The Prison Camp
We want to prove to ourselves that we are lovers on the grand scale, tragic heroes; not just ordinary privates in the huge army of the bereaved, slogging along and making the best of a bad job.
– C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed
The songs are spangled with the consonants
of numbers, dates not written down, commands
that were, most of the time, unsaid. And we
sing them, humping sacks of sand uphill.
Each of us has, tucked into a boot or taped
inside his helmet, a story penned out in
an uneven hand. To be sent back home in case
some unfortunate thing should come to pass.
There is, in this, some thing gone far askew.
We want to march our colors, met with cheers,
to wipe the bleary mud off both our boots,
stand on a rock and decant our sufferings
and dare not, for we have seen other scars
on other bodies. Fingers blown away.
The weary bleary wounds that fail to heal.
The ones that heal too well, and are forgotten
and we disbelieve, for wounds are meant to ache.
We look on faces caked and cracked and so
we have no epics left to write. Instead,
We sing whatever song the others start,
and keep at it, and soon enough, it’s done.
And this is good… for otherwise, nothing
would get done in this camp. The fires of
the guard would grow cold long before the dawn,
and darkness would claim far too many souls.
I started out like that, a while ago:
just moved my lips in time with all the words;
but soon, I found that I was singing too,
in tune, at least, if off their time and faith.
They’re much too small, the atoms of the world.
The oldest sit and wait, as we slog by;
we think, They are entitled to a rest,
they look as if they are about to die.
We hump the sacks of sand right up a hill,
drop one or two and watch them roll back down.
Okay, we say, there’s lots more left to bring,
a bag or two more won’t kill nobody.
At night, some rig together tents and sleep
arm in arm, and touch others’ wounds;
and others of us sit awake and watch,
pretending not to hear the sleepers’ sounds.
Look at the soil: is it just meant to sit,
so simple? Not like in the photographs.
When rain falls, tunks against our helmets, soft,
we wonder, Is that how it’s meant to sound?
And then, from time to time, we heard the shriek
beyond the places we’re able to go,
of something wicked, maybe in the sky,
of something, but we’ve no idea what.
The wretched wire that lines the fencing can’t,
we vividly dream sometimes, be real. Let’s
Try walk through it, shan’t we? And we try; so,
more wounds, more bleeding. Nor the first time, no.
We dig through soil. Its dark and loamy soothe
makes us impatient. Faster with the spoons!
The quiver in us till a mine goes off
above; the tunnel wrecked; the dull retreat.
The random few with wild eyes plot away,
tuck into pockets bolts and screws and nuts.
They squirrel boards away beneath the floor,
and piecemeal, mad construction underway,
Old men in the camp chuckle, talk about
the last time any fool tried that way out.
They do not care to hear. The best of them
have no more faith at all. We will not fall,
they say through tears, and hammer, quietly.
They bind the bands of wood out, smooth curvings
planed to the style of hope that is in fashion
in this rank old place. I must admit,
I almost prayed for their success. I did
not, but I dreamed their hope at night;
a strange and wooden bird took to the sky
and climbing higher, piercing clouds apart.
The weeks passed inchwise. We began to think,
would we die of this interment? Or could
we find a way to see the walls as windows,
and find some means to make this prison good?
Nobody has ever slept enough in here.
One morning I awoke. It lay in flames,
already, all consumed. The young men blamed
the old, the children screamed, the old men sighed,
and then we slowly named the men who died.
We picked them out between the smoking ribs
of the failed craft. I thought them rather daft.
If that were the way out, then I should think,
we’d have got out of here before now, no?
The smoke curled up. It stays clear in my mind,
the strange and sweet absurdity of that;
the tendrils made me think of atoms and
the gravity that we cannot escape,
which holds us as an elderly sister might.
July 27, 2003