Canto 17: Breaking Point


The belief in the possibility of a short decisive war appears to be one of the most ancient & dangerous of human illusions
Robert Lynd


 

Summiteers

An old man dragg’d his bulk acrosss the sands,
Broke off beside the barb’d perimeter,
Over-clambouring legs, wires dug in his hands,
At once he’s accosted by a soldier;
“Hold it right there…
O my god, you’re Churchill!
The PM gave his stare, that MP frozen still.

He took, by Rooseveldt, his seat,
Discussing of the future,
“To German cities we must mete
The full wrath of the bomber!”
“Aye, until Germany’s defeat
& total surrender,
To free Europe all our deeds must measure –
We may destroy Japan at our leisure.”

They left the villas for the sun
There soldiers to review,
Nigh ev’ryone American,
The fighters Yankee too,
Roaring oerhead, defenders of the world’s most crucial two.

Casablanca
January 27th
1943


 

War at Sea

Radar destroyed, aerials ripped,
And, forward, the sea stripping
The Mess decks, spilling over tables
Alan Ross

***

“Up periscope!” unveils a killing ground,
By Seawolves circl’d in their hungry packs,
The feast is set, smoke plumes curl’d all around,
The silence broken, ev’rywhere… attacks!
Cold & enpearl’d
Submariner deep rides,
Bellum Navale swirl’d beneath the whirling tides.

With heavy beard & nerves half shot
Xaver cursed his dank abode,
Oftimes his stomach gripp’d a knot
As the depth-charges explode,
But when a new course he did plot
& foemen torpedoed,
He felt his place within warring nations,
Claxons caterwaul … to action stations!

Elizabeth sinks! Jack Sumner’s
Clothes sea-salt saturates,
Haul’d by shoulders, joins the others,
Last lot of his shipmates,
Cramm’d in a bulging, wooden boat to contemplate their fates.

North Sea
February 1st
1943


 

Pendulum Turns

And there before the night, he was aware
of the flayed fields of home, & black with ruin
The helpful earth under the tracks of tanks
Sidney Keyes

From the depths of a tractor factory
Rose a crackling corp’ral’s rattling broadcast,
Reaching within each German eaterie,
“Der Fatherland, der Fuhrer to the last!”
Lost & alone,
“Why are we forsaken?”
All animals hath flown, endure here only men.

Ivan came in ev’rywhereness,
“Hund wollt ihr ewig leben?”
In kingly, heroistic dress
Willie urges on his men,
Thro’ daunting danger & duress
Til all quell’d well, & then
He sits with his wife’s photo one last time,
Last round blows out his brains, walls coat with slime.

Paulus grappl’d with cruel conscience,
Cow’ring in the corner,
Christian sense curtails defence,
Consenting surrender,
How glad that captured mass of men meant for Siberia.

Stalingrad
February 2nd
1943


 

Death of Jack Sumner

The rage of armies is a shame of boys;
A hero’s panic or a coward’s whim
Is triggered by nerve or nervousness
Louis Simpson

They rais’d their spirits with an old sing-song,
Soon silenced by surfacing submarine,
At once old sailors knew something was wrong,
Those long, square-jaw’d faces far too serene;
Cold reasoning,
Der Fuhrer’s directive,
“Pity is burdening, let no opponent live.”

Sighting muzzles upon them aimed
Fuel enough for frighten’d flap,
We are unarm’d, ye not ashamed!?”
Blonde rating straighten’d his cap,
Took four bullets, bloody & maim’d,
Croak’d, “Cheerio old chap!”
To this miraculously unhurt Jack,
Led breathless, daring not to answer back…

As Xaver survey’d the murder
He caught a faint movement…
As a Stemmler slays a Sumner,
Now unambivalent,
The goddess KARMA flit the scene & to another went.

