Tuesday, 12 July 2011

Colours: A Poem

British newspapers have themselves been in the news spotlight of late, much to their discomfort, as allegations of phone hacking, bribery and possibly even perverting the course of justice, have forced the closure of the News of the World and look likely to bring down the whole News Corporation empire. This update isn’t about that case. Instead I want to make some related points, which are true about the mainstream media in general – and war in particular – that will remain true long after the Murdoch empire has crumbled to dust.

The media has a primary role to play in maintaining public support for overseas wars, as well as internal repression at home, all justified in the name of the War on Terror. They appeal to patriotism and the cult of blind sacrifice. Every now and then, this backfires, as the reality of war comes home, wrapped in a flag, wrapped in the colours: wrapped in a newspaper. One of those newspapers was caught hacking into the mobile phones of the relatives of dead soldiers, which should be enough to show that the corporate media cares for nothing except money. 

Photo: AP

Despite that, I found this Daily Mail report of a young widow’s grief particularly sad and moving.
I cannot read it or look at the picture of Mrs Kirkpatrick, dressed unusually in pink, placing a rose upon the hearse bearing the body of her husband, without crying. These images have haunted me for over a year. The pink dress seems like a defiant expression of love in a world governed – literally – by hate. I had to write a poem about it, in Sapphic stanzas; the form associated with Sappho, one of the very first love poets. Why? How else does one defeat war, but with love? How to stand out against black, but with pink? It’s all about the colours …


Wearing pink, she places a rose upon the
coffin of her former defender; so the
lines would claim. He died not for nothing, words cry,
draped in the colours.

Red and white and blue are the colours; shrouding
dead and dying soldiers of Empire, shrouding
too the things of love, which were broken, long lost
covenants buried:

Sacrificed and sold for a well of black gold.
Keep the wheels in motion and don’t ask why, or
who or where your enemies really are – just
follow the colours.


By coincidence, the Daily Mail story is dated on the anniversary of the 7/7 bombings in London, which claimed 56 lives and which was used by the Blair government to shore up support for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan which have in their turn destroyed many thousands of lives and continue to claim victims today: mostly innocent civilians including many children. US troops are finally due to begin withdrawal from Afghanistan this month. I would like someone to explain to me exactly why it was all worthwhile and why all those people had to die. Mrs Kirkpatrick is also owed an explanation.

Note on form: Sapphic stanzas were originally written in patterns of long and short syllables in ancient Greek. The English Sapphic form translates this pattern into a regular metre based on stress. The predominant foot is the trochee, although each line incorporates a dactyl. The effect in English is to induce a sombre and solemn mood, reminiscent of a funeral cortège, but injected with a note of urgency thanks to those dactyls.

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