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Two popular and long-established collections of  war poetry of the
First World War

Minds at War
A comprehensive
anthology of poetry of the First World War. All the greatest war poems of Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon and war poems of over 70 other notable poets. All set in the context of the poets' lives and historical records. With historic photographs and cartoons.  Edited by David Roberts.
 400 pages £15-99 (UK)



Out in the Dark
Anthology of
First World War poetry recommended for students and the general reader.
19 poems by
Wilfred Owen
, 27 by Siegfried Sassoon and over 90 more war poems by 45 significant poets including women writers. Contextual information and basic notes on many poems. Illustrated.  Edited by David Roberts.
185 pages - £10-99 (UK)



Falklands War Poetry cover

War poetry by Michael Brett


These poems seem to have their origins the First World War, wars in Yugoslavia, perhaps the first Gulf War (Iraq, 1991) and possibly more recent wars and 9/11. The imagery is often striking and the commentary subtle, tending to convey a world of twisted values, a world striking or even beautiful in its cruelty and insensitivity to the soldiers who become just part of the technology of war.

Michael Brett
Michael Brett in 1996 when most of his poems were written 

About Michael Brett

Internet Poetry Workshop, Guest Editor 2009

Sudeep Sen, Internet Poetry Workshop Guest Editor, 2006

Arts for All | Access for All project

Michael Brett

Michael Brett attended Adrian Henri's Arvon class in 1976. He won the Iolaire Poetry Prize in 1983 and is one of the 2010 Winners of the Sampad (South Asian Arts) International Writing Competition (his two poems, London, Bangladesh and London- from Aqaba to Zem Zem will be published in the Sampad anthology Journeys, October 2010). His poem "The Sunken Cathedral" is in the May 31st edition of America magazine.

Random House USA and UK are including some of his poems in the Ebury Book 'Heroes: 100 Poems from the New Generation of War Poets,' edited by Carol Ann Duffy among others. It is due to be published in September.

A selection of his poems is included in the new poetry anthology 'Enduring Freedom' edited by former Poet Laureate Andrew Motion. It is due out in October. All proceeds will go to the UK Armed Services mental welfare charity, 'Combat Stress.'

During the Civil War in the Former Yugoslavia, Michael worked in the Press Section of the Information Centre of Bosnia-Herzegovina in London, promoting US and NATO military intervention in the Civil War in the Former Yugoslavia. He believed in the ideal of a multi ethnic Bosnian state and that it would stop the widespread massacres of civilians that were taking placing at the time.

Michael was born in Accra, Ghana in 1955. He was educated in England at Cranbrook School and the University of Reading, where he read English. He worked n the City of London for over ten years, has a background in financial journalism, and continued to write throughout that period.

He is currently Head of English at a school in South London.

''Michael Brett turns edgy metropolitan experience into beauty and wit.'
Dr Thomas M Woodman, Senior Lecturer, Department of English and American Literature, University of Reading.

'A unique and compelling odyssey which I would thoroughly recommend.'
Richard Wachman, columnist for The Observer, on an unpublished book of poetry.

'The mode of address in these poems is direct, point-blank. Brett is concerned with parachuting us into seeing what he, with consistently unsentimental eyes, has seen.'
Mario Petrucci, Imperial War Museum, London, Poet in Residence

Web Sites which feature Michael's Work:


www.warpoetry.co.uk War Poetry and Anti-war Poetry. The wide selection of contemporary war poetry on this website is vigorous, moving, opinionated and heart-felt. It is by both soldiers and civilians. -- David Roberts (Editor)

Sampad International Writing Competition Details of the Sampad International Writing Competition (2009) Journeys... a real or imagined journey, back to your roots, homeland, or a journey of the heart.

America Magazine

Author's Web Site: http://whyareweiniraq.com/author/author0086.htm
Author's Web Site: www.purplepoets.com/brett.html


michael brett email

Michael Brett's poems are:

2013

Boston Bombing
War Intelligence
Wartime time

2011

Angels
Ice Cream Wars
The Flying Geese
The Return of the Civil War Soldiers
The Exhumation of the Serbian Dead - (as their forces retreat) 995
 

2009

Theatre of War
9/11 Poem from London
Blood
Star Shells over Stonehenge
The Blue Mosque, Istanbul
Civil War
Suicide Bomber
People shouting in your face
Below monthly killed numbers for you
Mosques and Rockets
The Surgeon Explosive
Ploughing
The Mecca and Medina Road
London-from Aqaba to Zem Zem
Refugees (1)
Refugees (2)
Soldiers
Missing Person
Bomb Attack
Facing the Music: Hyde Park Corner Bomb Explosion (Number 2) 20th July 1982


2008 and earlier

Armistice Poem
Oil Heart
Bomb Circuitry
Tabby Cat War Baby
Twenty-One
Artillery Barrage
Tonight’s Target is the Face of Scrooge 
Archangel  
Dead Machine Gun Crew
Artillery Shells

 

1995

Machine Gun

 

1994

The Raising of the Dead in Serbia

Often I dream of the Bosnian Dead

Mad Old Witch: the war in the former Yugoslavia, 1993

The Protesting Dead

Missing

Afterwards


Boston Bombing

What haunts you after an explosion

Is the eggshell nature of things,

The art forms and the dreams of madness:

The red pools, the Jackson Pollock zigzags

On grey paving slabs;

The houses sliced like cake; paper doorways;

The darkness, shock and night snapped shut

Like a pocket watch whose machinery

May be glimpsed like anemones

Waving –phosphorescent- on the darkened floors

Of barroom confessionals and consulting rooms

Whose bulbs overwinter in silent places:

Basements, lock-up garages, rucksacks and holdalls;

Or sometimes in those man-made wild places

Where no-one goes

Save the homeless and detectives, pathologists,

Under motorway ramps and railway arches.

