The Fields of the Somme, 2007

I have family, she says, flailing her arm
in an arc, shunting the vambrace of bangles
on her lean suntanned forearm

toward a dry, metallic music and taking in
the whole of Picardy, out there.  Somewhere.
She means a man, a great-grandfather,

disappeared ninety years ago now
beneath the rank meniscus of soil,
the churned soup of the fields closing

over him.  A man married to a woman
who will spend her best years on a quest
to discover precisely where he fell

before she gives in, quietly, and out in the new
and difficult fields begins sleeping rough
under the thinnest blanket she can find.

Such waste, she says, her lips
puckered by an invisible drawstring
of disapproval. Such waste.  And I am not sure

if she is speaking about a man’s life
or the sanity of a woman who abandoned
her children, who never remarried, who slept

on the unmarked grave that is this world,
who slept against the skin of this world
that was his grave.  Each day I have walked

new paths between fields of sugar beet and barley.
To La Boisselle and The Glory Hole and Tara Hill,
to Thiepval and Hamel and Beaumont Hamel.

To Contalmaison and beyond—through the beeches
and the oaks of Delville Wood and High Wood,
renowned, before the war, for their limes

and hazels, for their hornbeams and chestnuts—
and back, today, through Mametz and Queen’s Redoubt,
and on to a small café in Albert, across

from the basilica, where this girl
wearing too many bangles and a low-cut,
tightly-bodiced dress of cotton

serves me coffee and the chef’s daily special
on an outdoor patio ringed with tubs of tulips.
The tulips, she tells me, are hers—ad rems

and red emperors, which she grows
every year from bulbs purchased fresh
at a garden centre near Bapaume.  They balance

like red flagons above bluish
strap-shaped leaves.  People like me
who travel here want poppies it seems,

but this girl has always believed
red tulips a more fitting bloom
of remembrance because they are,

she says, comme les coeurs.  Like hearts.
It’s the way they close in darkness, hoarding,
all night, an emptiness of their own making;

because each black centre is a heart burnt down
to a cinder by passion and despair.
There are fields here she tells me where cattle

won’t graze, where they press against the hedges
shifting their great weight
from hoof to hoof.  Where such fields are

exactly she can’t say, and any cattle
I have seen are docile and pacific, tearing
up the grass with terrible efficiency,

up to their fetlocks in green.  Once,
I stood a whole afternoon and listened
to it happening: grass turning back

into bone and breath and flesh.
These fields I could tell her were once
windows swinging open so a darkness

blew through unsupervised; they were fields
of the narrow escape, of storm.  Fields of metal,
banged shut, certain death.  Fields that became

floors of water inside a world of rain.
But I just watch her, weaving between
the wrought-iron tables, her wide skirt

sighing.  She is surprised that people
travel here when there is nothing
to see except field after field of beets and flax,

of barley and wheat.  Even though she admits
she’s seen the hand grenades embedded
among farmyard cobbles and strolled

the shallow, blurred contours
of Newfoundland trenches at Beaumont Hamel.
Really, she asks, why did you come?  It’s true,

of course: everything that can be
has been salvaged from the borders
of these fields—wire and bullets, helmets

and piquets, duckboards, buttons, scatter-
shot of bone.  And although it may be tempting,
my guidebook warns, to stroll out

into the fields, be advised such expeditions
are most unwise and dangerous and can be fatal.
And do not forget the thousands

still buried here.  Meaning: get down
on your knees—even in a tour group of strangers
get down on your knees.  And think of the men

who had so much need of and so little time
for god.  All about us, mile after mile,
ravaged fields, restored.  Open fields,

closed.  Fields from which farmers
in their reinforced tractors
still reap an iron harvest—a vast

live tonnage of mortars and shells
and slim canisters of White Star, of phosgene
and chlorine, left neatly

in rows along the verges of roads,
where the foxgloves bloom, slowly,
from the bottom up, each stem unfastening

tier by tier.  Here and there a field
rouging its cheeks with poppies.  And I
had no idea that such fields under trees

laden with apples could be so beautiful.
Strings of lights blinking on around the square.
The tulips in the dusk beginning

their slow closure.  And she is so young,
and the young, as they should be, are immune
to history.  Really, I say, pushing back

my chair and placing my payment
and a small gratuity, carefully, coin by coin, down
on the table, I don’t know why.  Even though

what I want to say is: this, I came here
for this—to meet a girl
who grows tulips and discover

how like such flowers we really are, the red
void of our lives an exit
fallen into flame; to inherit the story of a woman

who at night, for love, lay down in these fields
and endured, for love, the absence of love.
Because fields that contain so many

feel so empty.  Because death let poetry into my house
and this is my work: to remember whatever it is
that is now no body at all.

 

First published in The Sow’s Ear Poetry Review, Summer 2016

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