The Biscuit Barrel
Fires of Memory
The Biscuit Barrel
It was the only prize you ever won,
that biscuit barrel with the silvered rim,
untouched and untainted by any crumb.
It smugly watched its squat reflection swim
in the sea's light that flooded the dresser,
polished on fuchsia-blown afternoons
of summer, no mounted clock could measure;
with drifting scents of warming, rising scones
from that Aga with a mind of its own.
It sat there, waiting, like an empty urn,
mirroring moving shadows of flames thrown
by the brass fender when scorched beech logs turned
and fell when you died in the room above
that barrel shaped and altered by your love.
Copyright © 2009 James Knox Whittet
for Ishbell MacAskill, a noted Gaelic singer
Like music of winds across lazy beds,
your haunting voice turns memory's pained wheels;
gaunt men who scythed below the arched sky's reds;
pale women shawled and bowed beneath dark creels;
unending waits for loved ones lost in storms,
listening to seabirds' ominous wails;
peatfired walls shadowed by unearthly forms
where loss and loneliness loom and faith fails.
Rare times of joy as well:
that bare foot walk across machair in summer,
drowsed in scents with whispers of grasses,
sea's crooning talk,
black cattle on hills lowing their laments.
Your voice heals island wounds,
weak are made strong:
suffering is transformed into a song.
Music Copyright © 2010 and performed by Colin Whyles
Copyright © 2008 James Knox Whittet
Fires of Memory
You who once ploughed hedged Norfolk
fields which slope to the sea in blizzards
of gulls, found yourself in Bergen-Belsen
confronting heaps of naked, entangled bodies:
as if clinging to each other in the agony
and loneliness of their separate deaths.
You were sent to liberate but for those,
the freedom that you brought, came too late.
You entered each numbered block, unable
to absorb the horror which was contained
within: tier after tier of the living dead:
their eyes made wild with bottomless pain.
When war, at last, ended, you returned
to that farm where ghosts of winds
open and close pathways through barley
and stilled evenings reverberate with rooks.
But memories of mountains of children's shoes
spilled from each cupboard you opened;
glaciers of eyeless spectacles stared back
at you like sun strands on splintered glass.
You knew you had to give a voice to those
whose voices had been choked by gas.
You gave talks to classrooms of children
and tried to impart the pain behind the facts.
You invited survivors of the Holocaust
to show the tattooed numbers on their wrists
and share their nightmares of that time
when they and their loved ones slipped out of time.
School trips to Nazi death camps were arranged
and you watched crocodiles of boys and girls file
past those empty shoes; the watches; gold teeth;
the hair like stubble before the fields are burnt.
I've made it my life's mission to ensure
that people don't forget: you told me,
a week before you died, your voice a harsh
whisper through cancer constricted lungs.
As I stood above your grave, alone in the crowd,
I glanced at gorse which glowed in June sunlight
and I raised my hand as if to catch your torch
to keep the fires of memory burning and burning . . .
Note that Paul was reading the published version. The version here as supplied by James Knox Whittet has a couple of lines that are different.
Copyright © 2011 James Knox Whittet