Category Archives: Poetry

The grave of Chang Tso Sheng

 

 I visited the Chinese Cemetery in Noyelles Sur Mer a few weeks ago. I really came across the place by accident. I had just visited the scene of the Battle of Crecy (1346) where King Edward III’s English army annihilated the French force under King Philip VI. I was returning to our lodging in St. Valery Sure-Mer when I saw a sign for the ‘Cimetière Chinois’. Even with my limited French I knew that this must be a war cemetery but presumed it was a cemetery for French Colonials from Indochina. Curiosity got the better of me and so I took a turn off in Noyelles. I soon found the cemetery down a quiet back lane surrounded by wheat fields. We were the only ones visiting. The first thing you notice is the beautiful Chinese archway which guards the entrance. The cemetery like all war cemeteries in France is well-kept, neat and tidy. The information plaque advises that there are 849 graves here and that they all belong to members of the Chinese Labour Corps. Most of the deaths seemed to have occurred in 1918 and 1919 and the majority of these after the Armistice. I immediately wondered had most succumbed to the Flu Epidemic or some other calamity.? Only some of the graves have the names of the deceased. Most just have numbers. Also each grave stone contains an epitaph and after some observation I worked out that there were only four options, “Faithful unto death (至死忠誠)”, “A good reputation endures forever (流芳百世)”, “A noble duty bravely done (勇往直前)” and “Though dead he still liveth (雖死猶生)”. The remains also seem to have been buried two per grave.

I decided to do a bit more research and discovered that the men came mostly from Shandong Province.  They were recruited and processed by both the French and English through the Treaty ports Tianjin and Weihaiwei. They were poor and from the countryside. The wages offered were very high by Chinese standards but low by European rates (about 1/3 of a French privates salary). The selection process weeded out those with disease and so only the strongest labourers were selected. The journey was arduous, almost three months by ship until they docked at Marseilles. When a German U-boat sank a ship drowning 540 Chinese labourers the route was changed. Now the labourers crossed the Pacific, were shipped in cattle trucks across Canada and then sailed the Atlantic. It must have been a terrifying experience for what were simple, rural peasants with little knowledge of the wider world.

In France they worked 10 hours a day and 7 days a week for 20 yuan. They worked building trenches, repairing railways, unloading and transporting supplies to the troops. The strange food caused many to suffer stomach problems. Camp conditions were hard and work conditions uncomfortable. When the war was over the men were not repatriated immediately but were used in mine clearance and recovering bodies from the battlefields. This was dangerous and foul work. It is estimated that up to 10,000 died during the War from shelling, landmines, poor treatment, cholera or the worldwide flu epidemic. It was estimated that at the end of the war over 300,000 workers from the Colonies, 100,000 Egyptians, 21,000 Indians and 20,000 native South Africans were working throughout France and the Middle East by 1918. After the war, the British government sent a War Medal to every member of the Chinese Labour Corps. The medal was exactly like the British War Medal that had issued to every member of the British armed forces, except that it was of bronze, not silver, a fact that illustrates the lesser value placed on these men upon whose backs and hands the war was won.

 ‘By the terms of this contract…I, the undersigned coolie recruited by the Weihaiwei Labour Bureau, declare myself to be a willing labourer’

 

The grave of Chang Tso Sheng

This is not your fatherland, where they make you toil, 

Digging trenches for the damned, pulling bodies from the soil.

This is not your motherland, where you clear mines all day, 

Did they tell you about the shells, the fever and decay.

You left your family in Shandong, you were shipped across the sea

Loaded on a cattle truck, and then dumped in Picardy.

Why did you join this fight Sheng? What brought you to this place?

What is the cause you died for? Was it two yuan per day?

Now you lie in Noyelles –sur- Mer, amongst the fields of wheat, 

‘Faithful unto death’, it says, not the fate you’d planned to meet.

A medal then was cast, to remember this campaign,

They said it didn’t matter, the colour of your skin, 

So your noble sacrifice was honoured,

your number was engraved, 

But theirs was cast in silver

and yours in simple bronze.

