Nineteen eighty something

Asked for one grain on the first square,

doubled for each of the sixty four, he laughed too soon,

not having done the calculation.

Pondering the game, the possibilities,

at first near infinite and narrowing to none,

the masters sit, earth turns, the clock ticks on.


Through desert dust storms, thin figures walk,

appearing, disappearing at the edge of thought.

A tremor, brief as the twitch of a dog’s flank,

devastates a city. Millions of screens go blank,

then millions chatter. Weeping survivors stand,

hoping against hope, hands cling, dig and clasp,

stitch wounds, give blessings, tot up disaster’s profits.


Across the world, as the troops went in,

they left their bloody handprints on the walls

to say: we died here. Deep in caves,

a spat mouthful of red ochre shaping their absence,

they make and unmake the human.


On the tarmac, heat shimmer still, the plane

appears forgotten, but headlines change again,

and hidden troops prepare. They say the deadlock

is breaking at the talks, but at the North Pole

freezing night now grips the seas to silence.

Seabirds that screamed round the ice cliffs

have flown south, where the long day grows

at the other pole. Power watches power

at the fringes of frozen lands

where a storm depression whirls through in an hour.

Slow lichens expand their starry clusters,

Ancient snows break off and fall to the sea,

and prone among rocks the creeping forests lie.


In polished offices official talks go on;

in corridors hands exchange the sweat

of secret bargains. Speculators wait

for the moment to make their killings

in the waking markets to the east.

Having made hers, the leopard watches

sniffing night savannah smells,

acrid herself with her sharp cat scent.

Westward, further from dawn, gun butts

splinter doors, ambush the heart,

night fever of uneasy dictators

collecting sleep in muffled screams.


An unexpected move has thrown the champion.

Behind the greasy glass the tiger moves

with silent snarl through the jibes of children.

Through desert dust thin figures walk

in flapping rags, towards a faint hope.

Sacks of wheat and weapons come

in the gravid planes that wait to land.


Check. From almost infinite choice it’s gone to none.

From shanty towns the millions come

before dawn, somehow in clean clothes,

dead asleep in buses to and from,

dreaming of running water for their children,

houses, health, a good education.


In northern seas, whales circle in singing nurseries.

Great bowls incline to catch stellar whispers

turning like flowers on their perfect bearings

to catch the little pulses of the universe.


The constant sweep of sunrise, forever in motion,

reaches the Pacific, a wave of voices follows,

smoke rises, the morning race begins,

while the moon returns to full,

and in the deep pool they change formation

at the freshet’s head, the dappled river trout

in the dark water standing still.


At the talks they’ve reached the summit’s high point

and stand there in historic handshakes

held too long for the sake of cameras,

wide smiles seeking to hide the calculation

that chills their eyes. There’s hardly room

on the peak of this occasion

for camera crew, for hairdressers,

interpreters and cue card holders,

edging past each other for yet another take.


In some locked underground room

across a grey screen the people come,

forever walking towards the lens and beyond

through time and over memory’s horizon,

the displaced and hungry trudging on,

sometimes full of hope and joy, sometimes with none,

moving in ever greater numbers towards the unknown.