Muir Holburn - Selected Poems

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SOLDIER BEFORE A CITY

 

 

i

 

See how the mists rise quickly from our fingers,

And our bright boots tickle the vivid morning.

Now before us and behind us lie many strange countries—

Pregnant with novel cultures, awaiting conquest. Women

Bake their white loaves in blackened ovens. Men

Who have been in circulation a long time, who have

Sex, wine and picnics as palliatives, prepare

Type file, despatch and publish many cheques,

Ledgers, dossiers, brochures, papers in a suite

Of little rooms. Exploited girls

Whisper sad promises at the uproarious corners. The fragrant young

Plan route marches along the corridors of their days.

Shy virgins are painting their lips, playing the gramophone,

Dreaming of their own fecund survival. Unwitting,

All prepare for our arrival . . .

 

ii

 

When our sharp spurs shall stir

Synthetic strength and agonised desire

In our horses, when their iron hooves

Shall smack the paving of alien streets,

Some will fling open high windows and wave and smile,

For they were restless in the old times and had desired change.

Others who are forced to make a pause

At the lunch hour of their lives, they will weep

Silently into linen handkerchiefs, murmuring:

‘Why did this have to be? By what plan? Under whose craven direction

Was such a vast assault permitted? At whose bidding? Why

When we have sown our seed and tenderly nourished our gardens,

Should wild young cattle break through the gap in the hedge, trampling up

The soft and liquid tissue of our earth?

Surely there is some great madness in this!

For the texts and the moralities that we can

Dimly remember—the Golden Sayings stamped in Gothic type

Along the margins of our copy books—

These tenets, learnt by rote, duly applied, (or

Applied as often as was practical and convenient),

Which we had considered to be the Thus and the So

Of Night and Day, of breathing and of the exchange of goods and thought—

All are denied. The splintering cacophony

Of horses’ hooves on Constitution Mall—horses

Ridden by youths thoughtless as children, wild and lustful as young duncoloured bulls, covetous

As Jews, heedless as Saul, glib as the Pharisees—

This harsh diapason spells the end for us,

A dreadful passacaglia of finality.

We tremble for the honour of our daughters and for the lives of our sons. Always

When our Great Fathers were laid to rest, or when

A Prince of ours had died, or an Infanta,

And they were borne along muted boulevards,

Stern were the marches funèbres about their graves.

What man was their abroad who did not feel

A moment of chill fear glazing his heart?

Did not tremble at the dying chromatic, the downward

Adagio? And this shoutinghoofbeatsmarching

Fires an anguish like that music for us—

Shriller, but more of terror for us . . .’

 

iii

 

Then there are others in the important sectors

Who do not share the city’s panic. It seems

They were prepared. These are not often seen,

But drive in closed cars among the baroque buildings,

Ignoring traffic direction, their dizzy passage

Unhindered by police whose eyes are focused

On the "subversive" who refuse to eat

The rissole of surrender. All day they sit

On strange directorates. We take their orders. They appear

To be the calm kings who plan the recurring drama

In each exploding capital. Persona grata

With our commanders, they send imperious telegrams. While the alleys writhe

Beneath our conventional terrors—the broken shopfront,

The raided attic, the gassed crowd, the burnt

Literature, they broadcast

Their popular imperatives: ‘Be calm.

Have trust in these weeks of difficulty. Order must be

Preserved at all costs. The conqueror can be squared.

Though in the fever of the mountain battles

We urged you direly to victory,

With information on his bestiality, close observation

Clearly discloses he is not an animal. He is human, we discover.

So go to your houses. Do not

Congregate after dusk. Observe the ancient laws; the

Conqueror requires it. Preserve

Our placid front, our we-can-take-it front, for which

We’re famed in our long history of defeats.’

Meanwhile in banquet halls they do us high honour

With piquant catering and wine from their hills.

Luxuriant men in bowler hats and gloves!

You I fear most in the overridden city.

With authoritative eye, did you chart out these manoeuvres?

Am I your vassal, you whom my arms overwhelmed?

