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The Reporter

Tobias Hill

T  he Reporter is a sequence of poems, written for Lloyds of London. The original commission was to write six poems on the subject of war.

1. Star

These places. I never see them again
unless war brings me back. Or I see them
in the dispatches others send. Some men

facing a row of covered bodies; or
some men facing a burned out car
as if that, too, were a body.

Last night we found a place to drink,
and somehow walking home I lost
the others first, and then myself,

and coming finally not to the street I sought
but to some other, unfamiliar place,
a square, and in its dusty heart a well,

I felt myself gripped by the urge to look
and looked into the well,

and saw no trace there of myself at all,
but one star, oscillating in the darkness.


2. Flight

A bloody time we had of getting there. The only route was out of Magadan, the only plane some kind of Antonov, smelling of soldiers and inhuman freight. All the old hands and faces in the back - Gellhorn, Godkin, Caesar, Thucydides - sharing spirits with three Kazakhs around a coalfire stove. I kid you not. The rest of us on benches, face to face, shivering in ten thousand feet of ice.

A night flight, it was, but no one can have slept. We flew southwest into endless darkness. Thucydides and Caesar diced and lost. Red lights were flashing on the dash. What do those mean? we asked the boy who wore a pilot’s cap and uniform. My friends, he said, They mean the lights have gone. Or that we have a problem. We can hope.

The navigator was a man, at least. He sat with maps spread over him like weeds, following rivers none of us could see in that darkness but him. Where are we now? we asked, We smell the sea. But God will guide us, was all he would say: that was the best assurance we could get.

God will guide us. As if, with God, nothing could truly hinder us. As if nothing kept us aloft up there, but God. As if it hardly mattered really, either way. We being nothing, in the scheme of things.


3. Caesar

I met him only one more time, by chance,
in one of those tortuous shopping malls
stocked deep and wide with the glistening spoils
of conflicts always settled somewhere else.

I was famous myself by then - the news
of war making news of its couriers -
and liked the recognition that fame brings:
my face was one of those you’d recognise

belatedly, not knowing who I was
until you’d caught up with the sufferings
for which I’m known. It was agreeable,
at any rate, the feel of the eyes,

the unsuspecting audiences there.
I had come looking for some souvenir
of wherever the hell it was I was,
but wandered for what seemed like many days,

and came at last to a vast shopping hall
full of innumerable sweet nothings
which would have served me well...and there he was.
As large as life, or larger, being dead.

The great reporter. He was standing still
amidst the crowd, the centre of their world,
examining a four-way lockable
catflap. I hailed him, and when he turned

I found myself entirely at a loss
for words. It was as if there was no news
which he would not already know. We stood
in awful silence. Finally, I said,

You look quite horrified. And he said, Yes.
This world is full of horrifying things.


4. Closeness

We’d lie there, side by side and face to face -
Not with each other, but each with the car,
Its crusted belly inches above us,
And dad saying More light, son. Hold it there...

Good man. He took pleasure in finding rust,
I took it in his closeness. You can laugh.
Remembering, I’m jealous of myself.
We couldn’t have been closer if we’d kissed.

To understand the way things work, you need
To get in under them.
Now I lie here,
Under a café table, while outside
The gunfire comes closer and closer.

Where am I? In some state I won’t forget
Yet where I understand nothing. More light.


5. Salvage

In one such place there was a girl
out after curfew, hurrying,
hurrying, carrying
a bundle in her bare white arms

which when I went to help her, turned out not
to be the child I had thought it was,
but several bottles of champagne, stolen
from someone who had no more need of them.

When I called out to her, she
stopped, the way an animal would halt
under headlights. Then seeing me
for what I was - my harmlessness -

she burst out laughing. She would not wait long,
but shared with me, I think out of relief,
her salvage in the shelter of a door.
It was a cold night. She was shivering.

I hardly felt the bottle as it passed
between us, but we seized on the moment
and drank to her, and to an end to war
as if our lives depended on it; yet

I was still sober when she left me there,
and for a long time afterwards the days
lurched past as if the world were drunk itself,
with nothing left worth saving. No salvage
worth seeking. No succour. No nourishment.


6. The Breaking

No need to break it gently. News like this
has no need of our gentleness. The truth
speaks for itself, and in the event that
the truth is neither plain nor simple, then

I will report against an evening sky
shot through with wandering stars of tracer fire.
These things possess their own simplicity.

Better you know.
Better you hear it first.
Better you find it out than it finds you.
Better you watch for signs, and are prepared.
It pays to listen.

It pays to be heard,
admittedly, when you are one of us.
But there will always be these witnesses
who want the truth to out, and who have seen
how easily it can be lost. Besides,
this is hardly an age for innocence,
and if it were, would you be happy, then,
to live in innocence again?

If it will make it easier for you
think of me as a servant. Think of me
as eyes that go in orbit to yourself.
Think of me as an angel or a thing
inanimate, an organ or machine.

Think of me kindly, as the messenger,
deserving of your kindness most of all
when it is hard to hear the things I tell.
Love me, whatever news it is I bring.

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