The Chaplain: A poem for Anzac Day

It’s Anzac Day today. At commemorative dawn services throughout Australia and New Zealand, and at the many scenes of shared battles across the globe – Gallipoli, Villers-Bretonneux and along the Kokoda Track in Papua New Guinea, to name a few – people pause to reflect on war and to commemorate the men and women who have gone to war. Those that came back and those that lost their lives.

A couple of years ago, leading up to the one hundredth anniversary of the landing at Gallipoli, a call went out from Southerly Journal requesting submissions on the subject of war and peace. I’d had an idea for a poem about war veterans brewing in my mind for a while; I decided to see if I could work my ideas into something worthy of, not just submission, but the topic itself.

I researched Gallipoli, interested mostly on what the soldiers themselves had written about it, how they had perceived it. How they’d been scarred by it.

I made the Southerly Journal deadline but my poem was not selected for publication. Last year Meuse Press put out a call for submissions for an anthology entitled To End All Wars. I submitted my poem, with some minor changes from the original version, but again, it didn’t make the cut.

Shortly after I finished my poem in 2015 I read it to my family. I had read it aloud to myself several times when I was in the final stages of editing, finding that only when I read it aloud was I able to hear the rhythms of the poem’s lines. I had never become emotional when reading it to myself, but as I read it to my mother, my brother and my sister-in-law I found myself holding back tears, and struggling to stop my voice from cracking.

I was embarrassed that my own poetry had made me so emotional. When I looked up into my family’s faces after reading the last line I saw their own eyes had welled up, and two little lines of tears were streaming down my sister-in-law’s face.

Only four other people have read my poem – friends with whom I’d discussed it from the time it was still just an idea, and who’d expressed an interest in reading it when finished. All of them have given me positive feedback.

This small handful of positive responses is why I believe in my poem. I’m not sure I’ll submit it for publication anywhere else, so for the time being I will share it here, on my blog.

The small introductory passage that follows is what I wrote in my submission to Meuse Press, last year.

 

I wrote The Chaplain last year, after several months researching Gallipoli, specifically the experiences of the Australians who fought or were otherwise caught up in it. But really, the formulation of my protagonist, Don, started decades ago when I would watch the old men marching on Anzac Day (as they mostly were back then, before families joined in) and wonder what was hiding behind their eyes. What had they seen?

I wondered what war had done to them and others like them the world over. How might they begin to find peace with what they had done and what had been done to them.

In my own life, finding peace after a period of inner turmoil has only come after the intervention of a relative stranger. Someone whom I knew for only a short period of time but who played a pivotal role in my life.

For Don, my protagonist, the person who has that role is the army chaplain.

 

The Chaplain

There can be no peace without forgiveness, the Chaplain said,
And I thought he was naïve – a fool;
There was no way I would forgive what had been done.

Not by the men we’d fought against, mind you –
We’d looked each other in the eye
Collecting our dead together
And in that moment knew we were alike:
Ordinary blokes
Caught up in something bigger than we’d dreamed
Back when we’d queued to enlist, jostling excitedly like schoolboys,
Hoping we’d pass muster – dreading being told
We weren’t up to scratch and couldn’t go.
Thinking it was all a great adventure –
That it would make men of us,
But it didn’t take long
For war to wipe the smiles from our faces.

No, it was our side I could not forgive:
Those that led us from afar,
Afraid if they came too close they’d smell the death,
The rotting corpses mounting up and up and up –
Right up to the trenches,
So you felt you had to sleep with one eye open
Lest one of them reach out for you as you slept
And drag you up to join them.

The British Generals,
Whose miscalculations had sent us to the wrong beach –
The wrong beach!
Those sadistic bastards
Who thought nothing of sending good men
After good men
To their deaths,
Who sent us over the top again and again
As if they would not be satisfied
Till we were all lying dead
In No Man’s Land –
No,
I would never forgive them.

But the Chaplain had said,
There is no peace without forgiveness,
And I could not forget it;
As the years passed I saw that he was right.

I forgave those men whom I had hated for so long,
The men I’d cursed every Anzac Day
As I’d grimly marched, the medals on my chest.
Old men who were mostly dead or surely close to it;
What was the use of hating them now?

Better to let it go
And finally have a chance at peace, I told myself,
Thinking I knew what he’d meant all those years ago,
Even if I hadn’t been ready to hear it back then –
Back when we came home to live in peace
But were still at war with ourselves.
When we struggled,
Haunted by the sights and sounds of war
Replaying in our dreams,
Like some personal nightly horror show.

If I let the hate go
Perhaps I’d be okay, I thought,
Because I’d seen too many who’d failed
At surviving.
Men who ended it all with a rope or the gas or a bullet in the head –
Good men, honest men –
Even great men we’d looked up to –
Heroes
Like Throssell –
Unable to live with the terror in their mind.
Those men could not forgive
The barbarity,
The crushing inhumanity,
The sickening disgrace of it all.

Over and over the words repeated in my head:
There can be no peace without forgiveness.
But it was many years again before I understood
What he had meant.

