L o v e ,  W a r   a n d   L a s t   T h i n g s
   n z e p c



John Male    (1913-2003)


John Male



The Troopship

Yesterday the troop train and the march to the gangway;
            today the flat horizon
            charts our voyage to a war.

The ship crept out of harbour
            while half the city was sleeping
            and the siren blasted the hills like a blunt knife.

A thousand miles out
            here and now cease to matter;
who cares whether or not
            we cross the International Date Line?

And where is the final harbouring
            the home place?


Love is solitary

Morning and evening
            I walk alone through the
            vineyards and grainfields.

In the daytime the heart
            leaps suddenly, like an aircraft
            flashing up from behind the hills,
            into the sunlight, then plunging
            to the horizon, freer than a bird.

What I miss most is your idle conversation,
            remembered most in my silence, your silence,
            in a coffee house, in cigarette smoke,
            or with music, casually linked.

Love is solitary,
            a sailboat on the Bay of Naples,
            one poplar tree by the roadside,
            a seagull flying.


Not all of us

Not all of us are articulate,
            but is it necessary to tell everything?

Easy to record minutely the tortured
            second between whine and shell-burst,
            the road bracketed, the Military Policeman at the corner
            staggering concussed to the ambulance;
            easy to record afterwards the mock heroics
            about numbers on high-explosive shells.

These things are with us continually;
            day after day; and we are careless and dull, finally,
from too much experience.

Who wants to be articulate? These
            are years we have lost; love a memory;
            excuse us if we are silent
as the dead are.

Poems from a War (Black Light Press, 1989). Recorded 2008 by Stewart Wilson at the University of Auckland.


Sangro in flood

That day we set out to cross the Sangro again, our objective a village on top of a hill, west and a little north from our Headquarters. We took a short-cut to the nearest pontoon bridge, humping along a rough road over the river bed. We all thought how like New Zealand itr was: white stones on the river bed, mountains looming over us, and the Sangro itself, an angry snow-fed stream which might have tumbled down from the Southern Alps. There had been rain that morning and already the river was rising. The pontoon bridge creaked, tugging at its moorings. There was promise of more rain, and it was lucky the infantry had got across while the river was low. On the other bank the road wound through minefields, all neatly taped off by the engineers, and here and there were fresh graves. We stopped to see if we knew any of the names on the crosses , but they were all strangers.

We climbed several miles into the hills and reached the village. The Germans had knocked it about a good deal, mining the buildings, and there were notices warning us to look out for booby-traps. The Italians were mostly standing about in dazed groups, as if they were unable to comprehend what the Germans had done to their town. In a back street we found a shop which still had some cognac, and we bought it all up as it was nearing Christmas. We also met an Italian who had been in America, and he took us to his house for wine. Then it started to rain again, a heavy persistent drizzle, and soon little cascades of water were running down the streets. We stayed awhile drinking wine and making conversation about what the Germans had done, and then excused ourselves and set out for ‘home.’ It was nearly dusk and there was not much light left.

It took us an hour to reach the Sangro, and by this time the rain had stopped and an early full moon was shining through the clouds. It was surprising how quickly the river had risen, swelling and spreading out until now it was lapping at the bank beneath our feet. There was no sign of the pontoon bridge anywhere. Then we noticed some trucks stranded on high ground in the middle. The water was up to their wheels already, and two of them were in danger of slipping into deeper water. The others were trying to winch them out, and above the noise of the flood the drivers were shouting orders. I called out to them, asking if we could help, and did they think there was danger of the river running higher? No, they said, they would be all right once they had hauled the other two trucks to higher ground. The rain had stopped and the river wouldn’t rise any more. They were O/K., and would sleep in the trucks.

So we left them there in the river, and turned back to the main road to find whether the other bridge was still standing. And I think I shall always remember the scene, the group of trucks in the middle of the Sangro, the loud murmur of the flood, the moon in a patch of sky between black clouds, and over us, in the moonlight, the mountains . . . high, inaccessible, glittering white with snow, cold and austere.


Filignano, April 1944

In this village the people
            are tired of politics. Politics is the size
            of the flour ration, the lifting of mines
            from the fields of the commune. Home
            is where an old woman makes bean soup
            over a twig fire. Home
            is a troubled sleep on the flagstones
            under one blanket.

They are tired of politics, and love
            died last year when the enemy
            took labourers by force; love
            died, and the leaves fell, and
            all winter the boughs were black
            and bare, shell-splintered.

But already on the trees, green leaves,
            and in the vineyard
            promise of next year’s red wine.


Stricken peninsula

The road passed by many graves
            ancient and day-old;
            the same rivers carried blood down to the sea
            from river-crossings before ours;
            and every night at our staging area near Trasimeno
            we encountered ghosts,
            tired Roman and Carthaginian still
            spear-locked in combat, elephants
            palely trumpeting.

And at Arpino, Urbs Arpinum,
            where one-eyed giants built walls
            and arches before Caius Marius came there,
            pipes may be heard dawn and dusk,
            the peasants say, up
on the stony hillside, under the
            sparse olives. Wind
            fluting through the rocks,
            I told them. The ancient people
            they said, fingering beads.

Confused legions of ghosts,
            their blood obediently shed
            for this stricken peninsula . . .

And if, in a thousand years, some traveller,
            with ears tuned to a special wavelength
            should follow our road, they’d find it echoing
            with vanished panzers,
the valleys still rolling back
            barrage after barrage,
            and maybe deep in the olive trees
            thin voices by a campfire
            singing songs of a distant homeland.


Poems from a War (Black Light Press, 1989). Recorded 2008 by Stewart Wilson at the University of Auckland.


Last updated 26 June, 2008