out of your hair
follow you in all your wanderings
up white-arched hills until the harbour far below
seems a lost dream, the sudden square a surer haven
and you (almost too late now to return)
beg water at the shaded well.
The small boy nods. He has some English.
'Not safe up here,' he says,' Better down there. Look!'
Pointing to the harbour, he frowns, 'There. Not here.
Here, too many corners. Too loud dark.'
That's when you notice shadows growing,
silhouettes, hidden eyes.
'I take you,' says the boy, 'Down there.'
He leads you safely through the narrow maze
will not leave you and your mate (the Chief)
until you're safely at the bar you quitted
half a day ago.
Though you try to hide it, you both know this boy
spoke truth. You were in danger. He has saved you
for the coming fray, and all you have to give him
a cheaply spangled scarf bought for back home.
'Take this,' you say. 'Give it to your sister.'
You and the Chief have talked among the chickens,
talked of women. You saw none in Tunis.
The small boy bows. 'My sister is much honoured.
This is kind.' You reach the quay
board wearily to find the Chief without his wallet
(yours still safely stowed in a back pocket.)
No-one else on board struck wine, you are the only two
with a full set of hangovers.
The Chief nods, rolls away; not till the next day
do you hear he'd lost his wife. You'd wondered
when you found him drinking, in chicken shit and straw.
And he was there when you crawled in, a quiet man
who never spoke before and will not after.
you do not weave these stories for us, not for fifty years
seven years times seven, plus a year and day
of trying to forget the lurch of bombs in ships, in factories
erupting oil and heat. You toss your medals
in the sock drawer: we untie them, lose the ribbons
scratch the photographs.
Still, your navy blankets warm us all as children;
unnamed women in the shoe-box snaps
loitering below your vests smile briefly up
to be quickly stuffed away at any footfall
or creaking of the wooden stair.
You may have them yet, those English faces waived
for Perthshire hills and water's song:
Hydro days were hard, but easier in sharing.
You and your Irish love set proud sail north
to mountains stiff with electricity
(We still have the photographs we stole)
- 10th Muse
- Angel Exhaust
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- Cannon's Mouth, The
- Coffee House, The
- Dream Catcher
- Floating Bear, The
- French Literary Review, The
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- Global Tapestry
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- Interpreter's House, The
- Journal, The
- Lamport Court
- London Magazine, The
- Modern Poetry in Translation
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- Neon Highway
- New Welsh Review
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- Obsessed with pipework
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- Paper, The
- Pen Pusher Magazine
- Poetry Cornwall
- Poetry London
- Poetry London (1951)
- Poetry Nation
- Poetry Review, The
- Poetry Salzburg Review
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- Review, The
- Rialto, The
- Second Aeon
- Seventh Quarry, The
- Smiths Knoll
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- Tabla Book of New Verse, The
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