These and subleased apartments, paid for in cash

Are sometimes states in waiting,

Like Lenin’s in Percy Street

With a policeman hiding in the grandfather clock

Who does not speak Russian;

These are the invisible other cities

Plotting against our kingdoms of the necessary nonsense,

The fables agreed upon

That stop all Romes collapsing beneath the weight

Of Sistine ceilings and marble angels, oil;

The Dr Dee levitation of shared assumptions and paper money

For –in truth-bombs show us everything we need to know:

That everything is just a house of cards

Save our need to eat and who we love.

Michael Brett 2013

War Intelligence

Move my desk to the window so I can see the angels.

Our Fundamentalist troops say the heavy guns talk like God
And everyone knows his bookmarked pages are the roads to the front.
His words are underlined with men lying with green arms over green faces,
Where shells polish the air to blueness. We are weak.

So as doctors look for sanity in dementia
And listen at the bedside of a feverish world,
And rummage in its pockets for foreign coins and bus tickets,
Our people look at captured maps and speeches on the television;

Our plague doctors steal from the Bedlam of the human heart
And with long paper beaks, interpret its ravings; memorise its car numbers,
Its restaurant bills, its train times, like obsessives counting lamp posts;

And like Seventeenth Century physicians, they taste the king's urine
For its sweetness, probe the enemy king's stool for clues
As to his health and confidence: will he campaign in Spring?

So move my desk to the windows so I too can see the angels;
So I too can pick the pockets of the dead
And through their wedding rings see the future.

Michael Brett 2013

Wartime Time


In wartime, time changes as brushwork changes in paintings
From Da Vinci silk to hogbrush; and it seems
That you are entering a time inside -or under- time,
Following Alice's rabbit into a folding time and space
That billow as sails do, filling with sadness
Killing King Aegeus and deepening black upon black,
Louder until eardrums burst and bleed;
And time itself begins to swing as railway tracks
Or firemen's hoses do;

And everyone's hand on your shoulders-their eyes-
Are kindly and say Welcome to the Utopia,
The Blessed Communism of the bomb
That soldiers miss when they leave. Here,
Caressed by its warm wings we are all equal,
-Beloved and cursed alike- folded like tents
Into the Buddha's curving bellies of the shock waves;

And I dreamt I saw you there, poised like a scream
In the instant before bursting; a glissando grace note
Poised, ready for its Beachy Head suicide note;
To strike wingless at the sea below, each wave folded
Like the instant;

And there are so many instants, each folded
Like umbrellas in a gentleman's club;
Like polite caved bats in rows -as bombs in storage-
Clicking as they watch you, as air to air missiles do
When you walk past them.

This is it.

Michael Brett 2013

 

The Raising of the Dead in Serbia

(In the final months, there was news that the Krajena Serbs were taking their dead with them as they retreated from the Croatian offensives.)

There is a shock in an exhumation:

A sense of wrongness at the penetration

Of a spade into a grave;

In the artillery rangefinder, the convoy

Ambles into view: the dead

Are arranged like lozenges beneath tarpaulins

On flatbed trucks;

But this is love: none could love their family more

Than to exhume them from a newly alien soil and say

Our Dead must travel and retreat with us;

For stronger than alcohol and greater than song

Is race in the Balkans.

It shapes and unshapes as alcohol and music do

In stories, in blood and earth:

When time, love, braided hair and bracelets

Are glimpsed together through the opening soil;

And all these are Venn diagram circles holding the living and the dead

Within the torque of burning towns;

And none are weighed like souls in Ancient Egypt-

Or by Saint Peter-none judged by anything save proximity in race,

In memory and song;

This convoy carries the only –defeated- soil

Not emptied of its names forever. It changes gear

To follow wobbling icons into exile, sainthood.

In ‘The Odyssey’ the dead crave blood and can see the future.

Michael Brett

Often I Dream of the Bosnian Dead

Often I dream of the Bosnian dead:

All climbing from field and trench and fosse:

Their bare spines clicking like guns reloading;

Their dead hands heaving up through the mud.

Often I dream of the Bosnian dead

Getting off trains, arriving at airports,

In torch processions of scrubbed out faces,

In empty dances of children’s shoes;

They cross London Bridge to stand beside me,

They cross the Thames like a river of death.

Often I dream of the Bosnian dead

And in my dreams, like whales, the dead can sing

In the depths of death-like the depths of ocean-.

Great wordless songs of death and pain.

Michael Brett

Information Centre of Bosnia-Herzegovina, London 1994

Mad Old Witch: the War in the Former Yugoslavia 1993

The war is old, senile: it is a sullen sustained fury that cannot find itself

Or make sense of things, has no longer a narrative

Or shape to give events. It wanders, helplessly,

Through days that are twisted sharp

And broken things that won’t do what you want anymore;

There are rumours of the Americans and Iranians flying in weapons:

The attack already is a kind of giant music

That plays on the strings of us:

Hope and rumour, puppy dogs, climb off planes,

Bark in boxes of weapons, congressmen’s speeches;

We decipher television like pharaonic script,

Guessing at meanings, filling in gaps,

And the private clocks of myself and the world

Begin to converge in a kind of artist’s diagram of perspective:

Time is a camping giant packing us up,

Finishing his holiday, pulling up tent pegs:

All will be interrupted. Lives are half-eaten sandwiches

Left in bars: education, jobs-lives.

