‘Tread Softly’ and other poems by Michael J Whelan

DELIVERANCE

In the orphanage a child
cowers from cursing men outside.
She wants to climb back into
her dead mother’s womb
and hide inside its warm, soft,
un-edged safety,
where no explanation is needed
or reason to hide under splintered
staircases or run the gauntlet to basement
bomb shelters, existing minute to minute
with strangers until the dawn arrives with her
deliverance and she refuses to be born.

© Michael J. Whelan (Published in Cyphers, Nov 2011)

GRAPES OF WRATH

 

It happens on a Thursday, just after 2pm,
when ancient cultures and beliefs conspire
and vultures spiral above a peacekeepers’ camp,
where cedars age slowly and the Litani River
caresses the ground where Jesus turned water
into wine, where artillery salvos rip the air
on their long flight and bite deep, deep into
that place of safety vaporizing its concrete
walls and burning and blistering and tearing
apart the mass of terrified flesh and innocent blood
seeking refuge from the hate of man.

A soldier climbs from the rubble limbs
and discarded faces, his eyes caked black with tears,
his hands at arm’s length clutching the newborn baby
that looks like a headless doll.

© Michael J. Whelan

(Qana Massacre April 18th 1996)
During ‘Operation Grapes of Wrath’ Israeli Defence Force artillery shells strike a Fijian UN compound in South Lebanon protecting 800 civilians fleeing the fighting, approx 120 died. Published in the Galway Review 2013 & The Hundred Years War – Anthology of 2Oth Century War Poems, (Bloodaxe 2014)

 

BROKEN SPADE

You lay in your frozen field, slack-jawed at how you
came to be there, your mouth caked in last year’s mud,
limbs twisted about your body as if in the midst of some
remembered dance or tempered at your rotting crops,
bent over in disgust, yielding in the half light and startled
at the cold – they have never felt.
This harvest, un-reaped and yet reaped upon you
hides the stale shoe and crushed spectacles,
the broken spade that hastily covered you in the soft
clay you loved, now steeled hard against the sharp sky.

I imagine the fears of your kin as they searched the high
golden horizon that summer day.
They might have felt the distant calamity that took you
following the bullet casings along the beaten track,
and I wonder if they found you,
then I see the scars of cluster bombs and scorched
stalks of your petrified labours and there, there in the shrapnel
of this bitter harvest I behold your seed,
torn apart but reaching out to the one who bore them.

© Michael J. Whelan

Published in And Agamemnon Dead – An Anthology of Early 21st Century Irish Poetry Edited by Walter Ruhlman & Peter O’ Neill (Paris, 2015)

RENDEVOUS

The sodden fields are bleak, the road
is broken and I am tired.
Rain shoots off my weary face,
its cold tears count the ribs
that cage my distant heart.
At night I make my rifle safe,
fling this conflict to the floor,
it gathers round the worn-out boots
that tread in miseries of a war.
But I have a rendezvous,
a memory in a future place.
That short black dress, golden hair
tumbling to her shoulders.
Laying foetal, arms wrapping
her soft body, kissing the curve of her
neck, I breathe her in, capturing her.

© Michael J. Whelan

TREAD SOFTLY

It’s raining, always is,
that sticky hazy rain that gets down your neck,
behind your ears and saturates your face, your hair
as soon as you step from the vehicle
even though the uniform is multilayered,
your boots get soggy straight away
and the pistol grip on the rifle resting in your arms
slips in your fist.

You’re not really afraid – for yourself,
though your heart is racing approaching
the recently finished mass grave- their hurting ground
covered in fresh clay, flags and wreaths,
you’ve just driven over the ancient village cemetery as you entered
like it was a cross country speed test on rough terrain,
the old grave markers are long gone.

No, you’re not afraid for yourself,
the fear comes when no adult arrives to greet you
or check out your party as a possible threat
save for the elderly ones corralling young children
behind hedges and outhouses on the high ground,
who watch you as you watch them
barefoot and half dressed in the rain
and you taking photographs of yourselves
at the place of their parents.

You – the uniforms that stormed into their hurting place
feeling like liberators but to them resembling conquerors,
you who come to help but instead bring memories of terror
and usher a fear they keep from the last time
soldiers conquered this place,
you who tread softly then when you realize what you have done,
when you see the muddied feet of innocence and the future in their eyes
peering down.

