Whatever glum comment escaped my lips
in the pub may have stemmed from the fact
I’d been reading how Xerxes,
surveying the hosts of men, the ships
covering the Hellespont,
realised with an operatic show of tears
the soldiers would be dead within a hundred years.

I wished I’d exercised custody
of the tongue, that unspeakable virtue,
yet, outside, getting the better of that wish
was another – the wish to cry
into the face of the wind
flourishing its indifferent blade
that it will all ultimately fade:

the people who turn up
or stay away, they’ll go,
along with people who greet you
or can’t be bothered, they’ll drop
away, too, along with friends I’ve not seen
for decades and have fixed in my mind’s eye,
arresting them at twenty-three –

they’ll be gone, on their way, beyond pity,
down into the dark chambers,
or blown off headlands
or through the outskirts of cities,
which will go too, along with exiles
and neighbours, the short and the tall,
they’ll be going and all,
as people said in my youth, in Liverpool,
and their particular Scouse inflections have gone
and these words will go too, and me with them,
and the traces of those at school
in my day, their memories,
will gust away like scraps in a brisk wind
that resist for a moment, a quavering second,

the tumult of passage …
And yet a counter-voice fought back
and mocked my inward outburst with
Too easy that, too showy, to assuage
your fears with void imaginings, mere gestures.
Your task’s to hold to what is living,
seek to bear witness, and above all sing.

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