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.
As always you can hear me read the poem by clicking on the title or the ‘play’ button
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.
15 responses to “Fire: A Sestina For Survivors”
Thank you l know a young man for who this is so true.
I stand and weep
This leaves me breathless.
Shattering and appropriate. Thank you.
So true and sad. Powerfully expressed. Thank you.
Thank you. We shall never forget.
Thank you, Malcolm, for your extraordinary et insight and compassion. I find it deeply disturbing that so many of the wounds of war result not from the pursuit of justice, but of profit. Smedley Butler, a decorated US Army General (WWI) became an outspoken critic of war. Butler is known for the aphorism, “War is a racket. The few profit; the many pay.” The scale of the suffering caused by the massive U.S. war industry is devastating. They call themselves the “defense industry” and are heavily subsidized by American taxpayers. Those same taxpayers are continually told that the nation can’t afford to provide universal health care or retirement pensions. A racket, indeed. I pray that God will bless our veterans and awaken enough of the rest of us to make a difference.
Thank you for this very moving poem Malcolm. I always find it difficult to navigate this time of Remembrance, it’s seems there is such a fine line between glorification and commemoration. This poem has enabled me to pause and contemplate for a time the unbelievable suffering of those caught up in the violence of war, and their loved ones too, of course.
Yes it’s always a difficult line, to honour the fallen and yet never to glorify war. The sad fact is that many of these young men were sacrificed by venal politicians in wars that had no just cause. That doesn’t make their sacrifice any less noble but it does mean that those politicians will bear a heavy weight on the day of judgement
This is a profound and distressing poem. As always, I am comforted to hear it in your own voice. What a fascinating poetic form, the circularity and the trappedness. This poor man, wretched, tormented.
I wonder what poems might come forth from our criminal justice system. There is poetry out there but it seems to lack form, although it may be only that I don’t recognize the form. I believe I told you that The Singing Bowl was in the hands of my incarcerated friend, Cedric. It was one of the two books he took with him to solitary confinement after he got the news that his mother had died. The other was a book of physics. There is little dignity allowed for grief in prison.
Can you recommend a book that would teach me about various kinds of poetic form? I would also like to be able to explore my own edges of lostness, depression, and reckoning.
Thank you, Karen
This is a deeply moving poem and very accomplished too. You have not only used the complex re0etition of a sestina but used rhyme as well. And that repetition and musicality makes it sound like a tragic ballad. Damaged men, and the suffering PTSD causes their families, is why we should keep the tradition of Remembrance Day.
My grandfather fell in the Great War when my father was only four.
Incredibly powerful. You have got PTSD exactly right. It was devastating and unsettling to read that poem – it needs to be said and read. My heart goes out to the women and men who have returned from military service in areas of conflict and suffer these terrible agonies.
Thank you for this. It was also quite disturbing to write the poem but I felt it needed to be written
EXCELLENT!!! and True! from the first word to the last word…… I speak to many American Heroes everyday, and they are Truly American Heroes!!
I am an advocate for our American Heroes and their families who are suffering from P.T.S.D..
I started a Veterans P.T.S.D. Awareness Foundation to draw national and global attention to the everyday struggles that our American Heroes and their families are going through.
Thank You for posting this story and this poem.