And World War memories come back to life,

Like walking on bombed windows;

And fear too is a vast cathedral,

But changed by the young people into something

Modern. It is no longer a dark Catholic or Orthodox welcoming fug

But something bright, noisy that the young people made of glass

Containing everything and everyone.

Outside it, gunners yawn next to besieging guns

And the casual shells are sown next to apartments;

Another Sarajevo day.

In the Bosnia-Herzegovina offices, in London,

45 minutes flying time away

Everything is the same but different, senile, uncomprehending, baffling:

Our homes are burgled but nothing is stolen.

Men in leather jackets are FSB/ KGB, not rock fans.

The retired English major with a Terry-Thomas moustache

Who says he has converted to Islam is, I think, MI6.

He recruits for the Cobra Division.

But somewhere between all the death threats and spies

And the gun runners making deals in airport toilets,

There is a miracle here:

Scruffy Saint Michaels and young Henry Vs in jeans ride out of London

In vans to fight for people they don’t know,

In places they’ve never been

And talk about the front line as if it were the pub

And a battle, a game of dominoes, a casual win at cards.

Michael Brett

The Protesting Dead

Now let us meet the protesting dead:

Let us go as they went, like salmon,

As the tides of everything receded,

As the lighthouse shells lit the noisy ocean of the end.

Let us leave the memorial obelisk

With its single finger raised like the kindly rebuke

Of an Italian saint in a beautiful painting;

These are not the commuting dead:

In stone rows as if on train seats.

Beneath lying headstones, in mass graves,

The fighting dead may have liked to speak

Of the beauty that shone in cartridge cases,

Aircraft wings, of friendship, youth and laughter

Sharpened to war’s one end: intensified.

Their raised hands, some taller heads, brush the flower roots of the end:

Poppies, thistles.

Some wear holy medals,

Some carry holy flags

As if still pacing the narrow flagstones of their war.

But around them -around here- are the protesting dead:

Graveless, homeless, in clouds, lowing, looking for names,

Looking for loved ones.

They do not see the fighting dead, do not hear them

Though they walk among them as if among locusts

Or the smoke of burning towns, shielding their eyes.

Michael Brett

Missing

Firemen, soldiers, the inquiring spades that probe as shrapnel,

Police dogs. These are guests at a kind of wedding

Where ghost and man fuse.

There are no roses at the end,

No raised glasses, no speeches,

As a missing person makes the world lighter,

Leaves everyone with a kind of debt.

A name that has no-one floats away,

Is a dropped holiday photograph

Of no-one waving from lost blue seas.

A ghost's bedroom is guarded

By empty suits and empty shoes.

A ghost has an answering machine but no home

And remembered conversations

Lead only to pictures of a ghost.

Behind Police Line Don't Cross tapes,

A policewoman with his wallet blots out the sun.

Michael Brett

Published in November 2011 in Heroes: 100 Poems from the New Generation of War Poets

Afterwards

And so from everything I escaped:

The years like footsteps filling with flowers

And London streets no longer like rivers brimming

With news and rumours of corpses, gunfire

Scratching like fingernails on the undersides of clouds;

Being followed by cars, arms deals in airport toilets

And a sense of everyday being a tripping down

A spiral staircase deeper into the earth,

Where the greenish dead shook their heads at a Janus world;

I have learned that blood is in the power of continents

Locking and wrestling like tectonic plates

In the time span of glaciers; ruled by an indifferent God

With clumsy, non-watchmaker hands

Who cares only for outlines, not for details:

For the nations, for the millions, not for babies crying,

Not for the single rifle bullets

Probing old dreams like rain;

A God as indifferent as tides,

As remote as moonlight on a burning house.

Michael Brett

1995

Machine Gun

He is a conjuror.

His bullets are birds’ eggs.

He cloaks the theatre in his magic smoke.

He mesmerises people. He cuts ladies in half.

Encamped, wind battered in a tent

Of flesh, I carry him and his boxes as he tours.

I watch his stars with nets of bad luck

Trawl the world.

Each day is an argument, a museum we fight for.

Sleep is three hours in a dust filled bath

Under some noseless statues.

Beneath the awning of a marble hand,

I contemplate my future and my maps.

The colours of the nations are rich as bruises.

Roads are red veins. My conjuror has scissors.

He cuts the air.

He cuts us all.

He makes people disappear.

Michael Brett

Information Centre of Bosnia-Herzegovina London 1995

 


Angels

The sunlight through the church window
Reminds us we are not angels
But that a future-like an unseen coast-
Is rushing towards us, as angels might,
And will not be divided by a little boat’s prow
Nor anything: no clear idea
Nor weapon we might raise against
War’s well-funded asceticism,
Its disordered sainthood.
 
It seems within us already
There is a kind of bruise or blood tide
Rising inside us saying –aha-
You can choose nothing.
Only we can choose for you;
Only you are nothing,
Just a kind of bystander at your own dissolution
For tomorrow you shall not die
But shall be dissolved in stages:
 
The mind’s superstructure
Then the frame of self
All calling out together in the winds
That have no king, no leather bag
To unite them.
 
Every clock hand presses you to this
With the insistence of a surgeon
Showing you x-rays, an astronomer
Who plots progress on a chart,
An accountant perhaps.
 
Michael Brett
2011

  
Ice Cream Wars

Today the flavours are the hurting kind:
And the future looks down time’s one-way telescope
Like a sawn-off shotgun;
 
And across the broken frontiers of the human heart
Go the tanks, the planes,
The ice cream vans.
 
