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The Lotus Eaters

This was after the war, or the war had barely finished,
the sound of weapons was still dying away;
               we came upon the neglected orchard,
overgrown but thriving, in the old compound of the farm.

This is what it means to abide, said the sage,
Bob of the Civil Service, falling to his knees
               in the last ash of the global cloud.
In that moment, when everything organised

stood in ruins, they were still scrumping fruit
in the unkempt plot, a pioneering association
               built out of the ashes of the war,
when the orchard stood in a good foot of the softest ash.

We came across them under the ash settling as if it were snowing.
I loved Bob. There, suddenly, was the redness of his heart;
               my grandparents, George, Joyce, Renate, Nick,
all gathered around the table, presenting their shining apples

to Bob. The gun was smoking in the silhouette’s hand
behind the blizzard, the first of the labouring shadows
               for whom we had fallen,
our eyes full of apples. You shot Bob. He joins my forebears.

Hello, said Pedro, the features developing on his face,
this is my wife, Elizabeth, and looking into his eyes,
               looking into Elizabeth’s sad eyes,
I did not want to get into the back of their van

or drive through the subtopian streets to their bungalow.
Elizabeth looked thrilled, or suppressed, with ash
               still on her wrist from the orchard.
This is Mercer’s Waterloo journal, said Pedro,
             
flicking through the brown sheets. But it is pretend,
I somehow hissed. Even in Littlehampton and Rustington Museum
               they are turning industrial tat into relic,
obliterating duds with authenticity by military love laser.

There is nothing that you can do, nothing to push the dead
and their horror back into the memorabilia that clutters the home.
               I thought longingly of the pleasant people
from the town and district councils, sitting like keepers of the flame,

like a panel of ancestors, around the table in their meeting room.
The last Westland Wyvern is buried in a ditch beside a Roman villa;
               the rest are baking foil, said Pedro.
I brought Elizabeth back from Canada when she was twenty.

But why did you have to kill Bob? To make another memory, said Pedro.
This gun is German but it lives in my hand. The leather hat of a pilot,
               Baron von Richthofen’s twenty-seventh victim,
the Baron’s feet in shoes by defunct Ducker & Sons, another casualty,

Evelyn Waugh’s feet in yellow shoes by Ducker & Sons, deep in the ledger,
stepping towards the Brideshead culmination, the private house
               pickled in common longing.
Pedro disappeared behind a looted Iraqi banner depicting Saddam Hussein.

Revolutionaries come to this country, it may have been hundreds
of years ago, it may as well be yesterday for all I care,
               and soon they are obssessed with mere reform.
I know a tonne of subversive people and they’re terrific people,

they get to love how the laws are covered with moss, they love
how men educated together look longingly into one another’s eyes
               and silently tell secrets about the constitution,
the glow of ginger in the smallest pot in a kitchen in Rustington.

Elizabeth fetched the banana, the clementine and the bar of dark
chocolate and secretly laid them on the mantelpiece in the hall,
               dwelling on the Canadians with roots in Worthing
and all along the south coast. I thought: they will murder me, too,

and this will be the truth of this quiet cul-de-sac, behind
the memorial to the man from Ford killed in an air accident outside,
               behind the damage done to events
by the passage of time. We have great, great people to remind us

about prioritisation in storytelling, Niall Ferguson and Michael Gove,
the stories told by The National Trust to explain its purchases.
               Pedro insisted I touch his panel of buckled metal;
there is no plot. I am not ready to stop now, I am not

ready to get off the train; in fact, I am only just getting started.
The best events in the imagination were all sorted like sweets
               by Thomas Malory
and they never, ever happened. Fuck you for making me scared,

Pedro and Elizabeth. This is my revenge. I’ve no idea
if Renate felt fear, Jewish, cowering in Romania;
               if that is what her best friend felt,
scooping the last cabbage from the pot into her wet mouth and reducing

the Latin teacher to tears in the insoluble Bucharest apartment.
I still have the pot and sometimes a carbonised map of the lost world
               appears on its base when the latest soup has burnt;
there are George and Joyce, released by love surprisingly late in life.

