Longlisted Poem 2012

Max Grodecki

Cranbrook School, Kent

Marching Orders Down The Line

The ex-Prime Minister Harold Macmillan suffers a train journey in the autumn of his years.

I was running late thanks to Doc. Beeching.
The ten mile drive to Oxford Station dragged,
And down the platform wayward luggage lagged –
I feigned dry smiles at my stiff stride’s creaking,
Suppressing the sores of my aged bones.
Once there, first-class doors and ensnaring seats
Came as a blessed relief, and soon dark drones,
Chuffs of steam bid farewell to dreaming spires.
And I too admired their steadfast beauty,
So long unchanged, that view which never tires.

I sat quite content for a jolting while,
Staring through the glass at hedged clumps of fields.
Bogged by winter’s rain, small men fought and keeled
A crooked oak blown bald by winter’s guile.
Each year I watched thus, the trees past their best
Taken away on trucks, never replaced.
I saw a light from the horizon’s crest,
I strained my eyes to no avail; too far
It was, it disappeared behind greying
Pylons, vulgar and proud, unflinching as tar.

Their knotted veins bowed to approaching Slough,
Slipping towards leering towers, factories.
Concrete lumps of my proud creating tease,
They rise from a squalid, infested ground, a foul.
Then as I watched hooded youths prowl; a bang-
One spasm and I floundered in the slits,
My mouth once more forming “λβ σαι δ χρ β ου τελευτ σαντ҆ ν ε εστο φ λ ,”†
That was till a hard-soled boot caught by foot.
This brought me back – a waiter on the floor,
Scrabbling for knives, with curses dark as soot.

The train slowed, ground to a halt for a bit.
Could it be the dead man’s switch come to save
Me? But no, soon the gears began to slave,
The pistons reluctantly destroyed the skit,
Beginning to beat while devil sparks fly.
A startled crow leapt from its lofty sea,
Winging its way east to happier skies.
I wanted to follow, cast off my fears,
But leering droplets frozen on the glass,
Barred me still in the dungeon of my years.

And as I glanced at the last blacked-out block,
Stood in sea of slime, then did I see
Parry’s England lie, unpleasant, filthy,
Razed by my labour whilst their Labour mock.
Thus, we have lived, I and her, winds of change
Blowing us further down the line, till now
In the Autumn of my years I suffer and range alone, abandoned by her, left to weep, helpless till dulling mud rises and drags-
Me into deep, inexorable sleep….

† Extract from Aeschylus’ “Agamenmnon”, commonly translated as “Call no man happy till he is dead”. Reference to the famous time Macmillan read Aeschylus for a whole day in his slit trench, having been shot in the pelvis.
© Max Grodecki

Project Details

  • Date January 20, 2015
  • Tags 2012 Voyages - Longlisted Poems