A String of Shallots – Pam Job

2013 George Crabbe Memorial Poetry Competition – First Prize
Adjudicator: James Knox Whittet

A child, I helped you string shallots, one by one.
I passed you the tiny parcels in their brown paper skin
to be tied in bunches on a raffia length and hung high
on a nail in the shed to last us through winter.

I didn’t understand this silent gardener’s ritual,
the blue concentration of your gaze.
It was another mystery in a house
where my unasked questions flitted like moths.

I knew nothing about your ‘war’,
Salonika and Arras; I learnt the foreign words too late
and now I run like Ruth across these fields of battle,
to glean, to grieve, imagining . . .

                raw flesh, dead and alive, filthy, all of it,
                acrawl with black flies, clouds of the Balkan buggers;
                drinking green water made me heave;
                shot my rifle through my foot, time to leave .. .

Then a wood in Arras, a shell blast that blew your mates away,
a wound you could have died from . . .  

                  singing, always tunes ringing in your head,
                  sucking mud, blood, bones  up with every step,
                  claggy boots, bits of horses, leafless trees,
                  Mademoiselle from Armentears, no leave . . .

Ireland, Dublin Castle – I guess you were no fairytale
Prince, come to save the land, or did they tell you that?
Although there was a Countess mentioned once.
You kept a gun from then. You showed it me before you died . . .

                   all the days filled up with rain, bounced back
                   off cobbles, dribbled off the end of bayonets;
                   left, right, left, right, shoulder arms, same again,
                   start at shadows of children, watch those dark men . . .

I’m left with place-names, flags on a chart,
but the map of you is filled with holes,
with roads that run to earth like foxes.
I string these fantasies of you on threads

of not knowing and every time the raffia breaks,
I’m back on that Sunday afternoon,
stringing shallots with you, in the blue haze
of your cigarette smoke, Senior Service.

Copyright © 2013 Pamela Job




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