Nick, reading a map in the plane, saw a shadow move through the waters
and shook to think of the whiskey the living can taste in the bars of the carriers
               so released the museum’s prize torpedoes
but it was only a whale and boy did it blubber when it blew up.

 

 

 

Langemarck

The water of Portsmouth Harbour is visible through the slats of the station platform
as it began to rain; the yellow light came in and lay down between the trees
in Belgium; Britte appears walking through the drizzle and smiling.
She is the Museum Development Officer for Hampshire Solent
and here we are, meeting outside the dockyard in Portsmouth.

This is absolutely not a military museum, a graveyard;
it’s about people and the lives of ordinary men,
secret in their ordinariness, secret in the silt that quickly
eats up the light as it leaks through the surface,
the untouched firewood ready to burn, the enormous cauldron.

Henry the Eighth watched from Southsea Castle
the last battle and demise of the Mary Rose, caught by a gust of wind
and so opening her mouths, the main deck gun ports, perhaps smoking, to the Solent,
long streaming yards of the flag, streamers of bones turning
as the water darkens to the thickness of rich earth, the arms is a rose.

I was there as a child and even then it came home that nothing is a more fitting memorial
than to have a waste of space and whiteness to bury the members of your family,
to wash, and so perpetuate, the half-recovered skeleton with plastic:
nothing in the form of a black square, an engraved stone,
ein unbekannter deutscher Soldat, a pit of dark earth surrounded by black cubes.

Five hundred men were trapped in the ship and drowned in a jumble of limbs.
There are twenty-five thousand drowned in Langemarck, suspended in their descent.
If you look up from below, as if light were sinking like particles of sediment
through the block, you see the mad angles crushed together of abandoned
falling through resistant matter, rags of flesh long blown away.

I grew up smoking cigarettes outside nightclubs in West Berlin, though by then
I could walk freely into the East. This material that surrounds us, said Britte,
gesturing towards Nelson’s cabin on HMS Victory, the model
of a smashed insurrection at a mosque in India, the collection of medals,
is the common world in which we live, the inheritance which permits

amnesia. My father came round this museum and was very disturbed
by all the mines on display, as if they were inocuous.
Are you proud of the Royal Navy? No, we both agree.
Being German, I steer clear of the Battle of Jutland, she says.
Both sides claim to have won. This little flower bed, wormy and weedy;

a group of English cadets learning how to enfilade over the distraction of
black squares scattered across the earth, shadows cast by invisible objects.
The provision, the ration, is black. I return to the cemetery in Belgium randomly,
repeatedly, the words of my friend ringing in my ears: I did my iron in.
The beauty of automatic rifles is how they come to catch the round again.

Britte and I move north through Hampshire between towering, imaginary oaks,
Germany’s national tree. The yellow light falls in intervals across whole fields
and motorways, across the Roman walls of Portchester Castle touching the water,
across Fareham, which is known for clay and strawberries.
One lad bringing back six of them, the cadets laughing.

My favourite museum in the world is in Pérrone, France, I tell Britte,
L’Historial de la Grande Guerre, where they have French, German and British
uniforms in open, grave-like pits. The only comment on the sabres
of nineteen fourteen is the machine guns of the same year and every year
after. Later, the museum explains: propaganda was used to bring meaning to it all.

Historically, L’Historial  is built into a medieval castle where
Louis XI met Charles le Téméraire in fourteen sixty-eight.
It all adds up, how diggers at the Royal Naval Hospital, Haslar,
soon broke through to the site’s layer of disposed bodies
and there is a silent congregation beneath the turf of the Paddock.

In Bishops Waltham, Britte must explain that she is German.
My grandfather was German and he walked all the way
to Portsmouth from Bavaria, he says, laughing. But this, this was one
of the wonders of England, one of the most appalling concentrations
of iniquity and great wealth the world has ever seen.

