Poems from Taking Mesopotamia
My face is made from yours –
your jaw, your weak right eye:
my shin bone’s from your leg,
shattered in the moonlight
as you supervised the digging
of the trench at Kut-al-Amara.
Years on, your long dead smile
watched us from walls, sideboards:
from our mother’s dressing table
casting a shadow round her heart
like your shadow in the album
as you pointed the Box Brownie
towards the Bridge of Boats
at Qurna, the army camp at Kut:
father, those splinters of bone
were your salvation, hard shards
from which I sprang with shared
ancestry, looking for you.
Childbirth was like being excavated:
my belly rose on whalebone wings,
pain soared about me like a bloodied angel:
then you were born
I saw you with my own eyes
I held you day and night:
you lay in my arms, a glowing pupa.
At Kut-al-Amara you were back-lit,
the moon pointed you out against the ridge –
when Turkish gunners stopped your spade
you fell slowly, shedding iridescence
each night in dreams I fail to catch you –
your bones the fragile quills of rescued fledglings
you placed by the stove for warmth
Extracts From ‘A Mesopotamian Calendar’
You think of deserts and date palms but this place
floods in spring, temperatures below freezing, sand
turns to bog. Just getting to Qurna was tough going:
everything sank (guns, supplies, men) in a mounting
tide of mud; the injured sloshed along on AT carts,
screaming for morphine. We built a bridge of boats
to reach the so-called Garden of Eden – lanes were
littered with rubbish; in between derelict reed hovels
and dirty gutters we found the Tree of Knowledge -
it was leaning crooked through a shell-pocked roof.
Suddenly, I saw my son across the square, standing
lost, unprepared under the horizontals of choking
smoke from exploding grenades: I screamed at him
above the jostling crowd but he just stood there,
head bare, brows crouched in a frown. I called again
but my voice fell away; then we were caught in cross
fire between the Mahdi Army and the Irish Guards –
we realised it was too late to go anywhere. Qurna,
our birthplace, was a conflagration, where Saddam
ruled; Adam and Eve sinned and Alexander died.
Floods three feet deep, often twenty in the old
irrigation ditches. A man accidentally drowned.
The rest, facing the enemy, camped on islands,
Gun Hill, Norfolk Hill, Shrapnel Hill; only reeds,
about two foot high, for a makeshift cover. Each
battalion had sixty bellums to cross the waters.
Five hundred of us British and Indian soldiers
practising punting – a strange regatta!3 We needed
to find Noah and his ark before we started to go
slowly, one by one and two by two, into the dark.
Reeds are like lungs filtering and cleaning water,
oxygenating the wetlands for hundreds of miles:
their tall stems hide bitterns and slender-billed gulls,
out of their shadows emerge dragonflies, butterflies,
damselflies and the whirligig beetle; they provide
shelter for the Iraq babbler and Basra reed warbler.
The white-eared bulbul and sacred ibis are coming
home to them. Thousands of people make a living
from them. When Saddam cleared them and drained
the marshes people said Iraq has stopped breathing.
1 Lieutenant T.C.Lewis, 4th Battalion, South Wales Borderers
2 A Christian Iraqi (interviewed in the Guardian 2009)
3 This exercise was commanded by General Charles Townshend in 1915 and known as “Townshend’s Regatta.”
4 Steve Harris, of the Birdscapes Gallery in Holt, Norfolk who mounted an exhibition of photographs in 2010 to celebrate the re-flooding of the marshes in Southern Iraq
Jenny Lewis’s latest collection is Fathom (Oxford Poets / Carcanet 2007). Her verse drama After Gilgamesh was performed at Pegasus Theatre in March 2011 and is published by Mulfran Press. She teaches poetry and verse drama at the University of Oxford.