Years of aching for a peace that hadn’t come,
An ungodly hollowness growing bigger and bigger within me
As I switched off from life – like so many others –
And tried to kill myself
One bottle at a time.
To hurt the ones I loved
So they would see me as I saw myself:
Some kind of beast who’d killed and maimed,
Who’d shot and stuck men through
So close he’d seen the flicker of surprise in their eyes
And heard their last groans as they fell.
I wanted them to see what I had become in war,
To hate me as I hated myself.

I tried to kill off all that was good about my life,
Punish myself in every possible way,
But still it was not enough;
I could not atone for my sins.
I stared long and hard into the void within
And knew – at last I knew –
Whom I had to forgive.

There can be no peace without forgiveness, Don,
He’d said.
They can’t forgive, they’re gone.
They’re not here to do it for you.
Over and over the words played in my head
And when one day their meaning was revealed
I began, in earnest, to forgive.

To forgive myself for having survived.
For being there every Anzac Day,
Raising beers in their name,
Telling stories that would never grow old,
Yes –
As they would never grow old –
And saying, Lest we Forget, as if I ever could.

To forgive myself for thanking God after every burst of shrapnel
And every rain of bullets
Because I hadn’t been killed
And some other poor chap had.
For wishing men would die quickly –
If they had to die –
So I wouldn’t have to hear their agonising screams.

To forgive myself for treading softly as I left
With sacks around my feet,
A mixture of relief and shame in my heart;
Relief that I was leaving my hell behind,
Shame that I was leaving my mates behind.

To forgive myself for abandoning them –
For failing them –
Even when it made me sick to my stomach
That the whole thing had been a waste.

To forgive myself because their death had been a waste.

To understand that I had been a boy,
A young man no more or less experienced in life than my friends
Who had died.

To understand that none of it was my fault.

To know I could have done no different.

To forgive myself for the sins I’d carried
For forty years,
Sins, I realised, which were not mine after all.

And in understanding,
In forgiving,
To begin, at last, to heal.
To mend what had been broken for so long –
To piece it together bit by bit.
And finally,
In forgiveness,
To find a kind of peace.

Chance Encounters of the Inspiring Kind

Remember the movie Sliding Doors? It centred on the idea that a tiny difference in timing could be life-changing. Someone who changes your life and becomes a central figure in it, could be someone who, but for a few seconds, you might have missed completely. Make the train and meet them, or miss the train and miss out.

In terms of this sort of thing playing out in my own life, I can only really think of one example on a similar scale. When I was travelling to Positano in 2007 it was by sheer luck that I shared the bus into town from Sorrento with a woman named Donna, who was from the States. Not only did Donna help me get off at the right bus stop but her warm, friendly nature broke through my natural barrier of introverted shyness and we went on to form a friendship on that trip that is still going strong seven years later. In fact, it was with Donna that I travelled to Spain early last year.

I’m also very aware that tiny little examples of the Sliding Doors scenario (for want of a better description) are happening all the time.

There has been a remarkable number of interactions, conversations or simply things I’ve seen while walking down the street, stuck in traffic, or sitting on a train that have stayed with me for a long time because they moved me, or taught me something, or simply reminded me of the joyful, simple beauty of life.

Things I would’ve missed if I’d walked on the other side of the street, made the green light, or caught an earlier or later train.

It could be a conversation overheard on the train between two friends. Or a look exchanged between a dog and their walker.

The young man I met on the street late last year, who’d sung to me so unexpectedly and so beautifully, was a recent example.

And this morning it happened again. I was in the car for five minutes driving from the local shopping centre back to my house and I happened to have the radio on, tuned to 3RRR. “Aural Text” was on, a show dedicated to all things literary.

One of the presenters mentioned a spoken word artist, the poet Maggie Estep, who had recently died at age 50, and then played two pieces by her: “I’m an Emotional Idiot” and “Happy”.

The poems spoke to me. They were witty, clever and ironic. They made me laugh at the same time that I was nodding my head in recognition. I know people that are like that, I thought. Hell, at times I have been like that! As the saying goes, “It’s funny because it’s true.”

I had to know more. When I got home I Googled Maggie Estep and found her obituary, first, and then her blog. I looked her up on YouTube and found her there, too. I found her fascinating: a very intelligent writer who’d led a hugely interesting, albeit short, life. I can’t wait to discover more of her work.

What kills me is that a number of random factors had to be synchronised for me to not only hear about Maggie Estep but to hear her performing her poetry on the radio. I’d been delayed at the shops because I’d decided to shop for a gift – I had originally only planned to pick up some groceries. I had ummed and aahed over what I bought for a few minutes and the saleswoman had struggled for a few minutes with wrapping the gift for me (the ribbon wasn’t behaving itself).

Had I not been delayed to the extent that I was, I would’ve been in the car at least five minutes earlier and missed the whole thing. But as it turned out, everything synchronised perfectly, and I was introduced to this incredible artist whose work I find exhilarating and inspirational.

I couldn’t have timed it more perfectly if I’d tried.