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Phil Vernon



the poet

Trained originally as a forester, Phil Vernon has done international humanitarian and peacebuilding work since 1985. His third collection, Guerrilla Country – forthcoming from Flight of the Dragonfly Press in 2024 – draws together his interest in landscape, peace and conflict. Phil's two previous collections, Poetry After Auschwitz and Watching the Moon Landing, are complemented by his version of the mediaeval hymn Stabat Mater (with music by Nicola Burnett Smith), which has been performed internationally.

the poems

The command

‘An order is heavier than a stone.’

00:00 / 01:23

                        The magistrate, for fear 

                        his fear will come to pass,

                        sends formal notes to regiments.

                        The chief of police, sure they 

                        wish bloodshed over peace,

                        calls out the words that make it so.

                        The soldier puts in play his plan 

                        to teach these people 

                        what he understands. 


                        A simple mark, 

                        a sound or gesture 

                        sets in motion—everything.

                        Block exit gates with bayonets.

                        Cut through the crowd.

                        Fire tear gas, baton, then live rounds

                        above their heads—

                        then lower. Aim at where 

                        the densest groupings are.

                        Don’t shrink—redouble your resolve 

                        when they begin to flee.

                        Send in the tanks.



                        the image of the golden sanctum 

                        barely shimmers,

                        pilgrims walk in silent circles,

                        heel to toe, around 

                        the sarovar.


                        How certain must they be,

                        who utter these commands,

                        the stage they stand upon 

                        and laud and idolise 

                        is crumbling in the sea?

                        Where do their shadows go?

                        And where do ours,

                        who fail to prevent 

                        their words?

The King’s Peace

00:00 / 00:57

                        To keep his peace, our king built temples, 

                        courts and palaces, and scarred 

                        the land he’d won, with ditches, ports

                        and roads; determined how we die;  

                        and blessed us with his enmities.

                        To teach us irony, he named 

                        his cousins lords and justices. 

                        Apprised of God’s mistake by priests 

                        and clerks, on pain of punishment 

                        he made us speak a single tongue.

                        His word was written, maps were drawn. 

                        But laws and maps and roadways lengthened 

                        distances, and when he sailed, 

                        he left no instrument through which

                        to see, but a kaleidoscope.

                        We turn and turn its wheels but cannot

                        make the fractured picture whole.


00:00 / 01:14

                        We learned the forest

                        long before we learned our books:

                        heard woodlarks, cuckoos, jays,

                        watched roebucks, martens, wolves,

                        each in its place and in our secret places—

                        hillsides, hilltops, streams and dips.

                        We learned that trees brought down

                        become a space for sunlight, 

                        seedlings, tillers, scents and sounds;

                        that canopies of beech and oak 

                        and angled beams of dancing light

                        make way for vistas, brambles, willow, 

                        birch, then beech and oak 

                        and angled beams of dancing light;

                        that a loved and loving land 

                        is always moving tirelessly

                        from sun and sound to quiet shade,

                        from quiet shade to sun and sound.

                        Our land’s become a hungry, dull-eyed fox

                        made ragged and thin by mange

                        and hunched in the edges 

                        hearing and seeing nothing;

                        limping to nowhere, 

                        too tired to be afraid or unafraid.

Publishing credits

The command / The King's Peace: Flights (Issue 4)

Dereliction: exclusive first publication by iamb

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