Tomorrow the skies may dream up a strawberry Turner
Drawing an ice cream van Temeraire to its last berth;
Tomorrow the shotgun and the crowbar
May no longer sleep with Careful! Children! signs.
 
But today, mysteries like Isis are those of ownership:
Its unseen Venn diagram intersections are jungles
No-Man’s Lands.
 
These are the Glasgow postcodes
As local and remote as a tartan Orinoco blowing poison darts;
 
Where the ice cream vans chime Scotland the Brave, then
The light music slop of petrol,
When the conductor lights a match and stands well back.
 
Michael Brett
2011

To top of page

The Flying Geese

 In exile, time no longer flies:
 
It becomes a ploughman with a heavy clay and a stupid horse,
Forever, looking backwards at tilting tree stumps,
Missing homes.
 
I look up at the flying geese.
 
Their wings curve as the great barrel vault arches of the sky curve,
Each seemingly carved in stone, only crooning
As swan wings croon, as if stone church angels had found voices
Among icebergs and harbours where fishing boat masts
Stroke the wine glass polar rim;
 
And the refugee mind divides, becomes
A Habsburg eagle pinned in a butterfly case,
Looking both ways forever and
Useless to anyone save a museum or collector,
A rich man.
 
Michael Brett
2011

The Return of the Civil War Soldiers

After Gabriel had blown his horn
He returned with Artie Shaw:
 
And the dead awoke in the puzzled soil,
Naked and staring at the horseless earth:
Bald, treeless,
Without dung, lace or carriages;
 
Pylons, little brick houses
With televisions jabbering
And cars parking.
 
Swordless and cold,
They looked for their homes
And lost beliefs like blankets;
 
And everything that had once seemed so much
Was nothing.


Michael Brett
2011
 To top of page 

The Exhumation of the Serbian Dead
(as their forces retreat) 1995

The dead demand our loyalty.
They shout from books and paintings, pose
Fashionably in marble, naked
Or draped in togas, uniforms,
Ostrich feather hats. They blurr
With the living. The religious say
They're still alive,
Looking over our shoulders at breakfast,
Floating above us from operating tables.
 
And here they come, the beloved:
Love for them sharpens this world to delirium
Even on the backs of trucks,
Below tarpaulins, lurching with shovels.
 
At dusk, like jewels in a treasure chest,
More towns burn. In the Odyssey, the dead
Crave blood and are able to tell the future.


Michael Brett
2011

Theatre of War

The entrance bugles its golden welcome
Like a disco. A strange escalator draws you in,
You scarcely notice it, or the framed arms factory cheques
And catalogues of prosthetic limbs. You are blinded,
Deafened by cameras and speeches.
 
There is a sense of disappointment when you see it:
A cardboard box, a children's theatre where-
On painted sticks-move the aeroplanes, tanks and guns
To the paper rhythms of
Newspapers, tv and election deadlines.

Michael Brett
November 2009

9/11 Poem from London

Tomorrow, it will all run backwards.
 
The steel tsunamis will froth back upwards
And become solid.
The planes will be pulled out like javelins
And slide backwards, swallowing their vapour trails.

Tomorrow, everyone will be fine.

Tomorrow, everyone who died will come home.
They will sit again at the tables of home
And rejoin life's fellowship, its snapshots, tea
And picnics.

Tomorrow, all will be well.

Everyone will sleep as babies do under mobiles,
Untroubled by strange sounds, of aero engines
Flying too low and shadows over the streets.

Tomorrow, mobile phones will be just toys again.
The sky will be clear, blue, unbroken.

Michael Brett
December 2009

To top of page

Blood

The heart's an old gentleman with a bowler and pocket watch,
At the weekend a European king with
A cloth cap and bicycle. The body's his palace
And the blood his subjects. They commute
In tubeway capillaries, tunnels.
 
In war, the blood revolts, becomes platoons
Ransacking bodies, palaces, splashes walls, roads
Car windscreens. It acts at random,
Jumping in or out of people; grows cold
Or furious. Distress makes the noisy quiet,
The peaceful, rowdy. They shout out their lungs
In public bars, saying War is hell
Yet somehow they seem the greater for it.
Michael Brett

Star Shells over Stonehenge

Stonehenge, right next to an artillery range,
Had its megaliths, lit by star shells. These
Were like the severed halves of giant stone men-
Stomachs vanished- holding hands.

The sky and we- just Army cadets- were worlds intersecting
Like lines in Futurist paintings. The guns,
Were giant curtains and doors opening
And slamming in the sky.

My father saw this in 1940, his father in 1917.

Perhaps time is like this:
Past, present and future don't ease apart like trains.
They collide with one another. They
Are beaten together like heads. Nations
Are engines that thrust all these like pool balls into Ds.

Perhaps that is greatness: giant stone men,
Raising sparks, banging ages together like star shells;

Somewhere a Great Caesar dreams of an existence-
Unbuilt - in the centre of the Stonehenge ring

Lit by lights of wars past, present and those to come.

Michael Brett

The Blue Mosque, Istanbul

Here, near where the sea uncoils
Like a giant ammonite, cerulean blue,
Are the ninety-nine names of God.
Perhaps the sea too is an eye of Allah,
Watching everything as the fat cat Moon
Jumps over the rooftops of the city.

It all seems so secular, unIslamic.
When the Hazaan sounded, the beers still arrived
And -during Ramadan- Bayan Zaman smoking cigarettes
In daytime went unremarked.

But open a newspaper, or talk to the taxi drivers
Or piyango sellers hustling on the main roads,
Then fear and anger are like two notes repeated on the piano.
Newspapers, television x-ray the region, penetrate
The nudity of blood, bone and street corners.
 