 Chinese Labour Corps Cemetery

Noyelles-sur-Mer, 2016

 

 

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Meet me by the Caribou

Caribou-au-Memorial-de-Beaumont-Hamel-de-Jacky-Salomon-Rivery

I’ll meet you by the Moose he said,

It’s a Caribou, I thought

As his friends walked on ahead

to survey the pot-holed earth

 

They fell in piles just over there,

past that small, neat track

Close by the shattered tree

In their brave reckless attack

 

Now ‘No mans land’ is a gentle green

where the New Foundlanders all fell

Dying for a far off King

Pulverised by savage shell.

 

In a half-hour hell it was over

A generation lost

From  an Island far away, and

where still they count the cost

 

They met up by the Caribou

looked again across the field,

They cursed the tragedy of man,

When his pride it cannot yield.

Beaumont-Hamel, 2016

Beaumont Hamel

Where have all the fish gone?

Where have all the fish gone picture

Where have all the fish gone?
The fish we caught as children, in abundance,
with hand cut rods of bamboo or sally,
under the guiding hands of Grandfathers
with soft white hair and kind, haggard faces.

Where have all the restless Springs gone?
When we walked barefoot along muddy streams,
with jam jars of frog spawn.
When we jumped rivers like Olympians
and were masters of the little Kingdoms of our minds.

Where have all the busy, sultry Summers gone?
When we hurriedly lapped fast melting ice cream,
Watched hay and silage a making and turf reared,
Fought wars of imperial importance,
in back lanes and o’er freshly cut meadows.

Where have all the children gone?
The ones we learned to ride bikes and skip ropes with,
kicking ball until the last flickerings forsook the day.
Where have all the fish gone?
Perhaps some have eaten their fill and lie resting in deep pools.

“He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven”

 William Butler Years was born on this day in 1865. Although born into the Anglo-Irish ascendancy Yeats could arguably be said to have done more to reshape the modern Irish identity than any if his contemporaries. Yeats drew his inspiration from ancient Irish myths and folklore and as an ardent cultural nationalist, valued the classical past as an inspiration for a modern pluralist society. He has so many great poems and this is one of my favourites that simply has to be read aloud.

He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven”

Had I the heavens’ embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half-light,
I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;

Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.

‘KEENANS CHARGE’ The Battle of Chancellorsville, 1863

Chancellorsville

Captain Peter Keenan was born in 1834 to Irish parents at the town of York in the rural North West of the State of New York. By 1861 he was living in Philadelphia. He helped recruit the 8th Pennsylvania Cavalry. He was appointed Captain, Company C, 19 August 1861. He was promoted to Major of the regiment 15 October 1862. According to the Pleasonton version, at the Battle of Chancellorsville,

“he was ordered by General Alfred Pleasonton, after the rout of the 11th corps on the right wing, to charge the advancing enemy in a wood, and hold them in check until the artillery could be got into position. He charged with his regiment, which numbered fewer than 500 men, so impetuously that the Confederates were startled, and hesitated to advance from the wood, until the guns were ready to rake the column as it emerged. Keenan met an inevitable death at the head of his men, many of whom fell with him, but the sacrifice enabled General Pleasonton to hold Stonewall Jackson’s corps in cheek and save the army from rout.”

His life is the subject of ‘To the Knife: The Biography of Major Peter Keenan, 8th Pennsylvania Cavalry’ by Charles C. Kelsey. His famous charge which is on a par with the Charge of the Light Brigade a decade earlier is also immortalised in the following poem by George Parsons Lathrop (1851-1898).

KEENANS CHARGE

The Battle of Chancellorsville, 1863

The sun had set;

The leaves with dew were wet:

Down fell a bloody dusk

On the woods, that second day of May,

Where Stonewall’s corps, like a beast of prey,

Tore through with angry tusk.

“They’ve trapped us, boys!”

Rose from our flank a voice.

