Armistice Day 11.11.11

In Memoriam, John Armstrong 1886 -1959

One of my many births
was in the explosion of the shell
the impact of the bullets
that destroyed your leg.

Amongst the suffering and smoke and terror
a part of me came into being at that moment in the trenches.

         We one-legged men are brought home to live.
         The two-legged ones mostly remain to die.

         My haggard face is shaped with the other maimed men
         as we struggle with crutches, a pinned-up trouser leg
         a false leg strapped on to a stump.

        When I come home to my wife, will she recognise this broken being?
        Will I ever be strong enough to leave my false leg on the floor at night
        and engage with her in one-legged congress to conceive our two sons?
        Will she caress my wound, will she love my stump?

        Will suffering forever be etched into my life?
        I can manage the forty years of pain and awkwardness
        the operations to re-trim the stump
        the job as a lift operator reserved for me so I can sit.

       But when my older son takes his own life
       from the chronic pain of his war-wound
       and when my younger son, who survives six years of war in the navy
       has a simple accident that leaves him paralysed for life
       what can love do then, what can love do then?

One of my many deaths
was in the breaking of your heart
the refusal of your body to go on
your leaving of this life
this stream of suffering
which those of us remaining
continue to transform as best we can.

 

 

 

 A short commentary:

Here is the story of my father’s father, losing his leg in the trenches of the first world war. But then my father’s story is in there too (he’s the one who was left paralysed by an accident). And my own story is bound up with both their lives – and all that occurred to them.

We each have a birth, but is our birth just the moment we emerge from our mother’s womb, or can we usefully consider that there we have many origins, many events that led to our existence, many ‘births’? In that case one of mine was on a battlefield in Northern France or Belgium. 

I wrote this to mark the date 11.11.11. I hope I have done some small justice to the sacrifice of so many.

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