Two Poems

Tony Harrison

Queuing for Charon

1

Cretans still can’t stand ‘the Krauts’
but don’t turn them away,
gaga ex-Nazis, lager louts,
cramming Crete on holiday.
Fifty-odd years of so-called peace
fill beaches with old foes.
Northern Europe flocks to Greece
to warm its frozen toes.
And my old carcass likes these coasts,
archaeology and joy,
but even in Greek sun the ghosts
come back to haunt the boy.
Underneath the skin that’s tanned
these Krauts are frail and ill
but once they served the Fatherland
with more than time to kill.
This museum that they shuffle round
groggy from too much sun
has finds out of the Cretan ground
once trampled by the Hun.
Of an age to have yelled Zieg Heils
worn jackboots, marched like geese,
they stagger round with vacant smiles
smeared with anti-UV grease.
A few years younger I’d only seen
Belsen on newsreels but the sight
I saw at eight on that big screen
fell on me like a blight.
It clouded all my childish fun.
My voice, before it got its bass,
squeaked against the humbled Hun
and murderous Master Race.
Younger than these Krauts on Crete
my old Hun-hatred flares
They’ve come in to escape the heat
and dodder up the stairs.
These dodderers I demonise
aren’t garbed in SS Might
but kit that bares their flabby thighs
and blistered cellulite
An hour to kill till their lamb stew
then I can be left alone
to keep my promised rendezvous
with a laureate of bone.

2

A dolphin dominates the room
caught at the zenith of its arc
leaping inside an ancient tomb
from mortality’s deep dark.
Once the painting had been done
it was hidden from the light
sealed with a lid that weighed a ton
and seamlessly sun-tight.
Do dolphins soar out of the deep
and, soaring, seem to pack
all joy there is into the leap
because they’re going back?
I’d sooner see them live at sea
but this corpse’s private view
shows the surface of mortality
their leaps keep breaking through.
The Germans think the dolphin’s schön;
more comfort than the coffin quilt
cushioning them when it’s their turn
to attempt a leap from guilt.
I saw a dolphin diver/flyer
from a ferry Lesbos bound
to where the floating head and lyre
of Orpheus ran aground.
And here’s a skull with golden wreath,
a sort of Orpheus, but
songless for ever and his teeth
clamped permanently shut.
One jovial elder cracks a joke
that’s meant to keep at bay
the thought that even Herrenvolk
end up as skulls one day.
It makes the old girls all guffaw
but their laughter quickly dies
faced with the skull I stand before
whose sockets hold my eyes.
The Germans crowd me at the case
where the poet’s skull’s displayed.
It’s fleshed by my reflected face
and when I leave reflayed.
The Gerriatrics quieten down
at the case where I am now,
a poet’s skull with laurel crown
still on its bony brow.
What strikes me dumb is that I spy
the obol put inside his cheek
to pay his fare’s still there, but why?
Did the ferry bar this Greek?
Why the coin still with the skull?
Was it, as in these old folks’ day,
that Charon’s stiff-skiff was chock full
and the bard was turned away?
And turned away because art fails
when violence is rife
and doesn’t help to tip the scales
towards the claims of life?
Are hearts touched by your great gifts
or softened just a jot?
Since I’m working double shifts
they’re obviously not!
If any poems or piddling odes
can be shown (a monstrous if)
ever to have lightened my huge loads
I’ll scull you in my skiff.
Charon said: Piss off, I’m full!
At least to poets I am
that’s why the obol’s with the skull
all bards get told to scram.
And poets’ obols are still leaning
against their fleshless jaw
because they failed to give a meaning
to all those ghosts of War.
I think for poets the moral’s
when they reach those Styx bank queues
they should ditch their golden laurels
and stand behind the queueing Jews
until the last one’s safely crossed
then poets might have their say.
Poetry since the Holocaust
’s a Stygian stowaway.

3

Charon can’t work any quicker
to clear the endless line
and the rear is getting thicker
with new blood from Palestine.
The bards are crowding on the banks
of this slithery nearer shore
with zlotys, kroner, pennies, francs
tucked inside their jaw,
and all of them doomed to repeat,
whatever tongue they speak,
the stutters of the skull of Crete
choking on his Greek.
The bards hope Charon won’t capsize
with loads who’ve lost their tongue
for what these Germans’ shaded eyes
looked on when they were young,
these burned who leave to board their bus,
the red bus that reads Bonn,
making a gentle, gallant fuss
of sleeveless ladies they help on.
So the dumb poet with the wreath of gold
has he taught them any lesson?
Live every moment when you’re old?
The bus moves. Next stop: Essen!
They’ll leave the island in a week
and take the ferry back from Crete
with peppermints inside their cheek
to keep their short breath sweet.
From the ferry rail they scan the waves
and keep their weak eyes peeled
for dolphins that can leap from graves
before their lids are sealed.

Über al . . .

Uns hat der winter geschadet über al . . .
Walther von der Vogelweide (1170-1230)

Winter’s done his worst all round,
leafless trees, and lifeless ground,
silence where birdsong used to sound.
I want summer back with girls at play
and birds that sing at break of day.

While his stranglehold’s so strong,
till the birds bring back their song
I’d like to sleep all Winter long –
but once May weakens Winter’s powers
from this frostbound ground I’ll pick you flowers.