 

iv

 

Then those who are crazed and crippled with their years,

Who no more adhere, or cope, or are personally involved or interested,

Those who resemble roses in an early winter,

They have fermented their seed, yielded it to the skies,

And they will not be troubled by an unexpected modulation,

Or chose to greatly wonder whether their petals shall be preserved

In the National Herbarium, or whether

Their seed shall have taken root in a different territory.

 

v

 

I have seen too the downtown of this city—

And this shall be the same. Its image brands

Deeper than composition of claret and cedar, deeper

Than the big men’s inscrutable eyes or the ageds’

Bewilderment or the respectable suburb’s acidulous regrets.

This is the city’s vital—lung and bursting heart—but all infected

With virus of sadness O profounder than

My own futility. Here darkness gathers on darkness and the needles of masonry

Sow gusty flowers of filth on the unravelling sheet

Of sky. The narrow street country where gutter and window slit

Emit the stales of death, death died each day

Without finality, with no shining utterness

As in the field.

      When I shall pass,

The blinds will blink and quiver,

Eyes seek cracked panes, eyes of passivity,

Eyes of strength assessing our advertised practice,

The vicious procedures of their enemies.

           Am I then

In this beaten and cavernous neighbourhood

The enemy?

     The factory gates

Open at five, at the hooter’s scream, for it’s

Business as usual, so the

Conquered decree in the conquered city—we seemingly

Find the directive amiable. The effective and living machinery

Disintegrates outwards into the shamed, damp shadows,

Baleful its burdened slouch, aware that all anguish

That I could bring is dull to the touch beside

The merciless birch of days, terribly wielded

By the black-hatted men with the technics and power

To shatter the delicate instruments of struggle.

 

Here in this wilderness of iron and asphalt,

Of compulsory effort and death between cog and blade,

Here I find, beneath the eruption of flaccidity and pain

Sadness because of men’s divine desire,

Desire for life, desire in such a surge

As lover or prophet or banker never knew,

Nor was ever dreamed of in their philosophies.

Desire thrills in these children’s fevered laughter,

In the blacking of steps, in the planting of window boxes;

Desire is their bone, making their despair

Never complete, accepting all retrenchment

So flesh stay whole and desire burn in flesh,

Or yielding flesh so desire burn more savage

In other hearts. Here is the greatest sadness, here

Where life must scramble on the degraded stoneworks, life

Stifled by smoke and drouth of sun. And here I must patrol,

A soldier, sinister protagonist of death.

Here is the greatest joy.

Here are desire and life; here are hot fires

In feeblest gesture of hand and eye and brain. Promise as nowhere.

This I know, being war’s traveller,

Having read many chapters of time and place,

This I know—these zones will be reclaimed

By men of such desire. They will alter

All landscape and remould my vision too.

Will liquidate the errors of my kind,

Will someday give me better tasks to do.

Here I am happiest in this climate of shame and desire where the city

Is ragged but sternly living, where beneath the scarred

Loose and discoloured skin, the fire is hard.

 

vi

 

You may think me an imaginative young man.

But I assure you this is so. For when I have laughed and lunged

Into other cities, it has been the same. The reactions

Have lacked variety. I assure you this is so.

 

You can see it doesn’t pay to wonder or to drift too much

On the stream of an idea. It is not to be considered

That we the Victors should mope and meditate and feel

By strange ways conquered. But somewhere,

Somewhere perhaps after you are given

The freedom of a city, or after you have felt

The brimming exultation of a winning battle,

Beyond and after all this I say—there is a pain

In the tired eyes of the women, in there mechanical warmth, or in

The hopeless gestures of our active enemies.

 

When I lie in bed, either at home

Or in barracks, I feel a thought like a tempered blade

Pierce the lapping darkness, shave through

The sullen textures of my mind, I wonder,

Struggling for the right word: ‘There is always

A defeat, always. But under such auspices is there

Ever a Victory?’ But it is no good,

Indeed it is worthless—thinking on these things.

Merely let us keep our eyes appropriately upwards—

That looks brave—or gaze

At the air embossed with comrades’ songs, or at

Each other’s lips, sharp with the glint of liquor, or observe

The thin mists rising quickly between our fingers.

 

April, mcmxlii

 

 

 

 

 

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