Fire: A Sestina For Survivors

He waits in silence for his heart to break

He waits in silence for his heart to break

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.

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Filed under Poems, politics

10 responses to “Fire: A Sestina For Survivors

  1. Anne A

    I once (rather unwillingly at first) got into conversation with an ex-army man in a coffee shop. He was supporting another needy man, and I assumed he was homeless. He told me he had a place to live, but couldn’t live inside it. That hit me very hard. Thank you for this.

  2. lindareid17

    Dear Malcolm,

    This is a heart-breakingly beautiful sestina – poignant sentiments and beautifully crafted! thank you! Linda


  3. My dad was with the British forces that liberated Bergen-Belsen. He spent months in a psychiatric hospital because of what he saw there. Though he eventually found ways to cope, he was never the same. Lest we forget

  4. ozfolklounge

    I have made it up to this Sestina in my journey through The Singing Bowl Malcolm. You capture the grim nature of our existence in so many facets. It is hard reading, but it is the truth of our humanity. I could not help but reflect on my recent reading of James Joyce and his portrayal of the wide reaching impact of poverty in Dubliners. The impact of war similarly spreads well beyond the battlefield to many others in the family and community.

  5. A man names Achilles shared has story with me. It was essentially this sestina. I still hope and pray for him every once in a while.

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