2nd Lt. Herbert Q. Howard, DCM, 1897-1918
Here, where the skylark rises wrapped in song
Above the serried graves, I searched to find
Something intangible, some part of you, long
Gone but still alive. Evidence, a sign
That you were more than just your mother’s tears,
A medal in a box, a scroll, one name
Carved on that panel weathered by the years,
Unvisited by kin until I came.
Just one among the millions buried here
Or scattered to the winds with no known grave.
Just one: a subaltern, a fusilier
Who left his home when duty called and gave
His life for comrades and firmly held ideals –
An end to war, freedom. Ideals betrayed
For war still stalks the earth, its death knell peals
Continuously above the cannonade.
The birdsong rippled back towards the ground
Which yet gives back the bombs and bones of men,
And in the peace of Picardy I found
A simple truth I had not grasped till then.
A part of you is flowing in my veins,
Lives on, was not destroyed by shot and shell;
Though what you died for has not been attained,
I must believe one day all will be well.
Maureen’s Great Uncle, who served in the Cambridgeshire Regiment from 1914-18
His Rocking Chair
The house is almost cleared. Boxes are packed
With clothes and linen from now empty drawers
And near your friend, the radio, I’ve stacked
Memorabilia from three distant wars:
A helmet from the Somme, a letter signed
By Ike, a tribesman’s dagger from Afghan,
And all your gleaming medals left behind
For me to cherish as their guardian.
I find my hands more work, sorting cassettes
Of music that you loved and played too loud,
And numerous photographs. I now forget
Your rank with P and O, but you were proud
Recalling all the countries you had seen,
The famous folk you’d met. You smile at me
From Sydney Harbour Bridge, standing between
Two pretty girls in 1933.
So dashing then; a welcome in each port
And broken hearts galore. Checking the place
I find your glasses; one silver hair caught
In the hinge, an inky thumb print on the case.
The doorbell rings, bringing removal men
Brushing past your topcoat in the hall. I keep
A smile upon my face, act brave, but when
They carry out your rocking chair I weep.
Something Missing *
A certain something’s missing and I’ve tried
To name it, but the words won’t come to mind;
Intangible, but nonetheless I find
The notion nags and will not be denied.
By contrast, I’ve a lengthy list of things
Of substance, shape and form that somehow strayed;
The pain of loss with time begins to fade –
Material goods to which I tried to cling.
What happened to them I may never know;
The precious book loaned to an erstwhile friend,
The antique brooch he gave me one weekend,
A lover I misplaced some years ago.
And nowadays I find that I care less;
Such losses are a trivial affair,
The sum of us is not invested there,
It’s what we are and not what we possess.
The process of ‘becoming’ never ends;
This sense of something missing is a part
Of the small and hidden corner at the heart
Of the mystery we cannot comprehend.
* Acknowledging Kierkegaard who emphasized something missing as the true
interpretative key to his life, and believed that we are always in the process of
I put the blame at Cinderella’s door,
her and that fine glass slipper, dainty feet;
such fairy tales have much to answer for.
I passed my teenage years convinced I’d meet
a prince, maybe the clichéd perfect knight
with firmly muscled legs astride a horse,
who’d know I was his true love at first sight
and beg my father for my hand.
no prince appeared and carried me away
to live with him in some enchanted land.
Most met I met were dull, none distingue,
predictably a lot were second-hand;
and none of them came bearing dainty shoes
of any kind which, with my generous feet,
was just as well.
I’m not the type men choose to idealize,
and I refuse to tune my heart
to someone else’s beat.
Evensong at Ely
The organ’s music rolls across the nave,
Voices soar in harmony, sweet and clear,
With measured tread, expressions aptly grave,
Two by two the cathedral choir appears.
Long shadows trace the carvings on the stalls
Where they assemble, gowned in red and white;
We revel in their singing quite enthralled
By angelic faces framed in candlelight.
Some hours ago they ran out on the field,
Got mud-stained, bruised and tattered, fought and won,
Now washed and brushed – all injuries concealed –
They sing the praises of God’s holy Son,
Within the compass of this hallowed place,
Which rises from the fenland’s soft embrace.
Better Things To Do
The kitchen sink’s piled high with cups and plates,
Old cobwebs lace the corners of each room,
But primal instincts wake the urge to mate,
And birdsong sweeps away tired winter’s gloom.
The flowers are shaking out their filmy skirts,
The trees, once gaunt, are dressed in vibrant green;
These feelings that the changing year exerts
Are not connected with an urge to clean.
The thoughts that fill my mind ignore the frame
Now battered by the march of time and tide;
The rising sap still sets my flesh aflame
Compelling me to put all chores aside.
Too soon the dust and I will coalesce,
To waste the time till then is to transgress.
To My Daughter, My Books
When I have vanished like a dream
And sleep beneath some Fenland sod,
Don’t bring me wreaths of evergreen
Or weep and wail and blaspheme God.
I leave you treasure that was mine,
The culture of each bygone age,
Laid down in books like vintage wine,
Pouring out from every page.
Books were my life’s delight and led
To riches far beyond my dreams:
Not earthly wealth, but fountainheads
Of philosophic thought, bright seams
Of wisdom, voices of the past
Which lit my way, sometimes amused
Or caused a tear to fall. A vast
Miscellany. Take them and use
Them well, each one has been a friend,
And may the truths you find console.
In these, and in the books I’ve penned,
You’ll find the substance of my soul.