This week’s poem comes from Tony Curtis’ War Voices, first published in 1995.
War and its effects have been an enduring subject throughout the twenty-five year writing career of Tony Curtis. The resulting poetry might have been bleak but for the sensitivity with which Curtis handles the theme, and the bravery and dignity in the face of barbarism which he finds underlying conflict. Poems such as ‘Soup’, shortlisted for the Observer / Arvon Prize and ‘The Death of Richard Beattie-Seaman’, winner of the National Poetry Competition, are a measure of Curtis’s skill in addressing this difficult subject. From Flanders to Bosnia, via Russia and Suez, India and Ireland, Vietnam and the Cold War, these War Voices speak of protest, remembrance and commemoration.
The Last Soldier
The last soldier marches out of the jungle
to the gentlemen of the press and an official welcome.
He salutes, presents the sword
which his parents, thirty years before,
had him swear to use with honour
in war, or on himself. Swathed
in a white cloth, it does not glint in the lights.
The President orders a reception, magnanimously
pardons the crimes of his private war.
A chartered Jumbo flies him home:
his mother’s cheek is leather,
his father’s mind has split.
The crowds scream for a walking-history,
the last spirit of Empire. Too late.
In his absence the Dream has come
The bright shells of cars litter his path,
blind-eyed towers monster above him;
selling lights dazzle, pattern unfamiliar streets.
The air cloys with a sweet choking sin.
Back in the jungle, the fronds of evening
finger a clear sky, rainbow birds dash
colours across the deep green.
Minutely, against the background of birds
and the timed whispering of the ocean
his abandoned radio crackles into life:
orders come through.