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Image by Caroline Forbes

Poem introduction

Shortly after our return from the States, our first son was born, and then a little later I saw a television programme about four young ex- soldiers and the effects that the Vietnam war had had on them. It was called 'The Haunted Heroes' and I remember that what haunted me most about it was an interview with one of them who had been living for the a past year, fending for himself in the backwoods. His story was that, after discharge, he'd gone back to live at home. He'd been trained to respond instantly, to attack, and not having been - as it were - de-trained, de-toxed, he'd warned his parents that he was still highly susceptible to any sudden shock. Of course it was difficult for his family, particularly for his mother, not to go on as things had been before, and he told how, back in his own childhood room, she had come in one morning to wake him up as she'd always done by waggling his big toe as it stuck out from under the blankets. Before he was fully conscious, he'd got her in an arm lock around her throat, and when he came to she was terrified and gasping for breath. Horrified and shamed by what he'd done, he left home and had been living rough, on his own, ever since. This story, along with accounts by other soldiers, of the killing of women and children, and my own awareness of just how far these terrible experiences were from the security of my own family life, was the starting point of this next poem.

Coming Home

The son they love came home then went away.
They asked him why he cried out every night.
He didn't tell them and he couldn't stay.
They try to reach him but he'll never write.
They lie togther now. They sleep apart
And still, in dreams, each breaks the other's heart.

And still, in dreams, he's haunted by a child
That stood a moment, looked into his eye
Not guessing just how far he was defiled,
As if his combat jacket were disguise.
Don't let the little bastards get to you.
You know exactly what you have to do.

All wars are guilty of their own remorse
And have it out with us before they end.
Some may be just, no doubt. Of course.
In time your enemy becomes your friend.
But there are debts the future can't reclaim -
To kill a child and not know its name.

To kill a child that couldn't run away,
That stood a moment after it was shot
With puzzled human eyes as if to say
Like you I was so why now am I not?
Then fell. He shot the mother too.
It seemed exactly what he had to do.

And then it seemed exactly where to be
Was nowhere where he had to think of home,
The horror of the words meant lovingly,
The ignorant kindness everyone had shown.
Not only nightmares slay the innocent
And that's the reason why he came and went.

And that's the reason why this can't go on,
And why it's almost culpable to write,
And why I can't stop thinking of our son
And of how easily we sleep at night,
How in this house if anybody screams
We joke next morning. It was only dreams.

Oh only dreams that simply come and go,
That tell us nothing that we can't forget.
We lie beside each other snugly, two
Such comfortable, cautious parents, yet
There was a child who came and went away.
They said We love you but he could not stay.


from New and Selected Poems (Peterloo Poets, 2004), copyright © John Mole 2004, used by permission of the author and the publisher.

Recordings

John Mole Reading from his Poems

1The War

2Lottery Draft

3Coming Home

4Actually

5Travellers

6Simpleton

7The Walking Bell

8The Birthday

9The Wolf-Mask

10Alice and Alice

11Ghost Story

12The Pelican

13Jack-in-the-Box

14The Balancing Man

15Song of the Hat-Raising Doll

16Variation on an Old Rhyme

17Dream Girl

18When Tommy Cooper Died on Stage

19Answer Phone

20Fats

21Walking

22Across the Lawn

23The Loss

24The Cherry Tree

25La Jeunesse

26Revenant

27That Afternoon

28This Moment

29The Waterfall

30Inheriting the Album

31Serenade

32A Different Ending

33Not Too Late