Sidney Keyes: Ulster Soldier
Rain strikes the window. Miles of wire
Are hung with small mad eyes. Night sets its mask
Upon the fissured hill. The soldier waits
For sleep’s deception, praying thus: O land
Of battle and the rough marauders lying
Under this country, spare me from my mind.
This year is blackened: as your faces blackened
Turn to the bedrock, let me not be rotted:
My limbs be never shackled in the roots
Of customary sin, as yours are bound
With oak and hawthorn. Spare me from my mind.
We come of a very old related race -
Drivers of cattle, kings, incendiaries,
SIngers and callous girls; we know the same
Perplexities and terrors – whether to turn back
On the dark road, whether to love
Too much and lose our power, or die of pride:
The fear of steel, or that the dead should mock us -
These trouble our proud race. Protect me now.
The wind cries through the valley. Clouds sprawl over
This exiled soldier, sprawling on his bed.
Sleep takes the bartered carcase, not the brain,
It’s only love could save him from his mind.
Omagh, 13 April 1942.
Sidney Keyes, in my experience overshadowed by the admittedly marvelous work of Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, is one of my favorite poets. His work, while limited due to the circumstances of its creation, is burning with an interesting strength, pulsating with recently acquired learning and freshly lived experience. Keyes’ Collected Poems (Carcanet) is a slim volume that contains a fascinating search for the right language, the right forms. There are odd similarities of this poetry to the few excellent passages in Lowell’s precocious Land of Unlikeness, I think. Below, “War Poet”, Keyes’ most famous poem. Seriously. Try and get your hand on his work.
Sydney Keyes: War Poet
I am the man who looked for peace and found
My own eyes barbed.
I am the man who groped for words and found
An arrow in my hand.
I am the builder whose firm walls surround
A slipping land.
When I grow sick or mad
Mock me not nor chain me;
When I reach for the wind
Cast me not down
Though my face is a burnt book
And a wasted town.