The bishop was an entertainer and the king had to be able to get down here
on his way to the sinking of the Mary Rose, and let out his constrained girth,
his ample belly, after a long day hurting his arse on a horse.
The gentleman points through the drizzle to the ruin of the palace.
Inside the museum is an Edwardian cot in need of restoration;

a sweet shop; an array of bricks and chimney pots made from the local clay.
The curator’s husband has just died and she has achieved everything here,
catalogued everything, every name that could be remembered
is set on blocks that surround the flower bed, the mass grave,
but she swore that she would return to France if this loss ever befell her.

You make a cot out of wood and the cot makes part of the world;
you can move around in the room of the world
and know someone moved in it yesterday
and that someone will move in it tomorrow, or lie still.
Britte motions us towards Winchester, but in truth there is not much there:

just the enormous model of Waterloo, an unprecedented collection of medals,
the Royal Green Jackets, the Rifles, the fine line between museums and propaganda.
Tell me, what would she have in France? The best view of France
is from the pier at Margate, connecting nothing with nothing.
Here, she has the history of a village in her charge.

 

 

 

Painkiller

I woke up this morning and my throat was a bit tight and I wondered if I had another one.
But I had a cup of tea and a piece of fruit and I blew my nose and it was fine.
So passed Church Stretton and Craven Arms, Ludlow, Leominster and Hereford,
                              and this was not something I thought about long,
and the city of mist, unvanquished by morning, did not remember them,
though the burning water in the marshes is a land of dragons
containing whole scenes in which nothing real ever stood before a camera.

Relatively close to Abergavenny is a whole town owing its interiors to one man,
a carpenter. This white room in the garden has no ceiling,
nothing to defend the piano from the poppies that drift in their hundreds out of the sky.
                              What has gone into the past has gone into the mist,
and it is so much effort to get it back, like my picture of him in his suit of armour
vanishing up onto the Long Mynd as if he were not weighed down,
something smoking and dolorous in his groin. The bell to end all bells rings.

He has struck one and swings. Existence is not the be all and the end all.
That is precisely why I trained to be this nurse. That skill and these experiences
will help in every relationship, intimate or otherwise, that I will ever have,
                              for the rest of my life,
whether you slip me a secret by the fireside or wash with awe,
with a kind of gap where the halo should be, the feet of a dying man.
It is very special, it is something special when you go over the top

and you start to go down and suddenly you see the sea.
Going down to the sea at the boring, familiar ports is what is depressing,
but there are all sorts of parts of the coast where this grey beginning happens sedately,
                              when the land forgets about itself
and what extends to the horizon is a landscape you can still people.
I came to the boardwalk, to the reserve of vegetated shingle, and the glass rooms
of the shoreside houses were largely empty, but some contained statues.

That is why I lay for weeks, hardly moving in the healing room,
watching the shadow of the tree translate wind into light on the white wall,
flowers drifting down into the summerhouse, covering the piano,
                              the rigid Edwardian chair,
my Edwardian headwound. It opened as a memorial in 1920,
serving as a community cottage, as a hospital, serving poppies in the form
of strong, forgetful tea, in the form of holy smoke, in the form of fentanyl,

confused by synthetic longing for a home it never came from.
I can play one of Schubert’s impromptus badly; I can speak French badly;
I can read Italian badly; I even have a feeling for German.
                              If you investigate Florian Heinisch,
you will discover that he is a pianist of great promise and his champion,
Wolfram von Eschenbach, is literally dismounting from his charger as we speak,
his cape around his shoulders. Is there anybody there, said the traveller?

I sit at the keyboard depressing, too softly for sounds, the keys in my mouth.
I walk around Cardiff and I own the place: an excellent place for my knights to dance.
With the success of his tea shop, my father has provided me with so much.
                              I should be grateful but I am not:
there is a wall of sweetness before the sinking, fragmented island through which I live,
before the memory of war transformed into a tree by another memory,
before the Red Baron’s cushion, which he sat on when he fell out of the sky.

