Poem introduction

My father took part in the D Day landings and this poem describes what happened to him on that day and subsequently in Germany during the Second World War but in fact is set in England and remembers a time when I was talking to him about the war.

Veteran

Across the field, the wood
shudders under lilac cloud
which an hour ago was a bird
and is now a shroud,

draping the leafless trees
with filigree rain-gauze:
a handful of sun flukes
gilding the drab trunks.

My father and I watch:
are we about to catch
a burst of orange afterglow,
or will the evening go

headlong down to night?
With the slow weight
of a man dragging chains
he has managed to remain

on track through his tour
of flashbacks from the war:
three fog-soaked years
of square-bashing and canvas;

the sick, flat-bottomed dash
of D-Day; the frothy wash
of waves inside his tank
as it declined to sink;

the hell for leather advance
when the lanes of France
shrank bottle-tight, blazing;
the ash-wreck of Berlin.

This is by heart, of course,
all at his own pace
now dust has settled again
and fear, grief, boredom, pain

have found a way to fade
into the later life he made.
But I still look at him -
the way his eyes take aim

and hold the wood in focus
just in case anonymous
and twilit-baffled trees
might in fact be enemies

advancing - I look up at him
and cannot estimate the harm
still beating in his head
but hidden in his words.

What might he have done?
What might I have done
frightened for my life
to make my future safe?

Did he kill a man?
Did he fire the gun
with this crumpled finger
which now lifts and lingers

on the swimming glass
and points out how the mass
of cloud above the wood
has melted from a shroud

into a carnival mask?
I never dare to ask.
I would rather not show
the appetite to know

how much of his own self
he shattered on my behalf.
He is my father. My father.
And from him all I gather

are things that he allows
turning from the window
when in time the sky
buries the wood entirely,

then starting my road home
with him at liberty to dream
through the hours before sleep
and the silences he keeps.


copyright © Andrew Motion, used by permission of the author.

Books by Andrew Motion