Pocked, churning, liquid here and set solid here, they entrench themselves in me and scurry and sleep in me, muddy womb. Here they think theirs to hide in, theirs to bleed and die in, back there is foreign, despised (yet still muddy me), and the middle, not here not there, no man’s wire and blistered tree trunks. I know them and their detritus: the costly, vibrant blood; the spongy bone to fill with long, dark veins of dirt; dust, like they knew on Sunday afternoon windowsills, everyday dust, skin and earth scuffed up by marching feet. Metal: I collect shells, guns and blackened buttons, brass, nickel, sewn back on by a shaking hand, I’ll have them, those buttons, I don’t ask I take, absorb, I like to keep them, smooth and polish with grub, store them away, all types I’m not fussy, whistles buckles chains badges crosses round helmets, whatever comes my way. Cloth too, I shred it tear it with my teeth, taste the greens and browns, imitation, protection and safety, a pair of loving arms and their last embrace. Fire, forbidden here-I-am fire, the giveaway of soft ash, and cigarette ash too. How they love to smoke, both sides, burn themselves from the inside out, they know the spot-aim-fire but they do it anyway, no point breaking old habits now. First aid clusters, fumbled scissors and morphine, all buried (mine now), and sand, sand like a sea-shore, they bring the beach inland and fill the trenches, and when my banks burst dunes spill from sacks and can’t be put back. Much to smell too: the raw burn of chlorine; the homely soil and the recoil of rotting flesh; mustard gas like French garlic; the reek of animals: moles as they tear away underground (their own trenches out of sight); many rats, hairy, fat, thriving; a stray dog adopted; a bird chancing an overhead crossing, bomb trajectory. The rain that turns a crater to a pond, some drown, fills trenches up like a bathtub and crusts me with ice. The men, soles hammer, thudding of pulse and falling, the climbing and dragging, rescue, broken hands bearing broken bodies, the silent night operations of crawling and wire-cutting when the Verey eyes flare up, the ambulances withdrawing, the chatter and the cries and the last gasps, the letters streaming home, and dreams returning to my ruined face, sockets and smiles looming forever.
Art by George Wilson