My nephew goes to war, but I to lunch,
At a café where the fishing boats
Slide up like skaters. Forty minutes away,
Other motors stop and start. The ninety-nine names
Are broken mirrors there, glass circles the air like haloes.

There, some see bullets as a kind of kiss, a blessing.

Michael Brett

To top of page

Civil War

Tomorrow, the Keeper of the Public Latrines
Again will be Lord of Life and Death and
With stone eyes and a stone hand, I salute him.

My God is a resigned acceptance of the solitary and the pointless.
The graves of my soldiers jostle one another for a place in the sun.

I knew him before he was powerful.
For him, I ordered the dead to canvas the living.

But they never notice us. Our faces are on statues.
Our barracks are the intestines of birds and fish.
Our names are long rebukes on pieces of stonework.

But, in the villages, time is a train you can step down from.
A wise woman is always at hand. Her prophecies always come true.
I know it will all end when his widow stands before his open grave
And asks who shot his enemies.

I'll shoot him then.

Michael Brett

Suicide Bomber

(London, my home, was attacked by suicide bombers on 7/7/05)

I became a Buckingham Palace guide for death.
I timed my transformation to the instant (8.51)
I climbed aboard a Piccadilly Line train.
Look, admire death’s portraits and its corridors.
Over its flowers I would rearrange the flowers of yourselves

In the vases of your bodies.
My bones were an embroidery of the air.
This was no loss of life but a culmination.
My body was a set of mosaic pieces destined for this instant.
My violence, a kind of art, a dream language, like music
Something scribbled in the surprised air.
When it subsided-my ragged portrait-
The police and the army were my tourists.
They entered, looked around, took photographs
And spoke in hushed tones.
I had blessed the train with reverence.
I was the man with no head and a bar of chocolate.

Michael Brett

 People shouting in your face

The one really useful thing I learned from the Army
Is how to say nothing when people shout in your face.
(In London, people who do this can sometimes be mad
Or carrying weapons.)

At school, we'd go to training camps where a man
Would shout in your face if you missed a drill move
Or your rifle wasn't straight.

Justice, fairness seemed to be fugitives in the wet surrounding woods
And saying anything just made things worse.
You just had to stand there and take it.

In films, gunfire has noble qualities, like bugle fanfares
And the flapping of flags at sunset
But they are all just machines that shout in your face,
Or try to kill you.

On the tube home, a nutter shouts in my face.
I look at him. I change trains. I say nothing.

Michael Brett

To top of page

Below monthly killed numbers for you

In the London Press Office, we are waiting for the news.
We are Egyptian monkeys playing with graveyard skulls,

The fax paper twitches, then slides like a séance wine glass,
Then-as if a ghost is trapped inside the drum-
Begins to whirr and clatter.

Bosnia-Herzegovina Ministry of Health.
Below monthly killed numbers for you

The letters are archaeological, dactylic,
Linear B musing beneath an arc of shells.

In their homes, 2,724. Missing 8,656.

Outside, the buses cough and grumble to Piccadilly.
An old man sweeps up Autumn leaves.

More monthly killed numbers follow.

My deadline is three for the evening edition.

I take the fractured words, the question marked numbers,
And rewrite them
In beautiful English prose
And I feel guilty, thuggish.

Michael Brett

Mosques and Rockets

 Daily life can only bark in backyards at the stars,
But rockets and mosques point in the same direction:
Counting down in Arabic. They are both clean as needles.
Both stare up at stars painted on Moorish lattice work
Or ceilings of wood or Perspex. At dawn, they
Stand and steam, are horses bridled by Mathematics,
Saddled by Astronomy. We can lie and steal,
Make compromises and say That’s the way Life is.
But rocket motors call like Mullahs from the skies.
Their flames are things once seen only in Greek speculation,
Dactyls or swirls of Arabic. For both, Zero and Hazaan times
Are blast-offs. Perhaps both are Jihads for the merciful.
US and Russian astronauts, Sufis, see in the curves of moons,
The same fragile curves that cup the thoughts in human skulls.
All these float between worlds. Above the clouds
The Earth is their flexed symposium, a spherical table
Where they pour out thoughts like hot tea into glasses.
Michael Brett 

 The Surgeon Explosive

 From a big country, in big plane,
I travelled ten thousand miles to be here,
To this bed-sized scrap, to this sick land
My world has shrunk to.
 
I am examined every moment
By the Surgeon Explosive.
He takes my pulse.
I can feel his binocular gaze pinching me,
Running over my back, prodding me like a farmer.
 
Then he goes away.
Everything is quiet, but I know I am not safe.
Somewhere over the ridge, he stands in consultation
With the enemy.
They compare me to the next man, and decide.
 
He raises their standards.
They start to pretend to be disinterested, professional.
But as their scope cross hairs comb my hair,
I know that they are jealous
Of my cigarettes and chocolate.
 
Smoke is his nurse.
She grimaces, and shakes her fist before dissolving,
Before calling him.
 
There he is.
Over there, I can see him at work
Among the soldiers, with his scalpel-steel-
Examining, dissecting.

Michael Brett

To top of page

Ploughing

Why didn’t they bury me deeper?
 
Once a gypsy read my palm and said
I’d own a vast estate. Here it is.
I’d have no money worries.
That bit was right.
 
My life was dragged in a blanket to this grave
By some friends-in a delirium of blood-
It was night time. They were scared
And did not see me breathe or take my pulse.
 
