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PN Review 276
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This poem is taken from PN Review 268, Volume 49 Number 2, November - December 2022.

Headstones Joseph Minden

Lights up. What light. A Malaysian

number. Mina. Ordnance Survey

crystals. Mells, obviously. Catkins

hazing April, Somerset from

branches parting. Suddenly past

Lutyens, street view retrospect.

Side-struck with morning sun,

thudding through wild garlic in

the valley, footholds of old sockets

in stone. Close to wet stone, the

smell of moss, of earth still moist

in shade. Volume of breath. I spun

round in the clearing and was

struck again, concussed by a pass-

ing cloud. A Sopwith Camel over

Cadbury Camp. The drifty hum-

mocks they say were Camelot. The

melting parallelogram of the

Quantocks where we broke down.

                           *

Fragrances like melodies, orange

lanterns leaching from my tem-

ples, the street trembling. Once, a

letter would have taken four

months to travel from London to

Penang. Faster by opium clipper.

A bottleneck of shipping lanes dot-

ted through the Straits of Malacca,

becoming a black glut. MALAY

STATES in a banner across the

landmass. Straits Settlements in

small script in the sea. Mina in the

George Town Festival office.

Smoking a clove cigarette in the

evening shade. Watching emails

arrive in her inbox. Pressing

delete. I shut my eyes and stand

next to her for a second on that

first night, in her hands. Blissful-

ly passive.

                           *

One day we drove directly south,

bypassing Shaftesbury, Blandford

Forum, Bere Regis, and shot the

arrow of our bounden sight right

through the stately arch of Durdle

Door. The breeze blew over frozen

Tyneham. Coffee dripped in an

earthenware pot. Mina walked

back to the car, walnuts falling

near the house, peaches closing

over the claws of the boughs. At

Montacute, Dicken looked up

from the till, his eyes an explosion

of irises. Agnosia of the beds. No

forms but fading blues, yellows,

creams, apricots, pinks, mauves,

reds. White and obscure lenses

hurrying up. The slow expansion

of the reds. All flower and faceless.

                           *

Jason is off to the Front. Will I go

with him? I remember that school

trip so well, press-ganged by the

luminous white graves. Then bro-

ken up and rearranged like earth,

like cloud. German remains shov-

elled into a pit at Langemark. A

grief not given room. A grief for

which power could not stake out

the relief of space. My teacher an

absurd and statuesque ghoul

among the accusatory oaks, the

thousands of names. And it was

the whites in the sky overhead

that didn’t move. The squat blocks

in the ground began to drift. What

were they teaching? Of course I’ll

go. Rolling round Picardy in a

Mini listening to Lloyd Cole

sounds like heaven.

                           *

MacDonald Gill at Pitzhanger

Manor. A room full of low chatter

like a sky full of Sopwith Camels.

The Empire Marketing Board’s

first poster, Highways of Empire.

MALAY STATES in a banner across

the landmass. Straits Settlements

in small script in the sea. Mina,

lighting up. Then, distinct and

bright white in the centre of the

gallery, a War Graves Commission

headstone. Gill’s crisp lettering. A

SOLDIER OF THE GREAT WAR

KNOWN UNTO GOD. How many

rows of those calling from Flan-

ders and the Somme? Their glow-

ing, solitary counterparts shining

like mushrooms in English grave-

yards.

                           *

The majority are Portland stone

but some are Hopton Wood lime-

stone from Derbyshire, where they

quarried to meet excess demand.

Near Middleton, there are rem-

nants of broken headstones in the

walls. I stepped across my dreams

up to the pile of concrete. White

chips in miniature drifts. Needles

in piles. Jason called back to say

turn left at the end of the lane

there, descend soundlessly into a

sudden fir plantation, fall asleep

in the front seats in April, May,

June. Some month from the fresh-

ness of the year. I looked up from

the jump leads to find myself fly-

ing over Tyne Cot with a pouch

full of milk teeth for the boys.

                           *

The truth is not a headstone but a

pit. Blank earth in the hollows of

the body. Uncle Roy, escaping from

a sinking submarine off Bastia,

dying of his dreams in Rome. Hid-

den in the soil are small and lov-

ing models, holy sites plundered

by soldiers in bright colours, the

purples and yellows of spring, the

postures of infancy crystallised as

toys. What is remembered is what

is forgotten, splitting from itself,

turning in a different direction in

the valley. I thought it was white as

snow but it was red as blood, hun-

dreds of white teeth turning in the

eye of a red flower, whiteness mist-

ing to an uncountable array of red

flowers.

                           *

The glacial segments of the fillets

bristled as Jason unwrapped them

from the waxed paper. Red and

yellow light of nighttime. Mina

and I walking like ghosts over fro-

zen furrows in Blenheim Park

hours before, steam billowing.

Strange how I see it. Staring in

from December darkness, breath

wreathing my head. Me and Jason,

marinaded in yellow light, talking

by the sink. Fenugreek, cumin,

fennel seeds spitting in a dented

pan. The window frame buckling

and curving, becoming circular.

