The poem, ‘Refugee’, was highly commended by the judge, Helen Mort, in the Sticky Bun Writers’ Competition, 2013.
The Refugee, oak sculpture by Ernst Barlach, 1920.
This is what’s left of a man, body turned
to hardwood, in his dragging coat
the grain and heft of sturdy oak
smells of resin and leaves rotting in rain.
He leans into the wind. Steadfastness
burns in his eyes, bare soles
hardened to the stones in the road.
Hands clutch a bundle to his breast.
Is it a child, his promise for the future,
or all that’s left of a life already gone?
Always forwards, never turning back
he trudges into exile we cannot dream of.
He knows that any kindness is a gift
and every kick and Kalashnikov, every snarl
and name of dog and pig, every border
and guard testify to the ashes of his life.
He will not forget the moment of his wife’s
backward glance at her daughters following,
when they ran for their lives from the thunder
of falling houses, temples, palaces.
All he sees now is a mound of salt
where her hand held his.
Let us see the tears slide back beneath his lids.
He opens his eyes, watches her transform
to her breathless self, lick her brined lips,
the walls of the city that crumbled into quicksands
build up anew stone by stone, column by column
and Sodom is made whole again.
The people’s fear dissolves
to the moment before. God himself releases
his vengeful fist. His angels stand waiting –
Lot and his women run back to the house.
These men sent with threats of retribution
swallow their warnings, bow low to their host.
They turn, admire the virgin girls. Lot beckons,
presents them as tradition demands –for he
is not a man to deny such guests. The maidens
replace their veils, step back through the arch,
return intact to their girlish games
before the words of prophets can come to pass.