© Michael J. Whelan

Published in Three Monkeys, online magazine, Feb 2013

PARADOX OF THE PEACEKEEPER IN THE HOLY LAND
I am forever walking upon the shore
betwixt the sand and the foam.
The high tide will erase my footprints,
and the wind will blow away the foam,
but the sea and the shore will remain forever
Kahlil Gibran

In Lebanon I sought redemption
like the pilgrim at the crossroads of Heliopolis,
on the Bekaa’s great range where Bedouin caravans met
and Romans laid their bodies down in supplication to their gods,
to Aphrodite and Jupiter, and long before this peacekeeper came
on what seemed a fools errant, whose only armour
was the feeble weave of a blue flag,

before these wars for modernity and religion
where the new city’s shadows fall like dead soldiers
on the broken steps of Astarte’s Temple,
where the priests of Baalbek burned incense,
lay themselves prostrate with tribute and homage
beseeching fertility over the land and on warriors on the eve of battle

and the same priests parcelled out her favours to believers
who built new columns to the sun god on her ruins,
before all this there was blood on the stones and in the dust
of Tyre, of Sidon and in Byblos,
and the gods looked down from the heavens and laughed
for they knew that man knew not of their fallibilities,
their eyes kept the storms that belief constructed –

the defence of Masada by Jewish zealots
against ramparts, siege-towers and battering rams of enemies – never giving in,
the caliphs who ordered the conquests of Bilad al-Sham,
Helen who setting forth from Constantinople to Jerusalem
in search of the Cross set beacons ready to burn along the way
and Constantine, her son, converted his empire in promise to his mother

who lit the path for Crusaders and the burial places of a thousand years
under these skies of mumatus clouds that hang like fronds of fruit
above the hills at dusk, who rest like relics with Saracens
and Mamluks, the swords of east and west,
the holy books of Abraham, Mohamed and Byzantium,
where Gilgamesh cleaved the cedars for his ships

and where now the free man might dig with trowels once more,
adjure in the Temple of Baachus, revere the flake-bones of gladiators
under the triumphal arch of Al-Minah – the hippodrome at Tyre,
where fishermen still cast their nets on the same Phoenician shore
in Galilee beneath the stirring sands of Jordan
and camels sometimes carry scholars through the Quadisha Valley
like in the old days passing slopes of red anemone, wild tulip, oleander and poppy

and young girls might seek the damask rose in the gorges of forgotten ambushes,
where sultans and kings slaked their pious thirsts – slew their enemies
and exiled the youth of many futures – those pawns who lay penitent at the altars,
who laid down in the Temple of Aphrodite like the peacekeepers lay down now,
yes we who lay down with our wives and lovers like knights with sacred talismans
and far away they lie down with us under the same different moons,

they wait and pray looking up upon the many faces of the gods
who see us only as a fleeting moment on the pages of passing civilizations,
the rising and setting of the sun and we know the signal fires are burning,
the funeral pyres rise up in pillars of ash in the marches between the watchtowers
along the border wire and we know that so much metal has been fired in this cauldron
from arrowheads and spears to icons and the corrupted jagged shards of bombs,
shrapnelled landmines and bullets. On a rainy day we can almost smell it
weeping through the red mud tracks of an army and we must watch our step.

© Michael J. Whelan

Published in A New Ulster, issue 32, May 2015

poethead 2Michael J. Whelan is a soldier-poet, writer & historian (Curator – Irish Air Corps Aviation Museum) living in Tallaght County Dublin. He served as a peacekeeper in South Lebanon and Kosovo during the conflicts in those countries in the 1990s, which inspires much of his work. He was 2nd Place Winner in the Patrick Kavanagh Poetry Award 2011, Shortlisted in 2012 with a Special Commendation in 2013. He was 3rd Place Winner in the Jonathon Swift Creative Writing Awards 2012, shortlisted in the Doire Press and Cork Literary Manuscript Competitions and selected for the Eigse Eireann/Poetry Ireland Introductions 2012. His work has appeared in the Hennessy New Irish Writing 2013, Poetry Ireland Review, the Red Line Book Festival and many other literary magazines and newspapers. His poems were recently published in a new anthology titled The Hundred Years War published by Bloodaxe UK in May 2014.

Michael blogs at https://michaeljwhelan.wordpress.com/

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