The Heart of Darkness

© David Campbell

Winner, 2020 Betty Olle Poetry Award, Kyabram, Victoria.

I have seen the heart of darkness on an ancient killing field
where the bones of men were sleeping till the march of time revealed
what the dogs of war had ravaged on a long-forgotten day
when so many lives were shattered by the price they had to pay.

I recall my mother weeping when she spoke her father’s name,
when she told me of the message and the fateful day it came
with the news that he was “missing”, lost in action near Fromelles,
where the victims numbered thousands when they tolled the final bell.

For she also lost her mother from the life that they had known
as the trauma left her broken, feeling frightened and alone,
so a bright and cheerful woman faded, bitter and withdrawn,
and quite soon my stricken mother had another cause to mourn.

When we’re honouring the fallen we should also not forget
all the families remaining and the challenges they met,
for the grief was overwhelming, and a burden hard to bear,
and while some could overcome it, others yielded to despair.

For so many had no closure when their menfolk disappeared,
though they always kept on hoping through the years and persevered
with the letters and the questions, asking where and how and why,
simply seeking a few answers and the chance to say goodbye.

That is why I paid attention when I read the distant news,
for they said investigators had uncovered many clues
that might help to trace the background of the bodies they had found,
all the secrets that lay buried, hidden deep beneath the ground.

There were buttons, boots, and buckles, and the sort of private things
that a soldier might have carried, such as fountain pens and rings,
and they linked all those together while they tested DNA
to shed light on what had happened on that catastrophic day.

They identified some bodies, though my Grandad wasn’t one,
but the story made me ponder on the deeds he might have done
in the many years that followed, and the life that could have been
if the war had not intruded, wiping any future clean.

So I had to pay a tribute to this man I never knew,
to respect what he had suffered and accord him what was due,
which explains why I am standing on this barren stretch of earth
far from where he left his loved ones in the country of his birth.

As I bow my head in prayer I am conscious of the debt
that we owe to those who fought here, therefore no-one should forget,
though a hundred years have vanished, it can never be denied
that the freedom we’re enjoying meant that countless thousands died.
If I concentrate and listen I can hear the call of birds,
and from somewhere in the distance there’s the muffled sound of words
as a mother calls her children who are playing in the sun —
but imagination takes me, and I’m carrying a gun.

I am running, firing blindly at a foe I cannot see,
for they’re fortified in trenches with machine guns aimed at me,
and the gates of Hell are open as my world explodes in flames,
and these men, my close companions, lie there lifeless, merely names.

They have perished in an instant, all their love and laughter fled,
celebrated in a letter — maybe captured, maybe dead —
but that thought is just a flicker in a maelstrom of pain,
and I wonder if I’ll ever see the home I love again.

Yet I’m running, still I’m running, as I’ve never run before,
till I see my wife and daughter waiting, smiling, at the door,
but their faces are receding and their smiles are growing dim,
and I hear my comrades calling as they sing the battle hymn.

I have seen the heart of darkness on an ancient killing field
in a momentary madness when the ghosts of time revealed
what is meant when brave men whisper of the horror that is war —
and I’m running, still I’m running, as I’ve never run before!

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