A White Poppy
In just under a century,
so much has already been written
that the blots still seep through poetry,
so what good can come from pouring my ink
into this pool of blue and black?
The year ten class were watching ‘My Boy Jack’.
A few of them wore poppies on their blazers:
creased tokens from a war so distant now
that habit substitutes for memory.
The class, for once, are silent;
the boys upon the whiteboard,
each one an actor and a ghost,
are dying in the shell-churned earth of France.
A schoolboy face we’ve all grown up with,
reassigned to Rudyard Kipling’s son;
just eighteen, commanding men a few years older.
The minute hand shifts into place
and he sounds the call to climb the ladder.
The shells, outstripped, have fallen short.
A rattle like a blood filled lung
still coughs from a machine gun.
Lieutenant Kipling, armed with just a pistol,
knows his men must reach is bunker.
There is no glorious flash of sabres,
only a defiant walk of soldiers
into gunfire, falling with mechanical
How easily hot lead can rip
through uniform and teenage flesh.
The gun splutters, and the young man stumbles.
His glasses fall into the mud.
He searches for them, grabbing soil in handfuls.
It spits again, again he falls.
Just one more burst – his story is concluded.
Except that two months later, back in England,
the Kipling family have a tragedy
without its final scene:
without a body, without witnesses,
no declaration can be made but ‘missing’.
Catharsis has to wait until the photos
of the soldiers in the German prison camps
have been checked and stacked and checked again.
‘Sir, is this story true?’ they ask.
Yes, and eight thousand other like it
from just one army in a single day.
This is grief incomprehensible
to anyone but statisticians,
the production line applied to war.
Now, the poppies seem a little crisper.
They still grow in Afghanistan,
in the sand outside Baghdad,
and in so many places unreported,
so I wear one for the young men fed
to the factories of war, I wear one
for the veterans who have seen the smoke first hand,
but this poem, this poem is a white poppy,
a prayer both for and to humanity,
a prayer that one day, this will stop.