The Danger Tree
from In Defense of Reason, 1987

When all is said and done,
In her shifting sands
The flesh of the dead is rubbed away,
Only the roots of fickle triumph
Stretching over an insensate earth
Keep close the memories of loss,
The bitter taste of vermillion wine
On the tongues of the brave.
War is no saviour of virgin innocence
For all our talks of ideology;
Tossed and turned by the winds of change
A red Europe marries a white West:
The blood of Albion enriches
The bones of the Caucasus,
Flowers for Freedom's wreath.
Young men and boys imprisoned
In the clutches of advancing dunes,
Trucks ravaged in the embrace of alien ergs,
Scavenged by the drifitng fortunes of the nomad.
What battle-weary hand heavy on the muzzle
Of an aching limb?
Not in the reaches of Africa
Nor in the strangeness of the Orient
Grow poppies for the lost.
Remorseless and merciless the tendrils
Creep out from the heart of Parsifal's home
Poisoning nature's other Eden
With its obedience to the
Holy Grail of a fascist purity.
There is a blight on the face of the globe,
Dark and cankerous,
Ice-cold and immutable.
And yet, hope has not wholly died.
Even the mummifying atmosphere of Egypt's wilderness
Cannot wither the freshness of recruits
From Allied lands bringing Antipodean empathy
To their forefathers' kingdoms.

Sent untouched from school
To the place of the pyramids
He finds himself a casualty of tragedy:
The recipient of a family wound.
A soldier – one among so many –
He is indivisible from the other troops;
An officer in rank, a boy in years.
Three separate occasions have scarred him
With the sight of spilled blood,
The recurring nightmares of severed limbs.
If, when Fate has calmed the surface
Of the sea, he returns home to Mother England
What shocks, what scandals will he loose
On an iugnorant public, patriotic and blind.
My love goes out to him,
Isolated in his grief,
Afradi to reach out and touch
Save in verification of the dead.
But he carried on, shoulders
Drooping under an invisible, yet shared burden.
To halt for a moment and rethink his circumstance
Would unleash the fury of his impotence
On the men he leads,
Make him give way to the common enemy.
In future times he may be looked back upon
As an unwilling hero: Theseus
Making pilgrimage to arid Knossos
To slay a blond Minotaur.
He is not a Hero.
He is one hero and a field of heroes.
If he survives this conflict
(of body, of soul)
The people may bestow upon him
The gift of medals, for his dutiful courage,
Though he feels no courage.
Only fear.