Featured Writers: Four Poems from ‘To End All Wars’

Parallels of latitude

In one version of our story, Gavrilo Princip,
.    named by his devout parents after the Archangel
Gabriel, dies in infancy – like six of his siblings.
.    In another version he survives, and applies
himself so well at primary school, the headmaster
.    gives him a volume of Serbian epic verse.
Roused by his reading, young Gavrilo,
.    born into a long line of subsistence farmers
in a remote Bosnian hamlet called Obljaj,
.    spends the rest of his life writing poetry.

Then there is the version where Gavrilo follows
.    in his father’s footsteps and becomes a zealous
nationalist. Expelled from school in 1912 for protesting
.    against Austro-Hungarian rule, our promising insurgent
absconds to Belgrade, where he soon falls in with fellow
.     revolutionaries – or ‘terrorists’ as we prefer to say today.
Gavrilo joins their training camp at Vranje but is killed
.    while handling ordinance the group was using
to rehearse their next assassination plot.

In a completely different version, Gavrilo stays in Obljaj
.    to become a teacher, who falls incurably in love
with Anna, the best friend of a distant cousin.
.    The embers of Gavrilo’s murderous rebellion are now
slaked by floods of passion for his bride, and nascent love
.    for their first child due early in the spring.
In this version, presumptive heir to empire Archduke
.    Franz Ferdinand and his new wife, Sophie,
survive the drive through Sarajevo, felicitously seated
.    in the second car of the imperial convoy.
Not the fourth, which is blown up by a hand grenade
.    thrown by the Vranje band as planned.
The intact royal car still stalls after taking a wrong turn
.    into the street where Gavrilo would have been that day,
ready with a gun, to accept this gift of fate – but for Anna,
.    who could have spurned him for another, and did not.

And so Kaiser Wilhelm’s never drawn into protracted war
.    by his Habsburg ally. The cousins on the thrones of Britain,
Germany and Russia remain friends for many years.
.    And Anzac boots don’t touch the shores of the Gallipoli
peninsula. Instead, ten decades on, squadrons of retirees
.    from Australia and New Zealand swarm from buses
every summer to trek the Dardanelles. To fill their phones
.    with photos they post on social media as proof
of yet another bucket-list adventure: this time the must-see
.    rugged ridges guarding open and as yet unspoiled beaches
north of Kabatepe on the Aegean coastline of a land
.    where Ottoman and Islamic heritage live easily enough
alongside western influence – in this latest variation
.    on our hypothetical narration.

Many of our travellers then fly on to France.
.    And after Paris they descend on regions like the Somme.
Hungry for rustic charm and local produce, they practise
.    high school French on villagers, who forgive Antipodean
vowels when asked about the choicest cycling routes
.    and picnic arbours – locals and tourists equally oblivious
to the treachery of tunnels, and the misery of mustard gas
.    and trench foot. And the abandoned corpses speared
on endless concertinas of barbed wire, lacing the horizon
.    of a ravaged swampland. One hundred years ago
in the final version of our story.

– Gisela Sophia Nittel

 

The Sestina Shot for Desertion

‘There is not a sign of life on the horizon, and a thousand signs of death. Not a blade of grass, not an insect; once or twice a day the shadow of a big hawk scenting carrion.’

Wilfred Owen in a letter to his mother 4th February 1917.

You were so young
and happy at first in the trenches of honour.
With no bugle or drum to sound your own beauty.
It’s a marvel your singing kept the tune straight.
Going over the top was a fizz in the blood.
All those excited, patriotic bodies

falling over the other decomposing bodies,
unburied. Maggots older than time in the eyes of the young.
Climbing over the top descended to a blood
sport.  And you trapped in the hell of those trenches of honour.
It’s a marvel your courage kept the bayonets straight.
Some see bullet holes as flesh-roses of beauty

or Owen’s ‘full-opened sea-anemone.’ Beautiful
loyalties face-down, kissing mud. Broken bodies
cleaned up by pure bravery. But history can’t keep a straight
face. Not when it comes to sacrificing our young.
It’s hunger for violence that lies behind all that honour.
Ask the carrion birds, those dull porters of blood,

what they think of the Great War. How the Hun’s blood
tasted no different to ours.  How the cruel beauty
of kill-or-be-killed pulls the trigger of honour.
Well, I have sons, and see no honour in piles of dead bodies.
Human nature’s a fucked-up sestina at heart. No young
doubt, ambivalence or straight

up compassion. No commitment to incorruptible beauty.
Just endless repetition. Clichés galore. It’s up to the young
to break pride’s spirograph.  Embrace the straight
line of peace, no matter the cost.
Ignore the compulsion to go round in circles of blood
for the sake of honour.

Oust the old men of power who hunger for War,
and then when they get it, take 6 words as gospel:
.   young
.             straight
.                    beauty
.                           blood
.                                    bodies
.                                           honour

then arrange them in 39 rows of cannon fodder.