The ground loosening, tilting,

becoming water. The house lurch-

ing, distending, becoming a clip-

per bound for Canton with its

cargo of opium.

                           *

It is only in my memory that I feel

so alone. In reality, Mina was wait-

ing at the airport, standing with

me in the queue for food, time

flowing over the weir. A row of

cypresses against a red wall, its

roots in our veins. Nepenthe.

Helen relieving Telemachus and

Menelaus of all memory of the

war. Lin Zexu and Joseph of Ari-

mathea holding hands on Glaston-

bury Tor, the drug pouring into the

sea. All the solace in Benares,

Patna, Malwa, burning in a mead-

ow of trenches. Daoguang waking

up to rumours of pests in metal

ships from the West Ocean. Foxed

by the size of his own empire.

Where, in fact, was England?

                           *

Our stomachs were the lure of

blankness. Ice and condensed

milk browning with Malacca sugar.

Pits of green noodles. A wound in

slow motion walking through Bris-

tol, Dover, Liverpool to the water.

Up Mincing Lane and Exchange

Alley. Sniffing at the threshold of

Garraway’s Coffee House. Drifting

over remote earthworks, the

infinite promise of a moment in

time, the sky when you are high on

a hill, infested with Sopwith Cam-

els. Textile mills in the Midlands

collapsing, slave ships repurposed

as opium boats, the familiarity of

the witch vanishing over the low

wall on her broomstick, rounding

the headland in an eggshell.

                           *

The row of cypresses, the red wall.

There was an old love. The same

love, in fact. A seam under the veil

of the soil. But is there a brother to

mourn in that specific grave? Uncle

Roy, waking up from a sinking sub-

marine to find himself falling from

a window, already wrapped in his

funeral shroud. Warmth weakens

from the bedsheets like a fra-

grance. The row of cypresses. The

red wall. I am clawing the ground,

unable to explain the objects turn-

ing up in my hands. Underneath is

one growing mouth, one building

scream. But the noise is aborted,

compressed into these teeth, these

plastic toys, these flowers.

                           *

A whale vertebra from Zoology. A

dip circle from the Whipple. A

page of Southern Beech specimens

from the Botanical Gardens. Rub-

bish rattling around among roots.

I walked to the train station and

the jungle went changelessly to

ruins. Fussell’s factory in Mells.

Mina laughing through coins and

portals of light. Jason rounding the

corner in his Mini. Provisions spilt

onto a checked cloth, demolished

on a green in East Coker. I’d barely

swallowed but I opened up again.

Not the talking. Fish heads threw

off their sauce and got up to levi-

tate out. Oysters sped from ome-

lettes. Coffees punched holes

downwards out of time.

                           *

There are no headstones for what

is under the ground, only for what

is held at the surface. The place

where my foot meets the gravel,

where the plane hits the runway,

where the sun touches the water.

I will not call them by their

names, their names cannot reach

them. The whiteness of their faces

mists into a red field. I am under

the earth. This cemetery in which

I stand at dusk, the sunset I drive

off in: complications in the soil.

Root, bone, scrap chandeliers.

There are no headstones for what

is under the name. A name, like a

photograph, proof that memory

fails. Roy, for example. Mina.

There, that will do.

                           *

The night will be cool, hardening

into winter. I’ll stumble over a

prone lad and go off, chilled. The

ferry will be quiet, the light yellow.

We’ll be in Ypres on November 11

for the last post, eating eels full of

spine out of a horribly thick cream

sauce in the square. The first

night we’ll sleep near Albert, in

the heart of the Somme. The sec-

ond we’ll spend in Poperinge,

gateway to the battlefields of the

Ypres Salient, billet for British

troops. After dinner, I’ll suddenly

stand up, needing to breathe. I’ll

walk out into the square, take out

my phone and dial a number. The

bell will start ringing. Without

warning, the square will flood.

                           *

Thousands of poppies appear and

blossom into bulbs of smoke. Each

bulb soon falls out of shape, rising,

distending, blowing off. Through

the haze, it becomes clear that

there are also thousands of figures

lying there beneath, blissed out

beyond recollection, complete as

stones. Understated bulbs of

smoke flower from their mouths,

carrying care, rephrasing memo-

ries as wordless dreams. Unthink-

able objects. A smoke that freezes

briefly in the reds of poppies, drift-

ing up in thousands of trails like

the aftermath of a bombardment.

Others in the sky, drifting in giant

shade like blimps, discover teeth,

plastic toys, flowers.

                           *

The exhibition opened this

evening. Discovery’s bell rang in

celebration. I thought about Mina,

what she was doing. I mean, she

would have been asleep. But now.

Early hours here. She’ll have

woken. She’ll be walking through

the streets before the heat, past

the heritage pinks, blues, yellows

of the shophouses. Picking up

breakfast, her face gone. I walked

home slowly after the guests had

left, out beneath the MacDonald

Gill domes. Lensfield Avenue

deserted. On Parker’s Piece, the

lime trees trembled. In Reality

Checkpoint’s lemony glow, an

enamoured soul sucked on their

lover’s neck. Flecks of scarlet on

ice-white.

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