Atlantic Ocean
February 3rd
1943


 

Death of Xaver Stemmler

Between the gem-hung velvert of the waves,
Our sires & grandsires in their green flesh start,
Bend skinny elbows, warn: “We have no graves…
Roy Fuller

E’er since the battle of Trafalgar Bay,
Those vigilant, oak-hull’d leviathans
Have held the Oceans in an Island’s sway,
“England expects!” ev’ry battle stations;
Night turns to day,
Depth-charge splash each quarter,
The decks awash with spray as under the water

Wee submarines are toss’d about,
BOOM-BOOM-BOOOOM & BOOM again,
Some sub-aquatic boxing bout…
Like fountains in a garden
Seawater spouts fill with grave doubt
Entrapp’d & frighten’d men…
Men coat their trousers in a cruddy goo,
As ships ripp’d up & simply flipp’d in two.

Almighty Ocean rushes in,
Thetis astride the bull,
Cat’clysmic din, Xaver aspin,
What weight crushes his skull,
To sleep the deep forever in the cold crypt of that hull.

The Atlantic Ocean
February
1943


 

Colonel Wingate

Burma… fresh bane of the British army,
Catalogue of defeat & disaster,
Receives a maverick visionary,
Determin’d to restore his land’s honour;
Daring designs
Regaled with sure surmise,
“Let me break thro’ the lines, harassing their supplies…”

He enlisted common scousers,
La, full of life & gobby,
Alchemied with Nepal’s Ghurkas
Busk’d in a dusky khaki,
He put them thro’ strictest paces,
Three months purgatory…
Gen’ral Wavell visits one stormy day,
Inspects them then salutes them on their way.

The vanguard of the re-conquest
Fords the Chindwin river,
Chain’d to the best, by good lord bless’d,
Sporting an umbrella,
“You never know when needed when tropical the weather!”

The Raj
February
1943


 

Death of Franz Grunfeld

Surely the past from which the letters rise
Is waiting in the future, past the graves?
The soldiers are all haunted by their lives.
Randall Jarrell

Years-on-years of uncheck’d persecution,
A brave few – finally – have lit the fuse,
Grenades & guns quite smartly smuggl’d in,
For this uncork’d uprising of the Jews;
The bullets fly
Into the German grey,
Better to fight & die than wait your murder-day.

Karl & his cousin, side-by-side,
Sense David interstellar,
When Philistine Goliath died
Beside the vale of Elah,
But SS swarming every side
Rat-trapp’d in a cellar,
Them Judah lions roaring in a cage,
Til flamethrowers incinerate their rage.

Above them, thro’ the smoky grates,
Gaurds resume their stations,
Thro hostile gates accelerates
Daily deportations,
As if lived Nebuchadnezzar thro’ these new migrations.

Warsaw
March
1943


 

Rebel Mountain

Among the shaggy hills of Montenegro
Hid ‘The Bandit’ & his apparitions,
One hundred thousand Reichsmarks for Tito,
Tying down thirty German divisions;
Force fed on zeal,
Typhus on sick parade
Despite desp’rate appeal Stalin shall send no aid.

A Wellington pass’d overhead,
Coughs drifting parachuter,
Dangling upon a nylon thread
Gangly English officer,
Donning the red cap, promptly said,
“Take me to your leader!”
(Tito laughs at that daft scarlet beret)
“You have put on a wizard show, I say!

I’m from Secret Operation’s
Special Executive,
With permission, your position,
To London I shall give,
Follow’d by airdrops & enough for you & yours to live!”

Yugoslavia
April
1943


 

Colonel Wingate

Thro’ delphic idyll of watery shades
Japanese lackeys track-tread sweat-streaming,
A mountain gibbon’s gibber flies & fades,
God’s artistry sweeps oer mortals dreaming;
Sly Ghurka stands
Up, up, from ground, unseen,
Sticking his dagger’d hands thro’ windpipe, throat & spleen.

The day’s bland meal had just been pann’d,
Bamboo shoots & curried snake,
A captain joins his battle-band
On a well-earn’d lazing break,
With blade & bible in each hand,
The fourth course we shall take!
We’ll ram them up the barrel of a gun,
Keeping those bleedin’ rascals on the run!”

The railway line was blown to bits,
Up went a furore.
Each Chindit splits, a freak shot hits
The ghurkha in a knee,
Such injuries could slay his mates – “Go, go on without me…”

Burma
April
1943

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