The bitter hazy line of sleepers
are laid by feeble grotesque bodies,
laid in rows by men who once stood
with slouch hats and proud smiles and hearts brim
with naive duty that saw not the fall.
Here, among these men,
many not to sleep in friendly graves,
my father lays his hands on shovel
and does the general bidding, among the sweat
and the smell of rotting bodies living
and carcasses waiting helpless for the sun
to pass its batten to the moon.
In the midday sun that turns its horrid
gaze on men whose only crime is giving up,
my father lays his shovel down,
lays down his ancient tool and with that his life,
lays down his body and feels his will, retreat, subside.
He sits and rests, while others work and fall
or wait for their ridden beds that wait for them as well;
he rests and knows the fate that has to come, will come, the
mirrored way of his many friends whose faces lie soft in the dirt.
So, he waits for the gun or sword to fall
on this his wretched body given up,
given in travail by the woman left at home,
who also waits at the door,
waits for his return,
waits like all the others who tremble
and shudder with the terror of the war.
He waits in the patterns and rhythms of the hammers
beating metal, metal, metal into ground.
He waits in his silence amongst the noise.
He waits and the soldier comes his way,
patrolling, with eyes uncertain,
wanting to look away, look away, look away, to the sky,
but he could not but see the man sitting with eyes awake,
with expectation rising in the sun’s haze,
with the still shovel inert amid the frenzy and the grind,
repeating and repeating and deleting in the insanity of the sun.
Then eyes to eyes the connection is made:
Aussie to Jap,
Japanese to Australian,
man to feeble man,
in the sun,
in the dust,
with the order to get up,
to get up or die.
Still he sits,
not defiant, not even proud,
no death-wish, no, not that at all;
just a tiny body sitting, flesh of flesh,
bone of bone,
body in the dust
too tired to care, speak or move.
But here in the stare,
of man to man,
of face to face in sacred recognition,
of one culture pausing to another far away,
compassion finds its curious ironic place.
“Sit and rest and I’ll be back,” he says,
in tongue hardly understood but fully clear,
“Rest while the officer is away. I’ll get some water. Rest. Rest.
It will be alright.”
The soldier does return to his dishonour,
to his honour manifest to all, with water and a smile,
and with nervous fear that what he had done
would be made known,
for his eyes return for one last fragile look
as he moves away,
and my father’s eyes returned the gaze
and they both knew humanity in this place.
The bitter line of sleepers still fall, with the men,
still fall, fall, fall and then the metal is laid down,
and the soldier marches up and down along the line,
marching, marching, treading the earth of blood and work,
not daring to look and see the gentle work that he had made,
and my father kept this secret act inside his memory home.
For Immanuel Levinas, and my father