With a rush of steel and smoke

On came the rebels straight,

Eager as love and wild as hate;

And our line reeled and broke;

Broke and fled.

Not one stayed—but the dead!

With curses, shrieks, and cries,

Horses and wagons and men

Tumbled back through the shuddering glen,

And above us the fading skies.

There’s one hope, still—

Those batteries parked on the hill!

“Battery, wheel!” (‘mid the roar)

“Pass pieces; fix prolonge to fire

Retiring. Trot!” In the panic dire

A bugle rings “Trot!”—and no more.

The horses plunged,

The cannon lurched and lunged,

To join the hopeless rout.

But suddenly rode a form

Calmly in front of the human storm,

With a stern, commanding shout:

“Align those guns!”

(We knew it was Pleasanton’s.)

The cannoneers bent to obey,

And worked with a will at his word;

And the black guns moved as if they had heard.

But, ah, the dread delay!

“To wait is crime;

O God, for ten minutes’ time!”

The General looked around.

There Keenan sat, like a stone,

With his three hundred horse alone,

Less shaken than the ground.

“Major, your men?”

“Are soldiers, General.” “Then

Charge, Major! Do your best;

Hold the enemy back at all cost,

Till my guns are placed;—else the army is lost.

You die to save the rest!”

By the shrouded gleam of the western skies,

Brave Keenan looked into Pleasanton’s eyes

For an instant—clear, and cool, and still;

Then, with a smile, he said: “I will.”

“Cavalry, charge!” Not a man of them shrank.

Their sharp, full cheer, from rank to rank,

Rose joyously, with a willing breath—

Rose like a greeting hail to death.

Then forward they sprang, and spurred, and clashed;

Shouted the officers, crimson-sashed;

Rode well the men, each brave as his fellow,

In their faded coats of blue and yellow;

And above in the air, with an instinct true,

Like a bird of war their pennon flew.

With clank of scabbards and thunder of steeds

And blades that shine like sunlit reeds,

And strong brown faces bravely pale

For fear their proud attempt should fail,

Three hundred Pennsylvanians close

On twice ten thousand gallant foes.

Line after line the troopers came

To the edge of the wood that was ring’d with flame;

Rode in, and sabred, and shot— and fell;

Nor came back one his wounds to tell.

And full in the midst rose Keenan tall

In the gloom, like a martyr awaiting his fall,

While the circle-stroke of his sabre, swung

Round his head, like a halo there, luminous hung.

Line after line—aye, whole platoons,

Struck dead in their saddles, of brave dragoons

By the maddened horses were onward borne

And into the wavering vortex flung, trampled and torn;

As Keenan fought with his men, side by side.

So they rode, till there were no more to ride.

But over them, lying there shattered and mute,

What deep echo rolls?—’Tis a death-salute

From the cannon in place; for, heroes, you braved

Your fate not in vain; the army was saved!

Over them now—year following year—

Over the graves the pine-cones fall,

And the whippoorwill chants his spectre-call;

But they stir not again: they raise no cheer.

They have ceased. But their glory shall never cease,

Nor their light be quenched in the light of peace.

The rush of their charge is resounding still

That saved the army at Chancellorsville.

by: George Parsons Lathrop (1851-1898)

Subway Poem – New York

new york subway Taking the Train of Singularity South from Midtown

I came across this poem by John J. Ronan and thought I’d share it. Not only has the poem a great title but it really captures the movement of humanity in a metropolis, The poet manages to convey the experience of using mass public transport and introduces to us the multitude of characters that take their place on the city stage every day.

42nd St.