I felt drunk so it didn’t seem so bad-
Like jumping to the top of a first night theatre queue-
To be first in the cradle of recoiling earth,
And swaddled by the heavy guns from home.
 
But now, buried in a rush, too high- just below the plough-
Each day is just too hot or cold for me.
I’d love to climb the earthen steps
And drop the wasted decades, one by one.
 
As their spades arranged the earth above my face,
I thought they said, some day, they’d take me home.
They’d bury me- properly- somewhere nicer far than this.
Then a machine gun coughed, and no-one spoke again.
 
That was years ago.
Now the crows all circle. The tractor comes.
The plough opens the earth’s clay volume at my page.
 
O why won’t the soldiers come again?
Why won’t they take me home?

Michael Brett

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The Mecca and Medina Road

On the road sign it says Mecca Muslims only
-In English-like a London road sign, reading Hatfield and the North.
 
Here in the Saudi Desert, I cannot see Islam anywhere.
 
In Pakistan, you see it swirling in white Arabic
On green paint, on roadside hoardings,
Or streaming on flags.
 
You see it in what people do:
During Ramadan, the clerk in the Egyptair office
Asked me put out my cigarette.
He could not smoke at them moment, he said,
And it was driving him mad.
 
The Prophet (pbuh) must have been on this road,
But I cannot hear the Muezzins in their towers
Calling everyone to prayer,
As they do in Cairo, or in Dhaka.
 
There at dawn-it is a wonder, an electrical dawn chorus:
A thousand hazaans; a thousand gramophones,
At different speeds and pitches, pummelling the windows,
Shaking the bed: Wake up. Wake up.
 
In Granada, the Alhambra soars above its flowers.
In Fez, Al Quds, tourists snap at each other
And tour guides, between forest pillars
That conduct the cool air
And grow Arabic like ivy.
 
Here there is only the wind, my hired car, rocks,
And the hawk hunting jerboas overhead.
 
Arshad (a Bangla Sufi really) was shocked when saw King Faisal
Cast into his grave, near here, between some rocks:
Without a headstone.
He said, and made the gesture with his hands,
They just dropped him in.
 
Salafis find Allah in wilderness and wild places.
 
I am jealous of their certainty, their assurance.
I keep looking for it on road signs. I’ve found it nowhere.

 Michael Brett

London-from Aqaba to Zem Zem

Once all we wanted was a little space:
 
When the kitchen and the cooking pots did not seem big enough,
When-at home-even the President’s giant rooms were crazed
With marauding soldiers stripping bath taps, lights and mirrors.
Then nothing could seem big enough.
When men are dangerous, space is safety.
 
Then the largest spaces, ocean or desert,
 
Have a voiceless call and motion.
Then sandy ribs of dunes are waves
And Atlantic waves are dunes and
Inside their pulse, the longing for a space
 
Unbracketed by time or maps becomes unendurable.
Then the London A to Z stands for London
From Aqaba to Zem Zem.
This London runs through people like the Silk Road.
Its end is no mysterious gunshot or sari drenched in petrol.
 
Here the wider world is not a cheap and crackling radio, but
Like a distant star both real and dreamlike. It is something far away,
Dull and like a number on a celestial map,
But as close and brilliant as the brightest jewel in the ear
Of the darkest passenger next to you on the tube.
 
Beneath an aircraft wing, London twists like the crowd
That spins around the Kaaba. Delirious as a fishing reel,
It spools you in. In a café in a London street
I hear my native language. Let me translate for you:
 
They are worried about the tax man not the secret police.

 Michael Brett

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Refugees (1)

As the searchlights bandaged its dying air,
My mind burned with my city.
 
I watched my people wandering through colonnades
Of smoke, searching for the lost
Or for new countries.
 
The frontiers of my life have turned to fissures:
Beneath the elegant aircraft, like dancers, bombing us.
Only songs, not lives, have gained in value
Now that they are propped by broken walls.
 
In the last hours, recorded trumpets slapped
Through loudspeakers, at an unshaved dawn.
But it was not victory. The war just sank
In our harbour, with our ships,
My passport and somewhere to go.
 
Now, the birds will have returned.  The grass
Over the ruins will be a beard around the sun.
New streets, like babies, kick and cry
Shaking off the dead.
 
But, like those beneath the fallen buildings,
Beneath the water in the shell holes and ditches,
I shall never return.
 
Perhaps I’ll find a new job today.
Perhaps the rain will saw up the sky
And help me as I slice the Moon into rings
And sell off the pieces from the back of a truck.

Refugees (2)

 Down they came, after the first attack,
Both our language and our music were beyond repair.
 
The UN and NGOs are tidying up.
Their wrecking balls and pickaxes break up our metaphors and similes.
 
Look. In ostrich plumes of dust, poems fall, crashing like dropped chandeliers.
Our books are gone, finished.
Pickaxes eat their blue way through white paper domes, black letters,
-Us.
 
Outside music is burning on fires all over town.
(People walk past the heaps in silence, looking for food or money.)
 
Notes are hacked from the stretched whale innards of gutted symphonies.
Some phrases survive, are hauled off on the backs of trucks by foreign troops.
Big bits sometimes end in museums, or bars.
Oddments go to flea markets -are pickled in jars-
Or swapped by kids in playgrounds.
 
And inside all the radios, televisions and kitchens
Everyone is silent because
Smoke from these fires is a gag across the mouth of our world.

 Michael Brett

Soldiers

Of course, there are three kinds:
 
There are the cheery young ones, up at the bar:
Buying you beers,
Showing you pictures of their families.
 
