Return by Malcolm Lewis

Here is the soldier home from the War,
sailing into Cardiff. He’s startled after Palestine
by the colours on the ridge,
dead bracken, glossy, like wet army cottons,
purple coppice he can’t identify,
the mossy green of fir trees that weren’t there
when he volunteered.

The cold cuts through the suit
bought from the tallest of the Lascars,
the cuffs, inches short of his wrists,
expose his skin, now as dark as theirs,
but collier-white before he went. He looks
like them, but Christ, he’d hardly kept up.
Only pennies rub in his pocket –
the captain had skint him, the Scotch bastard.

Posted missing back at Easter,
he’d not written, couldn’t risk
the censor checking on his letter.
He’ll stay on board till it’s dark,
jump the wall, thread the back streets north,
then – the freedom of the frozen tracks –
up and over the top, past the hill farms’ yowling sentries,
down to the town where ghosts parade.

by Malcolm Lewis

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Red Balloon by Dannie Abse

It sailed across the startled town,

over chapels, over chimney-pots,

wind-blown above a block of flats

before it floated down.

 

Oddly, it landed where I stood,

and finding’s keeping, as you know.

I breathed on it, I polished it,

till it shone like living blood.

 

It was my shame, it was my joy,

it brought me notoriety.

From all of Wales the rude boy came,

it ceased to be a toy.

 

I heard the girls of Cardiff sigh

When my balloon, my red balloon,

soared higher like a happiness

towards the dark blue sky.

 

Nine months since, have I boasted of

my unique, my only precious;

but to no one dare I show it now

however long they swear their love.

 

‘It’s a Jew’s balloon,’ my best friend cried,

‘stained with our dear Lord’s blood.’

‘That I’m a Jew is true,’ I said,

said I, ‘that cannot be denied.’

 

‘What relevance?’ I asked, surprised,

‘what’s religion to do with this?’

‘Your red balloon’s a Jew’s balloon,

let’s get it circumcised.’

 

Then some boys laughed and some boys cursed,

some unsheathed their dirty knives:

some lunged, some clawed at my balloon,

but still it would not burst.

 

They bled my nose, they cut my eye,

half conscious in the street I heard,

‘Give up, give up your red balloon.’

I don’t know exactly why.

 

Father, bolt the door, turn the key,

lest those sad, brash boys return

to insult my faith and steal

my red balloon from me.

 

by Dannie Abse

from Poems, Golders Green (1962)


Fun facts: Dannie Abse 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.