The Healing

A Poem to my Great Uncle, William James Hilsdon

At different times you and I

Have both looked up at the end of a day

Spent working in these fields and seen

Rooks flying home across the evening sky.

We were satisfied when, in time with the season,

Good husbandry had been achieved.

Our destiny was rooted in the soil,

And, as with our fathers before us, this simple truth

Was central to all we believed.

But nature’s grip upon the land  

Can sometimes be a cruel thing.

We have both longed for mercy and healing

During the hardships of a wet harvest

Or a dry spring.

My mind seeks the places where your mind

Can be reached, going back over old ground.

It finds them here, amongst the woods and hills.

It is in the language we share that the old names

Of these fields can still be found.

You were master of a fine team at home,

And skilled enough at the forge with shoes to fashion.

In foreign fields they made you unofficial farrier

To the regiment; amid the turmoil horses knew the calm

Of your compassion.

In time, my love and I followed you to Flanders.

We saw young barley rippling in the breeze,

Tractors busy working that rich soil

Into level stretches of neat potato ridges,

Sunlight on blooming cherry trees.

I found it hard to reconcile that landscape

With grainy photographed scenes

Of mud-filled craters, fractured trees; the Menin Road

Strewn with the bodies of soldiers and horses

And broken war machines.

Slowly, uncertainly, we came;

Searching for a grave we feared we might miss

Among the multitudes of headstones

Standing shoulder to shoulder, shining in the sun;

I was ill prepared for this.

Simple beds of flowers fringed the graves

As though assigned to their safe-keeping.

After a while we found your place quite easily;

Silence fell between us. There was no sound,

Apart from birdsong and weeping.

All my life I’ve known that grief transcends generations,

And though they told us you were gone

Thirty years before I was born, I felt our kinship

Burning through my tears that day, and pride

In knowing that among your many namesakes, I am one.

Old wrongs will never be forgotten,

And buds of healing take an age to grow.

The up-turned horse shoe lifted by the plough

Evokes remembrance; a sense of loss, reminding me

Of everything I owe.

Spring has been late and cold this year,

And rain has soaked the dear old clay and loam;

The land you loved remains too wet for planting.

All we can do is wait, and watch the sky,

While families of rooks come flying home.

C Hilsdon 2018