‘And The Winner Is . . .’

Australian poet and author Peter Nicholson writes 3QD’s Poetry and Culture column (see other columns here). There is an introduction to his work at peternicholson.com.au and at the NLA.

Following on from last month’s post concerning commitment, politics and poetry, here is a poem written in 1984 and first published in 1991. When this poem was written apartheid had not yet ended in South Africa and East Timor had not achieved independence.

       And The Winner Is . . .

Comrades, citizens,
What has the century brought?

Death’s-head conferences
Laying a brutal hand
Across five continents,
Slating thousands each day.

A résumé of the past
Is sad
For the failed progress of ideals
Means a slight chance for your hopes
And where is your charity then
If history brings bad faith?

After the Great War flung its mud
Over Passchendaele
Countless foreign fields
Bloomed with crimson poppies
And Versailles broke with echoes
Of a bankrupt mésalliance.

Then the will to power got out of hand
When Schicklgruber’s revenge
Ground poor Europe a second time over,
After the night of the hummingbird’s plunder.
At Nuremberg some got their deserts
But too many flew down to Rio

Where they savoured a pleasant surprise:
Model regimes,
Few at first, cruel to the last—
Latin America under the thumb;
Archbishop Romero killed at Mass,
Death squads copying feral attacks.

Midnight panic at oven doors
Revealed the shape of genocide.
Desperate pogroms led to this
With culture’s golden prize:
A hand which grabbed at air
In rictus.

Hammer and sickle, scars and stripes,
Tattered flags;
They flap in the patriotic breeze
Above crowds that parrot yes
For the Kremlin geriatrics
And White House apparatchiks.

Why was the President killed?
Don’t ask.
And what of Stalin’s heirs?
Quiet! Do you want the knock
Of the KGB on your door at dawn
Or the CIA under your bed?

Race was a badge for destruction—
Armenian, Palestinian;
You never saw the flies
Buzzing round piles of corpses
Or felt the colonel’s boot
Kick in your aching ribs.

Yet you lived in your ivory tower
Moralising for all,
Never lifted a finger to help
One amnestied soul from its hell;
People endured
As you read the editorials.

In a free state, accustomed
To the full belly,
How could the hungry mouth
Compare to those sensual lips
Which advertise at night
Remorseless appetites.

You still put faith in a party,
You haven’t learnt;
They’ll sell your ideals from under your feet,
If you’re in the way they’ll sell you.
Stop prancing through the haze
Of right wing journals and Left Bank cafés.

There’s one born every minute
Who thinks he’s found the way,
The truth, the eternal light
(It shines from his fundament),
And when there’s at least one hundred dead
He’ll know he’s got what it takes

To ban books written, ideas expressed—
Finis to that;
The mind which thinks, unbound
By the censor’s pride,
Is likely to find its face
Crushed by the secret police.

And what if I shout in the streets of Berlin
Ich bin ein Australier?
Will the Timorese greet me,
Tasmanians cheer me?
(I mean the original, those Aboriginal);
It’s funny, they don’t seem to answer.

The dust bowls on African plains
Where rhetoric declines
Sift down a mountain of flesh
To a giant bone which seeks
At the door of Marxist states
Its liberal opiate,

While the soul with its body
Tossed in the pit
Receives a furtive requiem
With Shostakovich, Mandelstam
And those who remember at dawn
The disappeared with grief.

It’s depressing to index the crimes
Of political minds;
Their red books and other vain manifestos
Are no good to those who wait at Soweto;
Throw in the towel with that mob
Or you’ll end up a friend of Pol Pot.

This political bird with trick wings,
A decoying duck,
Brute part of the Zeitgeist’s plan,
Should depart our red planet (it won’t),
Follow the path of the Caesars
And become a quark in the stars.

Should we mutter our prayers
In suburban peace,
Be blessed in our righteousness,
Or will the tortured hostage,
Head bent in the final prison,
Atone for fate’s derision?

Will the nuclear winter sweep us
Under radioactive snow
Or can all come to keep
Freedom’s unpolluted vows?
What has the century brought
Comrades, citizens?

After the night of the hummingbird’s plunder: a reference to the Night of the Long Knives, the Nazi SS putsch against the SA, codenamed Operation Hummingbird
Will the Timorese greet me, / Tasmanians cheer me? / (I mean the original, those Aboriginal): Indonesia annexed East Timor in 1976. There is disagreement as to why the Aboriginal population of Tasmania declined so precipitously during the nineteenth century.

Written 1984 Published 1991 A Temporary Grace 101–105