A moth-cupped flame sputters
out of silence in my kitchen, draws insects
whining through the window's crack.
They sing like distant bi-planes,
dogfight-dancing at the edge of sight.
I watch red wax spill
over the candle's battered lip
and think of family, long dead,
the quiet men on unquiet fronts
who let the rituals of their religion
slide away, buoyed up
on propaganda, desperation, hunger,
as they wrote loving letters in the dark
succoured only by a single flame,
by the guttering distances of home.
Oh, how they dreamed of family,
gave thanks to G-d for the minuscule mercies
of the weekly post (when it got through)
but even the gentlest man will break inside
when bombs and snipers dictate their diet,
when all the animals of hell
come crawling out from under mud
on sinews of metal clasping at the bone.
What precisely did they die for,
or limp home wounded with?
My grandfather never said, sitting in silence,
with his memories, in the garden of his weekend home
until he was forced to cross Germany's borders
and escape into England two decades on.
Great Uncle Martin could not say.
Splintered in 1915 by enemy fire, only his letters remain
regaling his dearest sister Röschen
with brotherly bravado, detailing requests
for the essentials: paper, food and pens;
whatever news might make it through the lines from home.
The candle's spitting out its last
one hundred years on
but still the news is limited and grim.
The insect whine of war continues.
Tanks rumble through my kitchen
whenever the fridge fires up.
Commemoration wears an ugly, celebratory mask.
Its eyeholes stare us down like guns
and from its mouth a fine gas seeps.
'Gas! Quick, boys.' An ecstasy of fumbling
in the press for ways to not quite say
"We won, we won, we won!"
But we won nothing. The war continues
in fragments, though no one is yet
crazed enough to join the dots,
and all I can see in this quiet hour
is red wax stiffening on the candle
into the faces of all the people that I love.