As the funnel of everyone in Times Square
cascades down the station stairs,
pace and urgent purpose damming
briefly at turnstiles before cleaving
into streams for an 8th or 7th Avenue
train, an A Train, the Two,
and while quick, diverged currents, hot
and breathless, pick platforms, stop
to listen for slivering steel drums
in the wait for translation to work or home,
here, at the side of a narrow island
forty feet under ground,
with a wind-rush and rattle that drive
away agile, enterprising mice,
Ett Tag, Bir Tren,
Mmoja Treni, Een Trein,
Premier Train, Jeden Trenovat,

the red One Train halts.
A mustered public, potluck, steps
forward, hushed and obscure, hips
Shifting at doors in slide-by
witness, separate bodies white
and yellow, brown, black and tan,
pocked or whiskery, whiskeyed, wan,
green, gray, big or bone-house,
the meek, mouthy, angry, lost –
a tourist who trails maps and binoculars
jamming last onto the crowded car.
App-trance and defensive doze,
deft conventions of eye and elbow
mind the tribes. A breath brushes
your strapping hand. The platform passes.

34th Street

Tumbled from the scrum of Penn Station,
a handsome hardboy’s followed by nuns,
louche in their blue loafers, who start
with the tame tourist, a fresh mark,
move to a laptop on a clenched lap,
a plugged hummer, a patient cop,
smiling saints as they panhandle
the parish – the buxom beauty who pulls
open her purse, continuing slowly
to a witness of rapt women as she throws
dimes into the can, clink, clink:
“The thing of it is, here’s the thing,
the reason. The reason being: yes.”
Eyes rise to Viva Las Vegas!,
Absolut, a scratched Cadbury ad:
Amy + Elvis – together at last.

28th St.

Morning unfolds. A uniformed girl,
perfumed and war-painted, twirls
on arrival, greets the hardboy’s attitude
with a teasing parade of school plaid,
half-and-half harlot, ingénue,
scented in sour grape, Tabu,

23rd St.

Opined widely by a man who makes
his mute partner blush back,
a blonde by the busty mater, opposite
his signing hands and the black habits.
A gently defined, common commute
below Fashion Ave., spelled out
in GAP and caps, Jets, Giants,
Puma, Nike, in tapestry pants,
N.Y.F.D.,
in the sexy matron, the sibyl, who speaks
with weary and resigned, wisecrack sadness:

18th St.

“Anymore, forsaken. And apart. Anonymous,”
during a door delay in which a pigeon,
bent on a serious, moral mission,
preens onto the car like the pride of Chelsea,
an urban bird who avoids the eyes
of travelers, they in turn avoiding the bird
behind pickets of posture and print..
The nuns, surrounded by trousers, smile.
The bumpkin, gaze behaving, smiles.
The practiced pigeon, a positive nodder,
fronts the speechless woman who figures
food with a brown bag at her knees,
and witness-wise, dim as destiny,
fate or whatever happens, happens,
eats seeds from her open hand.

14th Street

Lights flicker. The train, in fits,
limps to the Village, St. Vincent’s.
The sage woman, staring intensely
at a dark wood of girders and graffiti,
bristles, bosom and big rings:
“The only rebuttal? Love. Longing.”
The cars start. Peeper skews
to Viagra, Visit the Brooklyn Zoo,
listens to chatter blend with brat-
happy prattle, the porn plot
girl who giggles like tickling and sways,
sailor, to the rock and roll of the train,
mix with tin clinks of a can’s
conjured coins, the cluck of nuns,
whole rests from the help-meet
whose pigeon pecks at sunflower seeds,
tightly fused and Ives-like
Suite for City in Clickety-Clack.

Christopher St.

At Christopher, a drunk curses Christ,
easy credit, his mother, the Mets,
warns of the end of the world and laughs.
No one gets on, no one off.

Houston St.

The train stops short of Houston,
stops in the sealed tunnel. Engines
stop, dull lights die
as bodies breathe an undivided sigh.
Lights on. Off. Tense
whispers worm the blind silence,
the stage stripped to underlying time,
a long, long loss of light.
When a Zippo’s flicked at the far end
of the car, the wise woman sends
down a candle, the candle slowly
returned in grudged transfer, glow
soft on the row of stoic handlers,
godgift and galoot, gangbanger,
faces awake in pitch-driven
epiphany, grace held and given.
The hardboy’s forehead flames with lipstick.
The blowzy bird runs before the wick.
Lights. Jerk of cars. Lurch.
Shoes shuffle, buttocks touch,
breasts and elbows, corps de ballet
in brave, awkward, standing balance.

