War Goods

What Happens When You Win:
We achieved everything we fought so long for, and then…

What Happens When You Lose:
We lost everything. Everything, I tell you.
Can you understand me? No?
The phone in this Mercedes has a fault;
I’ll ring back from one of my other cars.

When Neutrality Is Affordable:
Jimmy reached out and maimed me.
I refused to be drawn,
           knowing the teeth
                      that his club broke
were not needed for ice cream.

With God On Our Side:
Nowhere more than in war do we enjoy
such confidence from our people.
We lead and they are disposed to follow.
There were very few we had to shoot.

The Holy War Against Drugs:
           War is a drug.

Something Worth Fighting For:
The better places on Earth are limited
There is competition
for the better grasslands,
           the more beautiful lakes and
                      the fatter sheep.
Sometimes we strong are at peace with each other,
                      sharing with our peers
and deploring the cries
                                 of the have-nots.
disturbing our armed suburbs with their cries.

Not Even Getting Close

they shine the sun on rats by lifting covers
and tell themselves they represent the sun

they bomb the little children and their mothers
we stay inside our restaurants having fun

and me i spend my life hide in the shallows
and nothing make me stand up grab a gun

like i live forever i avoid the gallows
while the others’ childrens’ bones bleach in the sun

they say they had to shoot john get him down
get him quiet and leave the loonies lone

nobody has to shoot i stay home drown
my conscience front an altar carved from bone

i getting crazy hearing voices whisper
put my head in pillows peek but don’t walk out

like i waiting for a benediction vespers
the whispers work they way up to a shout


In a minute she will say ‘good morning’ and the ghosts
will scamper from my skull back to Biafra
where, like every day, the conquerers will kill them
and wipe the bayonets on oil-stained grass.

The sun will race everywhere when she opens the curtains,
its beams, at this prime distance, bringing me warmth
more bearable than gun barrels burning flesh from hands
that tried to push the noise and the light away.

My distance from the sun will make me welcome
its particles, the way we welcome ambassadors
who bring this message from so many lands:
Our oil supply stays safe, and in good hands.

Five minutes after firing stops, birds sing.
The smells of coffee, butter, fresh croissants
and the sounds of Jan Sibelius do their work
expecting my greeted skull to say it’s fine.

© Alan Reynolds, 1998 – 2016
I have worked and reworked this poem over the years, trying to write something that expresses my reaction to what I feel is the madness of being well adjusted in a maladjusted world.
There are too many examples of the maladjusted world. Here I went back to one which had a name and face many years ago, Biafra, conflating it with today and any day. Maybe I chose Biafra as my ‘scene’ (and Finlandia as my title, especially when listening to the music) because of Kurt Vonnegut, who wrote so movingly about that country when it was one: The Republic of Biafra, May 30, 1967 – July 17, 1970: ‘The tune of Biafra’s national anthem was Finlandia, by Jan Sibelius. The equatorial Biafrans admired the arctic Finns because the Finns won and kept their freedom in spite of ghastly odds.’ Wampeters, Foma & Granfalloons: Opinions, 1974. p. 140.

Yet More Killings

Can I be frightened? Yes. Shocked? Every day.
Each hour brings news I don’t want to know.
It’s not the knowing but the happenings I hate.

Murderers ruin survivors’ lives and leave
Earth worse off than they found it. There’s no Why.
The good among us vacillate and grieve.
We ask each other why must children die
for madmen’s twisted searches for the power.
The power eludes us all. Thank gods for that.

Each minute that we mourn takes us an hour
further away from Heaven. Lives go flat.
Bright colours fade, reduce to black and white.
We follow demagogues who bring the night.

Apathy is a Developing Response

Apathy is a developing response.
Ask the young what should be done about some ‘X’
and they will answer with a certainty admired
by falling rocks which don’t so straightly plumb
the depths as do the certainties of youth.

In middle age, amongst their bouts of rage,
the folk, perplexed by living the long riddle
they call their lives, will entertain first doubts
about positions they once firmly held.
And then they’ll hold them tighter, fear letting loose

and a fall into ‘senescence’ — as we call
that acceptance Buddha lauds and Calvin hates,
where the answer to what one’s required to do
engenders daily less hot animo
and more and more a careless ‘I don’t know.’


Is apathy an acceptable response?
It feels better (because feels less) than other options
Which are available to us readers of the news
Where some police shoot children, and where kids
Kill lots of people with their parents’ guns.

