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.
‘An order is heavier than a stone.’
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
pilgrims walk in silent circles,
heel to toe, around
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
The King’s Peace
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.
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.