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22 January 2016

“On the Existing State of Things”: a new poem by Simon Armitage

From Virgil, the Aeneid, Book VI. 

By Simon Armitage

A new poem by Simon Armitage, first published in the New Statesman on 22 January, 2016.

Then to those shores
that Charon patrols, stalking the quayside,
haunting beach and bay, harbourmaster and ferryman.
With a straggly grey beard under his bloodshot eyes
and a money-bag slung from his bony shoulder
he tacks and jibes, tunes the outboard motor,
herding his cargo into a rusty hull,
old in years but a tireless God of the grave.

Here a pitiful mob crowded the strand:
husbands and wives, the drained dishevelled forms
of the once-proud, bewildered children,
pale daughters and sons pulled from rubble and ash,
men and women holed by sniper rounds.

So many souls, countless as dry leaves
spinning through autumn woods, loosened by frost,
or like flocking birds that darken a clear sky,
migrating seaward looking for greener worlds.
They lined the banks begging to be next to cross,
arms stretched towards a distant coast.
But Charon trafficked as he pleased, first these, then those,
ordering others to stand back from the boat.

****

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And there among them the ghost of Palinurus.
Sailing at night from Libya, piloting north,
transfixed by tail-lights bound for Munich and Heathrow
he’d slipped from the stern and gone down in the wake.
Seeing his mournful shape among those shades
Aeneas called out, “Palinurus, answer me;
which God tipped the Mediterranean into your lungs?”
And the dead sailor replied, “No God, captain.
It was my one job to chart a course by the stars
but during a sudden squall the tiller sheared off,
fell away behind with me hanging on.
And even half-drowned I cared less for myself
than I did for the vessel and those still sailing on,
adrift in the dark without helmsman or helm,
in the heaving ocean, through valleys of waves.

For three nights in weather out of the south
I was swept along by currents and gale-force winds,
then next dawn, pitched high by the swell,
I caught a glimpse of Italy’s jagged peaks.
I swam stroke by stroke, trod water, swam
till I felt shingle underfoot, sand between my toes.
But sheer cliffs and savage rocks defeated me;
in heavy waterlogged clothes I hung on by my nails
till cold and weakness prised my fingers from the stone.

The tide owns me now. Where day-glo life-vests
lie beached and disembodied at first light
I roll in the white surf at the water’s edge.
Comrade, throw soil over my washed-out flesh
or offer your hand and pull my body aboard,
land me where I can rest in peace in the earth.”

Simon Armitage is Professor of Poetry at Oxford University. His most recent books are Paper Aeroplane: Selected Poems, 1989-2014 and Walking Away (both published by Faber & Faber).

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This article appears in the 20 Jan 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Middle East's 30 years war