Image of women amidst Gaza devastation

Poet Peter Clive responds to Israel’s genocide in Gaza

Scottish PEN member Peter Clive submitted the following poems in reply to our recent post, Scottish poets respond to Israel’s genocide in Gaza. We encourage further poetic and literary submissions as our organisation continues to raise awareness of the situation and campaign for an immediate and permanent ceasefire.

January 31, 2024

Scottish PEN member Peter Clive submitted the following poems in reply to our recent post, Scottish poets respond to Israel’s genocide in Gaza. We encourage further poetic and literary submissions as our organisation continues to raise awareness of the situation and campaign for an immediate and permanent ceasefire.

A mother’s prayer

Let me remember
to ask for your forgiveness
before a sniper’s bullet
takes my memory of you
and pins it to the wall
with his other trophies,
butterflies with wings of blood
spread on a concrete backdrop
framed by a television screen,
the beguiling amnesia cabinet
where the image of my limp body
will be broadcast, put on display
to those more fortunate than me
for now.

Please forgive me, my child,
for every second I didn’t love you
with every fibre of my being
to the exclusion of every other thought,
every second I didn’t stretch myself
beyond all imaginable limits
to surround you with love
and hide from you the world
that would end your innocence.

The memory of you is sweet,
like fruit, like a pomegranate,
except it will never grow old,
just as you will never grow old.
It will only ripen in time,
even past all forgetting,
for love endures all,
surviving death and oblivion,
sending down deep roots,
delving deeper than oak or olive,
deeper than cedar,
than all orchards razed
by the engines of war,
beneath strata of trauma,
generations of grievance,
aquifers of fire that feed
rage and seasons of grief
to bring forth still born crops
from broken concrete soil,
into the darkest anonymous depths
where we lose ourselves
and become each other,
to form the sinews of time itself
without which we are nothing.

The sun fell to earth today
and I got it on my skin.
A phosphorus sun
rises in my flesh,
turns night into day,
awakens new pain,
and tears constellate
in concrete dust
in this bright night of pain
as I pray,

as I beg you to forgive me
if I didn’t love you enough
while you were alive,
if, for one second, one split-second,
you felt alone and lost
and frightened and abandoned
when I could have held you close,
as tightly as I hold
your lifeless body now.
I beg you to forgive me
before I join you.

Threnody for Gaza

We are human only in our dreams
and in those waking hours
we surrender to the grammar of dreams,
descending to the cinema of the soul
where we indulge fantasies
in which we are human.

We say we seek clarity
but reject it once achieved.
The light of day reveals
we were human once, but no more.
Our humanity is a dream shared by beasts,
or by something less than beasts,
who prowl and rut and kill honestly,
while we nibble and chew on each other’s ears
with lies to save ourselves from the truth,
to extenuate atrocity, exhuming bodies
to demand they condemn our enemies,
while we ourselves are puppets of the dead,
or something worse, nameless, beyond death.
It is not humanity that guides our hand,

nor is it God’s wrath. This anger you feel
does not come from God. You are no avenging angel.
Your crimes are not some divine retribution.
This blood on your hands was not spilled for God.
I don’t know what God wants
but I do know it is not this.
You are not righteous. You are guilty.
God is sad because there are no people left
to exalt His name anymore.  
They have all lost their humanity,
thrown it away to live other lives
they read about in old story books.
The rivers of Babylon do not flow here.
These people you kill
are not the seed of Amalek.

If we try to find our humanity
we find we must weep for it.
|Everything we do to remain human,
the little that we do,
is done within a broader melodrama
of complete moral failure.
What little we can do, we must,
but it is nothing at all
compared to what must be done.
It is reasonable, then,
to take a moment,
from time to time,
to weep, and in our weeping
find all that remains
of the person we once were.

The sacrifice

Courage and cowardice stand at the altar.
One chooses a sacrifice from his own flock,
the most beautiful, most pleasing to the Lord.
The other finds a child’s corpse by the roadside
and offers it with much ceremony to wide approval
of those saying it is necessary, unavoidable,
inevitable. The altar collapses beneath it
|to become just another broken concrete slab,
but for the first, the altar becomes a kite
flying up high into the sky above,
bringing back hope. Bringing back love.

Nativity in Gaza

A star shone over a child in a manger
two thousand years ago in Bethlehem.  
No star shines tonight over the premature baby
struggling in the disconnected incubator
in the bombed and abandoned hospital.
Drones drop phosphorus and flare. Soldiers,
not wise men, attend this doomed nativity,
but some things remain the same
as when that first child grew to manhood
and addressed a crowd gathered in Galilee:
the crippled, the lame, blind, mute and insane,
the meek and the weak, despised and outcast,
are custodians of our humanity in inhuman times
when the rest of us have become monsters
and leave them a scorched earth as an inheritance.