-Judy Johnson

 

Raking the Powder, 1943

Every day I remove my ring, brooch
and bobby pins, draw the blue serge sack
over my head, tie the laces of my special
shoes—shoes without nails in the soles—
walk up the duckboard ramp and punch
the bundy to begin my shift. The powder
comes to me like a lump of wet clay.
I weigh it, then place it on a heated table
on a handkerchief of Fuji silk, as a bride
might spread her gown out over the bed
before dressing. Once it’s warmed, I load
the powder onto a trolley and wheel it
to the charging room. The machine has a plate
with holes like those on a salt cellar.
I slide a tray of caps under the shelf,
open the holes and brush the powder across
the top with a delicate velvet rake.
Push in too much powder and you’re history,
but there’s a war on, so I don’t think
about the danger. Occasionally the boss
takes us, the gelignite wrappers, the cordite
girls and the women who crimp the detonators
into the paddock for a safety drill.
One day he walked half a mile away,
dug something into the earth and marched back.
“This is what happens when you’re careless,”
he said, as grass shot into the sky and dirt
rained down on us. We were frightened and
terribly careful afterwards, but you never
think anything will happen to you. We were just
about to finish last Tuesday—you have to clean
the press and the pellets before you knock off—
when I heard this rumble. If it’s a pop
you ignore it, but when the floor moves
you know something is wrong. The blast stripped
the protective clothing off her—dress,
shoes, cap, everything but her undies were gone.
Stubble on her forehead like burnt hay.
Skin flaking off the way a dead moth crumbles
in your fingers. The foreman didn’t recognise her,
that’s how bad she was. I held her and said,
“you’ll be alright, love. We’ll have you
doing a foxtrot in no time.” She loved
to dance. She was barely conscious and had
no use for the truth. At least I managed to lie.

– Andy Kissane

 

Ilium

after Sidney Nolan’s Gallipoli Series

I

in the small shallows of midday
he bends to retrieve
fallen colours

slouch hat, bare chest
an emptied beach, flag against nothing
maybe a ship

out beyond the cut-throat rocks

walks the horses back into their shafts,
a ribbon of old picnic race tickets
worn as a shade to his dark face

smoke hazes their position
making the strappers nervous and sweaty
as the horses shift

II

the moment the guns fire
each horse stands
as if backed against bad weather

a range beyond human voice
attempts to hold the sky
to silence

even as it disappears

III

the horse is waterborne — legs kicking
neck a nebula in Andromeda
exploding shrapnel stars

he surveys the drainage
with its naked dead
the cliffs behind roseate and unhelpful

— it is Ilium unrecognisable

But for the crossfire
the man’s languid pose might be love-made
his naked face

untouched

as on a different beach, his lover
before the rain flattened
— or hit his left side

IV

cockade and plume ragged
the grasses on cold white sand
bend over their work

— driftwood in pyres

out there the ships are copping it

all the bright days, the burst
as swimming, they faced each incoming hit
of wave

their touching flesh beset
with exhaustion
bodies ripped in streaming light

— open
washed in blood, adrift
in limp animal-hipped shallows

V

in the act of firing a weapon
he searches for signs of the enemy
for death almost

beautiful

finds his slack arm holding lost shoes
drone and flash in all directions
the sky spilled

VI

into this two-up — unsaddled
the calm young
tread dirty air’s comet tail

the pillion flicks aside

one only is capable of moving
faceless, dog-tagged
held crutch and truss
to an armature of metal

they are parts of a gun
oiled to hollow downcast weight
of prosthetic

— weapon equal of the man

VII

in a moment of quiet entering the water
horse and rider are alert
for a trail of bubbles to surface

even here where rock or water belay
to knife point
the sea’s uninterrupted search

the world put in its place
distant, voided, cast into water
a horizon lacking solidity

VIII

they are limbed again, jaunted and weightless
no longer stilted to be heel-hauled
from open bodies of water

at play in some otherwhere

and the figure he crosses to
— already falling, gone ahead
dreams emptying like cargo lost at sea

the clean anonymous water
and he the sunlit swimmer
shield arm raised

no longer soldier nor anything from home.

-Angela Gardner

 


 

To End All Wars Cover

A selection of four poems from To End All Wars (Puncher and Whattman, 2018):

‘Parallels of latitude’- Gisela Sophia Nittel
‘The Sestina Shot for Desertion’- Judy Johnson
‘Raking the Powder, 1943’- Andy Kissane
‘Ilium’- Angela Gardner

Featured Writers from To End All Wars: Biographical Notes

To End All Wars, edited by Dael Allison, Kit Kelen, Anna Couani and Les Wicks, is available from Puncher and Wattmann

 

 

Listen to several of the poets included in the anthology To End All Wars read and discuss their poems on Earshot, Radio National