Then, the pomegranate men in an armoured column:
Its metal back flexing like a centipede,
Its helicopter whiskers, its burr of drones.
 
Cut off a limb and its body would merely shorten,
Perhaps grow stronger.
Its experts are trained.
They dismantle gearboxes, tanks, men.
 
You see them in pieces at the roadside.
 
Then there are the magicians:
The ones whose single wave,
Or tapped letter on a plastic keyboard,
Begins the show.
 
They can stop a thousand clocks-
A thousand hearts-at once
With a wave of a wand in a jeweller’s shop.
 
At their bidding, shells put on ballerina dresses,
Pirouette, explode.
 
Sometimes it is hard to tell them apart.
 
Over a newly-discovered bomb, they all move
Like genius crabs: waving tools and studying manuals.

Michael Brett

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Missing Person

There are no roses at the end,
No raised glasses, no speeches,
As a missing person makes the world lighter,
Leaves everyone with a kind of debt.
 
A name that has no-one floats away
Like a holiday photograph
Of no-one waving from lost blue seas.
 
A ghost’s bedroom is guarded like a prince’s,
By mothers, wives, and soldier ranks
Of empty suits and empty shoes.
A ghost has an answering machine but no home,
 
The parabolas of jets and bombs,
Lead to a new geological age, to fossil lives.
They leave no place, no centre, for love to go to;
It can just catch trains of half-remembered conversations
That lead only to pictures of a ghost.
 
Firemen, soldiers, the inquiring spades that probe as shrapnel,
Police dogs. These are guests at a kind of wedding
Where ghost and man fuse.
 
Behind Police Line Don’t Cross tapes,
A policewoman with his wallet blots out the sun.
 Michael Brett

 Bomb Attack

The first pass is invisible.
Its slipstream can make a rock of the head
In a Turner seascape.
The bird, death, wanders the domes from ear to ear,
Sometimes deafening them;
Sometimes making them bleed.
 
Sometimes, it just lands.
Then, its stillness amazes you.
The fringes flickering over plastic eyes,
Amongst the corkscrew smoke and sirens.
It makes sparrows of men, men of sparrows.
 
Sparrows don’t want to die, either.
They paddle as fast as they can,
Away from the sparrow hawk death,
Whose wings are a shadow over the sun.

Michael Brett

Facing the Music:
Hyde Park Corner Bomb Explosion (Number 2) 20th July 1982

I heard the second bomb. Its iron door slammed
In the new prison of the sky, and
All the Kensington windows rattled in their frames,
Then opened: people stared out.
 
Where was it?
What was it? The Israeli Embassy?
The Iranian Embassy? Something else?
Or who?
-A giant question mark of smoke.
 
In Tyburn, dead like Raleigh,
Safe and headless, Cromwell slept,
Immune from his Irish politics.
 
In Whitehall, generals planned counter-insurgencies.
Guards watched security videos.
In high security prisons;
In their own homes, under surveillance, IRA men yawned.
 
But here, the skies and we were caught in nets
Of sirens, death and smoke:
Dying trumpeters, horses, drummers
-all of us-
All left to face the music.

Michael Brett

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POEMS BY MICHAEL BRETT - 2008 AND EARLIER

Armistice Poem

People used to believe that Death was a living person,
Who roamed in the night like a cloak
Embroidered with darkness; that
Death was a traveller
Who carried sadness and regret.
Death does exist but in many different ways: not in the breeze
Of night wind,
Not in graves, nor in cemeteries.
Or just in War.
Death makes you exist only in your absence:
Crowded restaurants and bars
Are filled with you not being there;
Libraries boom with the books you never wrote,
And on white screens are the films you never made.
The Cenotaph is silent, filled with the voices
Of the families you never had.
Michael Brett

Oil Heart

Off camera and up close, this sea of war trembles like broken glass.
Its waves are shards, nose cones and bayonets.
Its faces are not calm as statues, but as anxious as turtles
Creaking and splashing in tides they cannot control.
The middle-aged cannot do this alone.
The young are told that they are beautiful in uniform.
Films are made, flattering them, deluging them
With stars. Yet they are more like Orion betrayed
In Renaissance tapestries. Only together can these two scoop
Red oceans out of continents in lengths of time, atomic.
This ocean is oil and water.
Its trade winds are speeches.
Now the days do not pass. They bubble to the surface
From events and places long-forgotten. A subterranean drowned market
Emerges in war’s long low tides, peopled by old young men
With a new language for old things: Greek fire, siege engines
And ways of spreading disease. In the open air at last,
They sit on easy chairs, thrilled to be normal.
Statesmen say that they are angels. Their wings are our applause.
They claim to walk on water. Its waves, grey and curling as monks’ cowls,
Slide the oozy invasion shores. Their newspaper gulls dive for scraps.
Only in sleep can you escape war’s oil heart beating, beating.
All seems madness yet everyone says that this is logic,
Wooden, dry, like the touch of a piece on a chessboard.
So now I am a news exile. I watch only cartoon shows
And go to bed early. I only glance at the papers.
Muddy, I flail in war. Before its weighty armoured lies,
Its perverse and roaring beauty, I splash helplessly
Like someone drowning in oil.
2001
Michael Brett

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 Bomb Circuitry

Consider the circuitry of a bomb. Like you
It works with a telephone call.
A circuit board has political independence.
It has its own batteries, its own power.
It is as pretty and clever as a tube map.
Its parts are ancient books and modern coins.
A bomber is an artist, an electric surrealist
Who sees towers as gibbets, forests as fish bones.
On the black print of his newspaper, he solders
Semtex to gold, timers to copper.
He can write in the smoke over cars and buildings,
Sketch with the trails of planes and speedboats.
He can arrange death like a tub of flowers in the street
As a work of art, a Goya bullfight with bands and costumes.