It seems, to guns as news, that we adjust,
But more headlines beat on us every day
With floods, hate, lies, and thefts on grandstand scale.
We see wars, and photographs of screaming grief,
And unmitigated everyday small meanness.

Anthropogenic warming. Globe goes Bang!
Put on blinkers. Turn off all reports of spying.
Take pills of higher strength. Ignore the signs
Until it all hurts less, until you’re happy.
A little, sometime. Nearer apathetic.

Piece Work

Just bits you sell in passing as you fall.
Few SM fans extend to drilling teeth,
but you don’t stop. It seems to be your call-
ing. I command you: Stop. Come lay one wreath,
just one, to lay your longings out to rest.
They’ve run from dawn to vespers. There’s the bell.
You’re always in to put yourself to test,
but shadows lengthen. Longings likes yours dwell
too long in skulls like yours, and drive men mad.
El Cid would dream like you, but then would act –
while you but scream in slumber. If you had
his energy, you’d long ago have packed
your weapons, and have died in one last bout.
The theory: Go inside. Grab. Fetch it out.
The theory (go inside, grab, fetch it out)
can soothe you. Save you. Try it here tonight.
I’ll help you practice, and, as one, we’ll rout
the demons who still make your smile too tight
when people who don’t know it talk of war.
You’ve learned well not to flare out these last years.
You simply walk away. You don’t get far.
When you look in the mirror I see tears.
You lock your heart when they laugh at lost lives,
and I applaud your stillness. Stoic. Sane.
But later, when you oil and whet your knives
and rust their hinges crying, you’re the bane
of my senescence. Come. It’s time to wrench.
Display it flayed upon the market bench.
Display it flayed upon the market bench?
Yes. I’ll tell you what. Step down this way,
into our memories. Yes, that’s the finch.
The bigger boys had burned its beak away.
You would have killed them had you had a gun;
but thankfully we didn’t, and the brick
you broke upon one’s instep let us run
away to grow up. Yes, this is the trick
you learned in school of asking people Why
each time they talked of action. You’d oppose
with questions (better every year), defy
each thoughtless action. Still would, I suppose.
You like to lay your verbal traps about
and mark who flinches at your barker’s shout.
And mark who flinches at your barker’s shout.
Yes, you’re a barker. Biting’s not your style.
And war’s the weapon you would do without.
Turn the other cheek. Walk extra miles.
You don’t believe in that? What else is left
to you, who are convinced that evil grows
in ratio to righteousness of men
who shoot, but look no further for a rose,
or other reason, to be friends. When war
won us (well, lost us) – forced us to confront
the evils you had hated from afar –
you did your worst, effectively, to shunt
opponents to the Styx. You drench this stench:
this once was you. You sell it now to quench…
This once was you. You sell it now to quench
a craving you developed (in those caves)
for being left alone. We ought to bed a winch
in the quarry (yours, mental), hoist those knaves
that taunt all your remaining summer nights.
Remember Spring? Colombia? You liked to sing,
and tease the colonel’s wife to shed her tights,
one of the pairs you’d parted with to wring
revenge from his, the colonel’s, side.
And all because you saw him maim that bird.
‘La vida’, as your actions broke his heart,
‘no vale nada.’ Courts found it absurd
that you were charged – and set you free to flood
your thirst for patronage, and theirs for blood.
Your thirst for patronage, and theirs for blood,
and that in northern cities for escape,
could make us rich. And better yet, it would
have done, you vigilante in a cape,
but you decided drugs could harm a child
and children, like small birds, should be set free.
Now action-tuned, you turned yourself loose. Wild.
You bombed the plane we guarded on the Key.
They would have killed us both. You got them first.
‘Off the offal’, was your crazy cry.
In many tongues you overfed this thirst,
became too facile helping others die.
When Roma called, you auctioned off your hate.
Note down who pays your price and hefts its weight.
Note down who pays your price and hefts its weight.
Our lives hang in the balance. Be alert.
You’re foreign here, like everywhere, and rate
a special sanction. Worse than death is hurt,
and hurt is what is driving our host’s plan.
You think his wife’s attractive, but it’s she
who urged his group to hire you. Over flan,
that follows goose and brandy, she’ll decree
how many ounces of your flesh they’ll chop
away in retribution for expenses
you’ve cost her family. As their profits drop
they cut their losses. Lost flesh recompenses
their pain. You use the knife, and hear the thud;
note how the drops behind them turn to mud.
Note how the drops behind them turn to mud,
and turn, and tunnel. Down and down and down
