Us and Them

(to R.S.Thomas)

“What is the death of one man,” you said,
“when set against the death of the whole nation?”
Blood ran but
it was not Welsh blood, breath
burst from shattered lungs but they had never
filled with Welsh air, never sung
O Land of our fathers,
the land of the free!
I couldn’t believe you said it but
it seems you did.
The rivers of blood shed since man began
to think of us as us and others as not us!
Blake, who didn’t belong to any “us” – or “them” –
of believers, said: Ask Caiaphas,
Caiaphas knew: a song is a dangerous thing.
Ask him, for he was there. Caiaphas said:
Better that one man should die …
Poets are dangerous men, Plato said,
preaching brotherhood and folly.
Who is my brother? the patriot asks.
The poet replies: All men are brothers.

Oh yes, a song is a dangerous thing –
as Yeats would have known. Yeats
the English Irishman, Yeats the patriot.
While editing The Oxford Book Of English Verse,
Yeats said Owen cannot be among the chosen
for Owen had said not to sing
the same old song, pass on
the same old story. Yeats was shocked.
Yeats the Irish Englishman shocked easily.
Against him the gates of Heaven and Hell,
as in the story, did not prevail,
yet when the incestuous MacBride
died in a blaze of glory
Yeats was – shocked. Owen, in hell,
saw hundreds die ere he too died,
limbs blown off, men blinded and
made mad by mustard gas: the poetry,
he said, is in the pity, not in
Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.

Oh, you should see Cyndyllan in his pulpit,
so powerful proud, so patriotic, pouring
scorn upon the English and the apathetic,
standing up there in his surplice, stirring,
up old hatreds … A political priest:
not a priest at all, really. A political poet,
not a poet at all. To stand a man
or to condone his being stood
(as Lorca once was stood)
blindfold against a prison wall and shot
is incompatible with poetry
and incompatible with being a Christian priest.
Either could stop it simply by going
and standing beside the man against the wall,
never asking if he’s “us” or “them”:
he’s us; he is a man; short or tall,
white or black, fat or thin – there
two would certainly be gathered together
in Christ’s name. And that of Yudhishthira, King
of Dharma. And that of
Gautama, the Buddha.
And in the name of Tolstoy and Tagore
and Shelley and Owen, and Blake,
and great St Paul.

I read of your death in the paper, and in that same
paper read of the League of the South in the USA –
white supremacists in business suits who claim
“Anglo-Celtic roots”. Note “Anglo-Celtic”.
Pray for this nation! you say? What nation? What
is this “nation” for whom it is fitting that a man –
or woman or child – anyone – should die?
Those born in Wales? Only those boyos who
have pissed into the wind on the side
of the mountain as they staggered home?
A notion simply, unthought-out, a beery
idea, a song, the Land of our Fathers, like the good ol’
boys in the deep, deep south, who claim Anglo-Welsh ancestry.
A game.

The poet should certainly practise prophecy
if prophecy means standing up to the rich,
the rulers – Oh, there’s poetry in
“You grind the faces of my poor
into the earth!” – or speaking out for peace –
“They shall beat their swords
into ploughshears: nation shall not lift up sword
against nation, neither
shall they learn war
any more …” But politics?
You were a poet, all agree.
And a priest, of course. But as you said yourself,
you lacked love. And as St Paul said, though we
be poets, though we be priests, if we lack love
we are nothing. And as he also said,
the great St Paul, In Christ there is neither
Welsh nor English, Scots nor Irish,
nor Protestant, nor Catholic,
but all are one. You too are my brother:
that is poetry.

An impotent poet, ageing, sick of verse,
no longer reading Shelley, no longer wielding
dreams, only empty words, worn-out words,
no longer he who takes the curse in hand
and plays with it and turns the world
upside down. Sick, sick with in-looking,
with worrying the carcass of an old patriotism,
you turn your face to the wall now
and leave us with all the same old nightmares,
maybe worse.

And now I read about the Taliban,
the Arabs, Muslims, them. Last week
the Serbs were wrong, not the Mohamedans –
or was it the Catholics, the Jews, the Sikhs?
And who was right? One guess. Yes, the Americans.
Did no one ever tell them, though, in the USA
that when it comes to Big Goliath and Little Dave
it doesn’t matter who is right,
that no one cares? That everyone
supports the little guy.That they are bound
to come out looking bad, come out seeming
to have lost, as they lost in Vietnam
while the rest of the world laughs. Them. They.
Them, they, them. I’m doing it myself now.
Americans, like men, like Europeans,
come in all shapes and sizes, all faiths, all sexes,
the straight, bi and gay, the wed and the unwed,
the Christian, the Muslim, the quick and the dead,
and those all-American boys on Death Row.
What is the death of – ? You have had your say,
and passed on. The football-fan mind-set, though –
and for fan read fanatic – the hooliganism,
the readiness to kill, will not go away.

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