Super flumina Babylonis

We would hang our harps
upon the willow and weep
were trees still standing here.
No great river runs in Gaza
by whose waters we may sit.
What blessing can we receive
where the enemy’s children
have already been dashed
against the rocks
and their blood debt
has been repaid tenfold?
This land, this strange land,
where we are captive,
is not so strange
our leader does not covet it.
He has not forgotten Jerusalem.
His tongue is busy.
His right hand knows its cunning.
I know no songs of mirth or misery
to exalt the Lord in this place.
We are exiled from the world,
estranged from it by atrocity.
What home can we return to now?

The good Palestinian

“We took limbs left over
from unnecessary amputations
(the wounds could have been treated
if the hospital hadn’t been bombed),
and other body parts we found
lying around in the rubble.
We assembled a new person
who would be deemed acceptable,
one we could live with, side by side,
in peace. He didn’t pose a threat.
He didn’t need much of anything –
you know, stuff like food, water,
land, housing, freedom, dignity …
He didn’t think for himself.
In fact, he was sort of a zombie,
which makes sense I suppose.
After all, the only good Palestinian
is a dead Palestinian.”

The resurrectionists

Is history an angel,
one you can summon
like a drone strike,
one that doesn’t pass over,
but smites its targets
painted with laser light
instead of lamb’s blood,
their first born found
dead beneath the rubble
of collapsed apartment blocks?

Is history a whore,
pimped to foreign potentates
for military aid and arms deals?
You lie together lying to each other
so you can continue to lie to yourselves,
and keep using that ancient scripture
as an instruction manual
for your latest atrocity,
your manifest destiny.

Is history a priestess wielding a knife
to inspect the entrails of the past
unearthed in the belly of the present
to see what they augur for the future,
extracted from the interior of corpses
we lay on the temple’s broken altar,
like bodies we lay on the table
in a roofless operating theatre
in the bombed hospital?

Maybe history is dead.
Maybe she doesn’t care
what crimes you commit
in her name anymore.
Maybe she doesn’t care about
your piety and prognostications.
Maybe she only ever existed
in your imagination,
just an excuse
to think about the dead
so you don’t have to think
about the living.

The living needn’t fear the dead.
The dead should fear the living.
They should fear the dreams they’ll have,
the dreams that we’ll give them,
after we exhume them
and whisper our fantasies in their ear,
dreams that will disturb their eternal rest,
histories into which we conscript them,
making them march to war once more
resurrected to justify our crimes,
turning our waking hours
into their unending nightmare.

The war palsied child

When this war palsy
afflicts the children,
trembling and shaking,
rocking, eyes looking about
but not seeing anything,
lost in a maze of shock, still ignorant
of the measure of their loss
in the immediate dusty aftermath,
we crumble. We can’t bear it,

even though for us it is
a brief trip to the well of tears
that is the handheld device
where we scroll our socials,
a matter of convenience
and indulgence. They choke
in the drought of sympathy
while we bathe in our sense of outrage
and parade our indignation,

yet this war palsy, this child
trapped in a seismic instant
of injury and bereavement,
an endless deafening reverberation
of the bomb, taking and shaking
and not letting go, a tremor
and a tinnitus of grief,
a scream that never stops
but shifts to a different register
to serve as descant to memory,

the sight will stay with us,
those of us who have seen it,
the war palsied child.
It will stay and stain and scar
like phosphorus on the mind.

“Never again is now”

You say “never again is now”
as if nothing has happened since.  
Tell that to the Mbuti child by Lake Kivu,
who saw the soldiers “wipe the slate clean”.
Tell that to the Isaaq children
standing in the ruins of Hargeisa and Burao.
Say it while “the early rain washes away the chaff”
in Matabeleland. Tell Tikka Khan’s volunteers.
Translate it into Ixil for those who can still hear.
Translate it into Acholi and Leb-Lango.
Translate it into tongues no longer spoken
for want of speakers.
Go and say it in Kutupalong and Nayapara.
Say it in Xinjiang. Say it in Gaza.
We like to say we remember.
We like to think we’ve learned,
but as we remember, as we look back,
we see the truth is in the rewind.
We only see it revealed in reverse.
Now is never, again. Now is never.
So what’s the point of remembering
if you don’t act like you remember,
of caring, if you act like you don’t care?
Your future is history repeating itself,
and your history is hypocrisy laid bare.

(“Nie wieder ist jetzt” was projected onto the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin on the 85th anniversary of Kristallnacht and became the slogan of the movement commemorating this event)

The atrocity recipe

Take a few million concentrated humans.
Slowly simmer and further reduce.
Once dehumanised, sprinkle in some bombs.
Remember to regularly check the flavour.
It should be bitter to taste:
you’re the real victim, after all.
Add propaganda to thicken
until completely inedible.
Throw the resulting mess in the bin.
Remember to thoroughly clean your utensils,
even if using non-stick pots and pans.
Burned remains can be hard to remove.

TAGS: Writers at Risk