Canal St.

During the usual shift and witness,
the school girl, in gimmick innocence,
leaves with hardboy and his target heart.
“Scratch and match! Tartan. Tats.”
The bird, confident that symbol solves
for self, takes a seat after Canal.

Franklin St.

At Franklin, it’s good-bye to the bum, who rises
with help from the hardy nuns, good-bye
to the quiet signers who nod and stand,
firing silence hand-in-hand.

Chambers St.

Riders, their rides ending or begun,
are off and on, fungible, one.
You, with your field glasses and guides,
you become everyone too, quietly beside
yourself in witless, wondering joy,
no longer alone, no longer on the way,
available day arrived at last,
myriad, American. The platform passes.
Ett Tag, Bir Tren,
Mmoja Treni, Een Trein…

One: existing whole in a sphere,
a numen or essence and no more.
The reason? The reason being: yes,
the breath and brush of necessary witness,
superposition of drunk and dove,
an oracle, blue loafers, love
struck in fugitive communion, close
going on the warm, coincident cars.

You can check out more at http://www.blackcatpoems.com/r/taking_the_train_of_singularity_south_from_midtown.html#k3HvcqtotctM0XDO.99

‘Yelling like madmen in the Sun’ – Flanders 1915

WW1 OVERI note that looking back on the First World War is a retrospective act everywhere save for Ireland. Here it is the most introspective of activities. However over the next few years it will become the norm as we finally place the significance of the war in its proper context.

Many people are still coming to terms with the fact that in 1916 their forefathers were not manning a sandbagged window in the GPO. As we revise and edit the standard version of history fed to us over the last 90 years, we will realise that for every person that took up arms in Dublin on that Easter Monday morning, there were 200 fighting in Khaki. Yes Irishmen and women were in the thick of it from Ypres to Mesopotamia, Gallipoli to Walvis Bay. It is a fact that many residents of this Island are uncomfortable with and this discomfort will no doubt invite any number of theories and explanations. Yet as we come to understand it we must also confront the fact that there was no conscription in Ireland during the Great War. So if thousands of ‘Nationalists’ went to the front and it wasn’t for ‘King and Country’, what was their motivation?

For me the first clue is in those beautiful lines written by Thomas Kettle in the field before Guillemont on the 6th of September, 1916

“And oh! they’ll give you rhyme
And reason: some will call the thing sublime,
And some decry it in a knowing tone.
So here, while the mad guns curse overhead,
And tired men sigh with mud for couch and floor,
Know that we fools, now with the foolish dead,
Died not for flag, nor King, nor Emperor,—
But for a dream, born in a herdsman’s shed,
And for the secret Scripture of the poor.”

We are finally maturing as a nation, or so we like been told, Ad nauseum. This morning the media is dominated by stories of Israels relentless destruction of Gaza and sectarian atrocities in Iraq. How ironic that almost a century ago the Connaught Rangers with many Leitrim men in the ranks fought and defeated the Turks at Gaza, Jerusalem, Ramallah, Basra & Fallujah, and how sad and depressing it is that a century later these same familiar place names still dominate the news.

The only positivesof the Great War was the extensive body of war poetry it left us, much of it espousing the futility of war, recording the terrible carnage and its effects on the human soul. There are many oft quoted verses by Sassoon and Wilfred Owen et all but I think these few lines by Conrad Aiken capture the madness of going ‘o’er the top’

“It will be like that other charge–
We will climb out and run
Yelling like madmen in the sun
Running stiffly on the scorched dust
Hardly hearing our voices
Running after the man who points with his hand
At a certain shattered tree,
Running through sheets of fire like idiots,
Sometimes falling, sometimes rising”

Palestine 1917

Palestine 1917

We await the Poets of Gaza, Donetsk, Aleppo and Bangui.