I am a field,
flushing as the late summer sun
burnishes my golden stubble.
Listen, I don’t want your raptures.
It’s only a trick of the light.
To tell the truth, I am very tired,
and inclined to snap,
to bicker over trifles,
remembering the clatter and batter
of the overnight harvester
keeping me from my rest.
What used to take
three men and a boy
two weeks of solid work
in the Indian summer sun –
days of jokes, rivalry, beer –
a peaceful slow harvesting,
like a gentle massage,
very soothing to the soul –
now brings new meaning
to phrases such as
and getting a good seeing-to.
I am a field.
Tomorrow or the next day
I will be stinking.
People passing will hold their noses,
turn their faces away from me,
as I flinch and itch
and blush with shame
at the filthy chemicals
you have sprayed on me.
Before I know it,
in the fog of October
or the frosty moonlight of November,
you will come in the night
and ravish me with your
rattling machinery again.
Three hours on the spreader,
three hours on the sower,
three hours on the harvester,
No more haystacks,
no more gleaning,
no more harvest home.
I am growing into
a clapped-out old woman;
and I am angry.
I never complained before
and now you won’t listen.
You want to wring every last ounce
out of me, keep me fertile
long past my use-by date.
I am a field.
I used to be home to flowers and bees,
I sheltered small animals,
gave delight to sunburnt farmgirls
drowsing in the buzzing noontimes
amid the chitter-chatter of birds.
I’ve had it with all of you humans
and your shenanigans.
I wish the wind would get up,
blow as hard as it can,
and scatter my sorry soil
into the atmosphere,
so nothing will grow on me,
nothing will feed you,
and you will find out
that all worlds, including yours,
come to an end.
Standing in the kitchen,
in the one spot that interferes
with everyone else’s business,
next to the knife drawer,
in front of the gas oven,
by the cupboard under the sink
where the bleach is kept,
at a broken glass;
having no opinions,
being of no account,
wanting to do nothing,
stating no preferences,
not eating potatoes,
not liking the hill to the house,
not wanting flowers in the bedroom,
wanting it not to rain;
little remarks – only joking –
like barbs in the skin,
stifled sighs, of disappointment
at the state of the son;
the drift of these small years
silts up and silts up
until the harbour is filled in
and no boat comes.
Yet still the cups of tea,
stockings dripping in the bath,
the droop of geraniums,
the TV pitched to deaf ears,
habits of boredom
trailing their miserable wake
What’s needed to turn
the tide is the will:
the pills in the bathroom cabinet,
the loose bit of carpet
on the dark of the stairs;
or the morse code of
arms flailing SOS.
Two men on motorbikes
riding through greenhouses,
the roar filling our eardrums
as they come closer and closer,
stop right next to our half-raised tent.
Helmets off, hair tousled, grins,
hands held out for a shake.
Two men on motorbikes
sharing their sausages,
drinking their Schnapps,
playing cards by lantern-light,
laughing, telling jokes,
rolling themselves up in their sleeping bags,
roaring off in the morning.
Dad says the Dutch are dealers in diamonds.
When I grow up
I’m going to marry a Dutchman.
I’ll wear clogs and have blonde plaits,
a pushbike with a basket for my cat,
and a boat on the canal.
I’ll plant tulips in my window box
and hang my bedding out the bedroom window.
I pretend it’s for the diamonds,
but it’s not.
They were so beautiful,
so bright-eyed and apple-cheeked,
so jolly, and so free.
They gave me a sip of their Schnapps,
and it warmed me all the way through.
We’ll be grinning and singing all day,
my Dutchman on a motorbike and I,
we’ll be camping in greenhouses,
we’ll be laughing at the rain.
(in homage to Yevgeny Yevtushenko)
We visited cemeteries, war memorials,
clubs and committees of old men,
sometimes a school full of young pioneers
or a cucumber-growing collective,
but always more cemeteries, more
rows and rows of Russian dead;
we visited the millions who starved
on the streets of Leningrad, dying
of fierce cold and no food at all,
now a vast field of white crosses
poppied with pioneer scarves.
We were told of a suffering people
a noble and tragic people,
the very lifeblood of Russia,
congealing, freezing, for her sake.
The monuments were huge, on a scale
I’d never met before; great grey granite
slabs of propagandist art. What ant
am I to find them ugly as war?
Conscripts eternally saluted flags,
dead marched along interminable walkways,
kept immortal flames alight,
to honour all the mortal dead.
We waited in long queues of buses
for our turn to show respect.
Mostly we were accompanied
by solemn old be-medalled men,
keepers of our dignity, lest we forget
dulce et decorum …
We were ourselves a group
of war heroes, Canadian Veterans,
amongst our ranks a first woman pilot,
a liberator of Murmansk, and
some who were not even foot soldiers,
mere hangers-on, like me,
come with my father, not Canadian then,
and not a fighter either,
though a veteran (with medal to prove it),
a corporal who spent his war in Derby,
chosen with usual army logic
for his ability to play the piano.
We were tired, Dad and I.
He’d been sick on the bus, sick
every morning, not able to walk much,
no wheelchair help to hand,
no help of any kind from the guides
for the sick and the infirm,
who should have been decently left at home,
whether War Heroes or not.
On our way from the War Museum
(today’s is in the Hero-city Kiev),
to yet another awful meal
in yet another miserable hotel,
we pass a large green space,
a gently undulating, flat expanse,
on which a solitary babushka
pushes a pram.
I feel it in my bones; I ask the guide
“Is this Babi Yar?”
“Yes,” she says brusquely, “yes, it is”.
But how can this be?
This old woman walks her grandchild
over a site of massacre,
a ravine once filled with corpses,
thousands and thousands of corpses.
“Please would you stop the bus?”
I ask. “What for?”
“I would like to pay my respects.”
“No time”, says the guide,
with usual Russian rage,
“Not on Itinerary”.
“What’s Babi Yar?” says someone on the bus.
No-one seems to know but Dad and I;
and the Russian guide isn’t telling.
Here is no monument.
No crosses mark these graves,
No-one mourns or celebrates
these noble and tragic people,
these sufferers, these Russians,
We have to get to the hotel,
so that we can get our dinner
and be got to the circus by six.
Performing dogs and dancing bears,
the boast of the billboards,
are not in our philosophy –
we are tired, Dad and I,
we want neither cucumbers nor circuses.
It’s a while ago now,
that shocking time of Glasnost,
Perestroika … and Chernobyl.
I haven’t been back,
not even since the wall came down.
I don’t know Yevtushenko’s Russians,
or my father’s, I never met them;
though those I met were indeed suffering,
their spirits starving, angry, bitter.
No propagandist art can
sanctify the sacrifice of all those hearts
to war and government.
These deaths – of body, soul, spirit –
change nothing, mean nothing.
It was, and is, and always will be
an unredeemable, undignifiable waste
‘pro patria mori’.