Aidan Semmens

Dead Souls

in the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread

it’s no use being too clever
a man who works on the land
is purer, nobler, the factories
will come into being by themselves
I am afraid I shall move to the town
which ends in gambling and drunkenness
one may buy a library of books
and never read them a shadow
of gloomy black melancholy – here
the manuscript breaks off
for two pages a damp
dank cell reeking of soldiers’ boots
a voice echoing in hollow distance

De Triomf van de Dood
Pieter Bruegel the elder, 1562

starved, starving dogs of death
    scavenge on the flesh stripped
        from the dead and dying
            bent backed, intent

on making what they will
    of folly’s bounty
        beneath the domes of the catacombs
            skeletons stacked 

awaiting resurrection
    monks and priests whose meat
        once adorned
            femurs, metatarsals and sockets

heaped up in niche upon niche
    faith and distrust misplaced
        replacing theology with radioactivity
            sub-alpha particles with god

the omniscient system that shapes 
    eternal interlocking connections
        the dead will advance
            from the earth

to cudgel and lash the living
    punish their squalid misery and sin
        the dead in shrouds and windingsheets
            regimented on horseback

playing the hurdy-gurdy
    with dead-eyed rush-hour faces
        in rust brown fields
            with hose and snake and fire

the naked man pursed by starving hounds
    the dying at their gaming board
        the dead tolling bells
            the ship of fools sailing

from a smokesmeared horizon
    crows attending carrion
        on the gallows
            gaunt dogs nibble the babe

at the dead mother’s fallen breast
    hellhounds, boneyard hounds, ossuary curs
        plagued by tumour and cancer
            cankers, lesions, rotting sores

the dead whose heads
    protrude from their own arses
        the dead weighed
            in scales of injustice

the dead clothed in nothing
    but their crowns and insignia
        the dead who once were
            glorious as you are now

the emaciated dead beating kettledrums
    pouring lees from wineskins
        the skeletal dead triumphant
            waving banners over the field

where broadsword and H-bomb
    halberd and napalm and agent orange
        sarin, scud and ballista
            rampage and crossbow

have done their work
    on a land stripped bare
        of crop and dwelling
            as a coin is found in a field

bearing the outward face
    of a forgotten tyrant
        of a forgotten dynasty
            and a people whose borders

are become obscure
    while the lights and pyres
        the fuel rods and flares
            that forged this power 

continue to decay underground –
    you will say the soil in this garden
        is malnourished, unprepared
            for the weight of intent

it must uphold
    but the songs and sounds
        of bush and scrub
            the sparse vegetable patch

landscape scars
    and parched, toxic well
        must bear all the meanings
            we still have to face


nobody speaks
of what takes place
in the white hut
by the railway siding
the smell of old oil
and human waste

Aidan Semmens is the author of three poetry collections, A Stone Dog (Shearsman Books 2011), The Book of Isaac (Free Verse 2013) and Uncertain Measures (Shearsman 2014), and editor of the online magazine Molly Bloom. The three poems above come from his forthcoming collection Life Has Become More Cheerful, which will be published by Shearsman in October to mark the centenary of the Russian Revolution.
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