 

 

 

Princess Bride

It was the first wedding of my life in all the casinos of Havana
among the assembled kingpins holding Frank Sinatra’s hands.
It was not possible to discuss suicide or my most mortal secret,
the slow, doomy growth of my breasts. Too late? Too soon?
                              Blue cadillac. Pink cadillac.
I cannot refuse to analyze my desire, returning to confusing
my soft-shelled childhood with an enormous amount of cocaine,
sexual abuse, Marlon Brando and the starring role in a cult classic:

my one goal is to kill the man who killed my father, thereby killing my father
and regaining control of my extremities. On an evening like this,
with the John F Kennedy Memorial, the Air Forces Memorial,
the Magna Carta Memorial and the Lutyens memorial lodges and piers
                              all tuned to space like radio telescopes,                             
a tropical fruit descends into the Cuban ocean. It is so orange
and so yellow. I can almost make out my son standing by the Thames.
How can Runnymede and Havana have so much in common?

How can my body blend so much into my mother’s?
I am so ambushed by the memory of the playpen and my two brothers,
the bow and the arrows with the suckers on the end, my father’s suicide,
that I suddenly start speaking Spanish: you can tell from my eyes
                              I know not what I say.
My depression is the success of the structures I can see are ludicrous
and this, as you would expect, was a typical pronouncement
of my astonishingly blank teenage years, spent between the knees of stars;

eyeing the moss on the first memorial in the field, the floodplain where the barons
first forced Robin Hood’s nemesis King John to begin to dismantle himself;
standing at the ditch at the edge of the camp, waiting for my parents,
pleasant now, and directly blessed by god, who was in the sunset,
                              to pull up in their Volvo
and walk towards me hand in hand like a couple of saints. O could I flow like you,
arbitrary power, from the beardy fringe of Ankerwycke and the old yew
whose knobbles saw the law come down, to the waterline of the Panamax

stacked with blocks of cash as big as shipping containers, stuck to my back
like a baby or a jet pack or a bomb. When I smashed my hand,
Frank Sinatra flew me to Miami personally to ensure the rescue
of my dexterity at the hands of his impotent hand doctor. I gambled
                              and I couldn’t lose,
Batista having blessed the mob’s accountant with the rigging of the wheels.
Would you be annoyed if you found out your parents had lived
a fabulous life in Franco’s Spain? I would be grateful for the gossip,

then glad to die, proud of the wound. My father was a Bamiyan Buddha.
I fell into the spreading wing of the river, intolerably hit in the heart
by the wetness at the tip of my penis, the exhaustion of my buskin.
I searched in the quiver for more arrows only to discover I wasn’t Robin Hood
                              but a man in tights and a woman in a wedding dress.
The only thing that kept me going was the thought of being alive
when they discover life on other planets. Cooper’s Hill is too massive,
the amphitheatre at the top of the cliff, the source of all sweet myths of my day.

I wanted to be able to look at Heathrow from the highest place in Surrey
and see it all, not just the control tower, and see all of Berkshire and also all of
Middlesex. I wanted to wipe off the hot chocolate slopped by the fat man
around the bulb of the tea cup and to discover democracy’s first islet,
                              woken up propped on one elbow
like a roman in the vomitorium of popular misconception,
possessing the most evocative angle on a neo-gothic turret,
most rosebud, most snowglobe, destroyed with too fond a stay.


 

 

[Joseph Minden is working and writing among the collections, nostalgias, deliriums and silences of the heritage industry. He is currently developing a book-length project prompted by the imperial and memorial functions of poppies. Work is future or past in Stand, The Rialto, PN Review and elsewhere. ]

Copyright © 2019 by Joseph Minden, all rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of Copyright law. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the notification of the journal and consent of the author.



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