Michael Brett

 Machine Gun

He is a conjuror.
His bullets are birds’ eggs.
He cloaks the theatre in his magic smoke.
He mesmerises people. He cuts ladies in half.
Encamped, wind battered in a tent
Of flesh, I carry him and his boxes as he tours.
I watch his stars with nets of bad luck
Trawl the world.
Each day is an argument, a museum we fight for.
Sleep is three hours in a dust filled bath
Under some noseless statues.
Beneath the awning of a marble hand,
I contemplate my future and my maps.
The colours of the nations are rich as bruises.
Roads are red veins. My conjuror has scissors.
He cuts the air.
He cuts us all.
He makes people disappear.

Michael Brett  

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Tabby Cat War Baby

If you lie upside-down and look at it,
The sky is a lake where someone has thrown oil barrels.
Smoke leaks upwards in black trails.
Somewhere distant and comic, machine guns are nails dragged down washboards.
Next to an abandoned washing machine
And riddled signpost, a cat cries for food.
No-one knows if the cat is Serb or Croat. Maybe he’s Muslim.
He rubs his head in each soldier’s hand equally,
Military or paramilitary.
He is a Jazz musician in a wrecked café.
He is the old Yugoslavia, hanging on
With his one eye and his handful of tunes:
I love you and I’m hungry
Playing in an empty town to passing audiences.

Michael Brett

 Twenty-One

Soldiers are cards in the casino, war.
Alive, they stand proud in hands, like cockades and plumes.
Killed, they fall like money.
They lie face up, face down
In graves of Patience, on a field of baize.
Soldiers are the toys of croupiers.
They are dealt along lines and pathways
To places with numbers for names.
Every November, in churches,
You can hear their names
Read out slowly, like football results.

Michael Brett

Artillery Barrage

An artillery barrage is like a giant’s fist beating
On a bar top, everything jumps: glasses, change,
Trees, boulders, mud. Entire hillsides
Leap, topple, sometimes vanish in wild dents
Encased in instants of fire and smoke
That drift like ghosts of other wars.
An artillery barrage is like a drunken juggler.
It dances in flames on the edge of a curtain.
Houses, trees are like skittles.
They leap upwards, tumbling over and over.
They are never caught. They smash.
It is a wind. Through it, a forest wanders
Like a fleet dissolving in a hurricane.
Smoke faces contort, shake their fists and vanish.
I am drowning in noise that makes ears and noses bleed.
The smell is strange, like a smoky hot bed.
Like a loopy grin, a bridge collapses and someone laughs.
Chunks the size of a piano hurtle skywards vertically.
Now we will walk towards it.

Michael Brett

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Tonight’s Target is the Face of Scrooge

War like cities is more lovely at night.
I climb tank tracks, like Jacob’s Ladder
To the ridge and watch the bombardment
Bursting in red gold and silver coin phosphorous,
Santa Claus pouches. Tonight’s target is the crumbling
Face of Scrooge. These sounds are not bombs,
Not schools or hospitals, they are Ming vases,
Old Masters juggled by drunks.
Once governments told to mind how you cross a road.
Now they urge you stream between instant potholes, run excitedly
In lines of zeros like the zero hour on digital displays,
In long lines, like those on armaments’ manufacturers’ cheques.
The burglar bullet that ransacks your heart
Is a kiss, a blessing, a golden guinea.
The shells that travel over your heads like priests’ hands,
Explode hilariously, like drunks falling over. It is a party.
Above you are the fireworks of a hundred nations.
Check your magazine. It is loaded with party poppers.

Michael Brett

Archangel

Nettles that are called Archangel
Stand tall in the corner of my garden
With cloaks of shadow at their back.
The birds sing but everything else seems wrong
And I, and everything in the world,
Whistle like radios out of tune
Heard through an open window
Where a curtain is blowing, streaming
With terrible news.

Michael Brett

Dead Machine Gun Crew

The gunners’ green faces are crowned with flies
And their grey arms flung, across the barrel of the gun,
Like drunks around some girls.
They lie sliced like lemon into strands
By holidaying shells and rockets.
They are brothers in arms, in decay, mingled
Next to their brassy, live and gleaming bullets.
You cannot tell which foot, which hand
Goes with which dry and tearless eye
Filled with dust and scraps of leaves.
Around them, tracers lace the upper air.
Raindrops drum on helmets, hearts and broken glass.
Shells plod their way across the street.
Some soldiers looting beers from the shop next door
Spare them no second glance.
For now they are neither friends nor enemies.
They are part of a different army,
Whose drill is stillness, whose bond is silence.
Their new country is the greatest secret.
It is more secret than their map that lies beside them, still,
With its scribbles in red, its lines and times of attack.
The clouds burst. Naked, face uppermost, dead,
Its paper crackles in the rain.

Michael Brett

 Artillery Shells

Some sound like drunks blowing kisses.
Others pass overhead as if they are calling to friends.
Sometimes, when they burst, they sound scared and huddle
Like children at the end of the range, clattering, murmuring,
Throwing clods of earth and waving smoky arms.
The last big howitzer sounded sad, a finger
Sliding down the E-string of a bass,
Reluctant, resentful, as if it were being cheated
Of a future in a cathedral or art gallery.
The 75 millimetres sound spiteful and bitter though.
You can imagine them in stocking masks,
Kicking in your windows, looking for people
Cowering in the cellar and finding them.


Michael Brett

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