to where the boatman waits. He lets you hud-
dle in the bilge, hide underneath the gown
the bishop gave for passage on the Styx.
Now we are here, and Death is here, and Life.
And something Else, that throws one die to fix
your pattern for the future. There is strife,
and stridency. Subterfuge, and, then, tender
remonstration. Candles light. We glide
away, no oars. A hand of unknown gender
takes yours, takes mine; it lifts us safe inside
an ancient hall. Tall monks expectorate
the little puffs of dust they wet, then wait.
The little puffs of dust they wet, then wait
to watch re-dry, grow up: stalagmite men.
Approaching you, these golems hesitate,
then strip you bare, and bind you fast with tin
and copper wires. You don’t resist. Your breath,
too shallow now to cloud a looking glass,
expires without a sound. You welcome Death.
You wait in vain. A score of hours pass
and Nothing happens; No-one’s here.
No human hand unbinds you, then you’re free.
You’re free, and hate no more, and birdsong clear
as God’s, or Julie Andrews’, do-re-mi
leads you to a window. Hold the sash
a while, for decency, before you dash.
A while, for decency, before you dash,
isn’t long. You fear no golem’s hands,
or mob reprisals. Nothing makes you rash,
and singing birds suspend thin silken strands
to guide your steps as we stride from the cave
and out its mouth to glory. I shed tears,
but you are taciturn; you do not rave,
or get us into trouble. You’ve no fears.
No fears. No more. And also, no more hopes.
You sell your time as worker bon marché;
ignore the barks of meal dogs hanged from ropes.
You’re catatonic, want to stay that way.
You, once the warrior, let all battles pass –
to spend your income on a looking glass.
To spend your income on a looking glass
is motored by a very meager plan:
you want, here, after all that’s come to pass,
to check if you can see the inner man.
I find you can’t. To me I look the same,
and you (who’s that?) remain romantic, lost;
and little changed, in visage, from the game
you’ve played (played us) each time a coin was tossed,
and every time a birdcall called us out.
Your armor’s rusty, and you’ve lost your thrust.
It’s time to cut from battlefield to pout,
to sell out memoirs to the upper crust.
They’ve always had our soul. We need the cash,
to see if, now you’ve lost it, you look flash.
To see if now you’ve lost it you look flash
requires more money than a monk can muster.
The wage you earn retiring market trash,
a quarter what the major pays his duster,
is what we used to get through in an hour.
Use your skills and give your back a break;
I could use the money and a shower.
This city, and this world, are on the take;
but you, of all Earth’s fools best in the know,
persist with head down, hoeing with a rake.
Reciting lines like litanies, you go
through time entombed, with both feet on the brake.
Look then! Has your grace gone to higher class
or simply thinner? Thinking soon will pass.
Or simply, thinner thinking soon will pass.
Fat chance you won’t give power one more whirl.
The mayor’s duster will not let his nas-
ty wishes shame her. Poor and stupid girl!
He calls this virgin, ‘Whore.’ What’s that, a sty?
Your eyelid twitches. Knife back in that sheath!
The mayor’s lynch friends vote to crucify
this righteous girl, then burn her, on the heath.
No, these are not just words. They really will.
It’s custom here; and you are garbage — low,
not lethal anymore. You will not kill,
though your inaction ushers in Hell’s glow.
Don’t let reason leave, to heed this call,
as did career and family. They are all.
As did career and family. They are all
you ever had. God knows I miss them so.
You take the knife, the knives (the knives!) and haul
their edges over leather till they glow,
surprise the mayor’s henchmen cleaning guns –
surprise the mayor too, by striking low.
The river’s dark at noon down where it runs
beneath the heather bridge. The current’s slow,
and heartbeats stop. The bravest one is yours.
Yours starts again. The town makes you new mayor.
Of all you were, the little that endures,
the piece that works, is not the righteous slayer,
but the parts you flog, ignoring birds that call –
just bits you sell in passing, as you fall.
The theory? Go inside. Grab. Fetch it out.
Display it flayed upon the market bench,
and mark who flinches at your barker’s shout
this once was you. You sell it now to quench
your thirst for patronage, and theirs for blood.
Note down who pays your price and hefts its weight.
Note how the drops behind them turn to mud
the little puffs of dust they wet. Then wait,
a while, for decency, before you dash
to spend your income on a looking glass
to see if, now you’ve lost it, you look flash,
or simply thinner. Thinking soon will pass,
as did career and family. They are all –
just bits you sell in passing, as you fall.


Piece Work was published in ENVOI 126, June 2000. (ENVOI)