Chalk, calcium carbonate, should mean school –
a small, neutral stick neither cool nor hot,
its smell should evoke wooden desks slamming
when, squeaking over blackboards, it could not
decently teach us more than one plus one.
Now, no less pedagogic in ruder districts,
on iron railway bridges, were urchins fight,
an urgent scrawl names our failure – BAN THE BOMB,
or more peculiarly, KEEP BRITAIN WHITE.
Chalk, it seems, has some bleeding purpose.
In the night, secretly, they must have come,
strict, clenched men in the street, anonymous,
past closed shops and the sound of running feet
till upstairs, next morning, vacant in a bus,
we observe a once blank wall assaulted.
There’s not enough chalk in the wronged world
to spell out one plus one, the perfect lies.
HANDS OFF GUATEMALA – though slogans change,
never the chalk scraping on the pitched noise
of a nerve in violence or in longing.
by Dannie Abse
from Poems, Golders Green (1962)
Additional information: Dannie Abse CBE FRSL (22 September 1923 – 28 September 2014) was a Welsh poet and physician. His poetry won him many awards. As a medic, he worked in a chest clinic for over 30 years. He was born in Cardiff, Wales, to a Jewish family. He was the younger brother of politician and reformer Leo Abse and the eminent psychoanalyst, Wilfred Abse. Unusually for a middle-class Jewish boy, Dannie Abse attended St Illtyd’s College, a working-class Catholic school in Splott.
Editor’s note: Posted on a week when teachers went on strike in Britain.