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.
13 responses to “Fire: A Sestina For Survivors”
I hope the man gave his permission for you to mention him in your email. Whether or not , it’s a good poem. Thankyou.
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He simply disappeared and I was never able to track him down
Beautiful hommage to a wounded veteran.
Beautifully captured. In San Diego we are surrounded with burgeoning homelessness. My heart breaks for our troubled veterans and the stories which repeatedly reverberated in their heads.
Malcolm, thank you for this! Over here, we call today Veterans Day. (I know you have a similar observance but don’t recall if you use that wording.) For those of us whose relatives and ancestors have fought for freedom (often beside their fine British counterparts), yours is a particularly lovely tribute.
PS – I always read everything you write, my friend, even if I don’t comment on it :).
My best to you, Malcolm…
Author | Speaker
Such a moving and vivid portrayal of PTSD aa d it’s effects on both soldier and the wirld around him.
I pray ’your’ wounded soldier has found peace somewhere.
Thank you for this wonderful, deep piece of writing.
A masterpiece! Thank you for I too had to return and read again and again. A prayer for the day when weapons are turned into plowshares and pruning hooks, neither shall they learn war anymore.
Really beautiful but so thought- provoking. Thank you for making me pause and ponder.
Powerful, thanks. I know that folk at my dad’s church in Lymington tried to help an ex serviceman too, we clearly need to look out for them & help as we can.
Also, over the Armistice weekend I had my three spoken word ‘Gritty Remembrance’ reflections broadcast on BBC Radio Leeds and Pulse 2 in West Yorkshire. Words & audio posted on my blog.
Your poems are often an inspiring & calming way to start an office day, thanks.