Fire: A Sestina For Survivors

He waits in silence for his heart to break

He waits in silence for his heart to break

In this strange interlude between Remembrance Sunday on the 8th of November, and Remembrance Day itself on the 11th, I thought I would repost this sestina called ‘Fire’ which is about the trauma, the post traumatic stress, which so many soldiers have brought back with them from the theatre of war and have to deal with in civilian life.

There was a former soldier, now a homeless man, who used to come sometimes into the back of our church in Cambridge. Dressed in camouflage and carrying an imaginary rifle he would squat behind the pews, take aim at the pulpit, or edge his way round the side of the church, clearly frightened and looking for cover. We knew he was reliving things we could scarcely imagine and we did our best to calm him and make him feel welcome (as well as dealing with the alarm he sometimes caused to members of the congregation.) It was meeting with him, and other former soldiers like him, that led me to write this Sestina, which is part of a sequence called ‘Six Glimpses’ in my book The Singing Bowl.

As a form, the Sestina insists that the poet return again and again, but in a different order, to the same six words with which the first six lines of the poem end. Of its very nature this form explores, repetition, return, trappedness, circularity, the very things with which so many soldiers with PTSD and their families are having to deal, so it seemed the right form to try and express a little of what I could see. I post this now so that we might remember, pray for and find ways of helping those who have been through the trauma of battle and cannot find their way back into ‘normality’ yet. I hope and pray that as awareness grows there might be more in the way of help and counselling provided both by the Military and the NHS, and perhaps more understanding from the general public.



He cannot stop these memories of fire

Crackling and flashing in his head.

Not just in fevered dreams; the fires break

Into the light of day. He burns with shame,

But still he screams and shakes, because the dead,

Are burning too and screaming out his name.


They told him his condition had a name,

But words can’t quench the memory of fire,

Nor can they ever resurrect the dead.

They told him it was ‘all inside his head’,

That post-traumatic stress need cause no shame.

The army gave him time for a short break.


But that’s what he’s afraid of. He will break

And break forever; lose his life and name,

Shake like a child who’s sickening with shame,

He who had been ‘courageous under fire’

Who always stemmed the panic, kept his head.

And now all night he wishes he were dead


And cannot die. Instead he sees the dead

In all their last contortions. Bodies break

Under his wheels, a child’s severed head

Amidst the rubble seems to call his name

Over the clattering of rifle fire,

Stuttering guns that shake with him in shame.


He’s left his family. ‘Oh its a shame’,

The neighbours said, ‘That marriage was long dead-

-You cant live with a man whose shouting ‘Fire!’

All night like that.- His kids needed a break

And in the end she had to change her Name.’

‘They’ll never fix what’s wrong inside his Head.’


‘Some people seem to cope and get ahead,

The army makes them better men, a shame

He couldn’t cope.’ Now he has lost his name

And his address. He only knows the dead.

He sleeps on benches but they come and break

His sleep. They keep him under constant fire.


And come November, when they name the dead,

He waits in silence for his heart to break

And every poppy burns with hopeless fire.


Filed under literature, Poems, politics

10 responses to “Fire: A Sestina For Survivors

  1. Reblogged this on Michael Moore's Blog and commented:
    Poignant and true, Malcolm

  2. Malcolm, that’s a heart-wrenching poem. Help is available but sometimes it has to happen at the right time for those who need it. Let’s pray for them that they find the right help when that time comes for each of them.

    • malcolmguite

      Yes. There is help but sometimes it’s hard for the person who needs it to find and take it but I think it’s more available and more ‘acceptable ‘ than it used to be

  3. This is my nephew. I read this poem and taking a moment to pray for him now. Thank you.

  4. Thank you. Beautiful and moving.

  5. Your poem brought many names and even more faces to mind of soldiers I have got to know over the years. Almost every one of them had a beauty about them. I wonder if this is because the kind of defences that most of us learn to build had been stripped away from them leaving a vulnerability that moved me deeply. Of course, as you do, I could also reflect on the brokenness, the substance abuse, the early deaths etc. etc. and the destruction of family life. Thank you for helping me to think of them again. I will pray for them all again tomorrow.

    • malcolmguite

      Thanks Stephen I agree with you that there is a kind of beauty that goes with that exposed vulnerability. As Yeats said A terrible beauty is born’

  6. Dr. Guite, this poem has moved me very deeply. Having read accounts of soldiers finding themselves fragmented and lost after their service, I am amazed that in so few words you have captured the struggles and pains of too many families so vividly. It is my prayer that these families are comforted by the hands of God and the help of His people. I believe your words are powerful to help us understand the complexities of PTSD and the gravity of combat. I hope that those who are outside looking in–like myself– are able to appreciate the sacrifice of service and recognize the need to serve those who have served us. Thank you for sharing your sestina. May God bless you.

    • malcolmguite

      Thank you Katie. Like you I feel myself to be on the outside looking in as perhaps all of us are who have not been through this trauma. But I hope this poem may in its own small way help to spread compassion and awareness M

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