In Memoriam Primo Levi by Nick Cooke

A sequence inspired by “If This Is A Man” 

1. Campo di Fossoli, 21.2.44

“…e perfino i maestri e i professori della piccola scuola tennero lezione a sera, come ogni giorno. Ma ai bambini quella sera non fu assegnato compito.”

No homework that night. And did the teachers,
Stubbornly cramming their heads full of Dante,
Also pack blackboards, chalk, or even canes?
Quo vadis. Towards what education
And what philosophy lead these wagons –
We ask, and in a sense receive an answer,
Though at this unenlightened point the name
Bears not one fraction of its later fame.
At an idle guess it could almost be
Some Alpine ski-town, where the ice-breathed lips
Of relieved officials and their sturdy dames
Stain the air with laughter. Or do we dream?

Agape at the Brenner Pass in silent awe
One tends to hear the snapping of the chalk.

2. ‘Here is no why’

Let alone wherefore. Amazing
that you even asked, your naïve
courage as sharp and unique as
the icicle you’d sought to grasp

from the window frame of the Block.
Snatching it from your chemist’s hand
he can’t have predicted queries
any more than his own reply.

Yet just as odd, from another view,
was the pithy helpfulness
of his line. The blow he then dealt
may really have been self-aimed

given the secret he’d let slip
into deliberate chaos.
In four short words he saved you all
that metaphysical angst.

After, the rules are learnt so fast
the need to ask recedes. You store
it for later like hidden food
to be chewed on in warmer rooms.

3. Henri

Even before you turn your head
all that you own is inwardly mine
transformed into something other –
a sleight-of-hand that’s native

to these parts. And if you engage,
the inwardness dissolves…
cigarettes to spoon or soup
in the alchemy of the moment.

No market was ever so free
since the advent of coinage.
Exchange rates clench and release
like cranes; inflation rampages

through the world on hooves of fire.
And the entrepreneur, he’s king,
in a land without parliament,
his invoice a ghostly smile.

4. Muselman Manual

I

Conserving energy,
this is the key:
getting beaten or worked over
beats overworking:
exhaustion kills faster than blows:
that way the chimney lies.

Keep the mind clear
of the number one enemy, thought,
except 1) the form of daydream
the life imposes –
dull, blurred, as if the dreamer
were permanently concussed –

and 2) whatever process aids
resourceful ingenuity.
Useless to list
one’s own examples –
the spark is individual
or not there at all.

II

On second thoughts, erase the above.
The only working machinery
is oiled by instinct
not the drive to be primed.
Does a fox seek guidance?
Do the sharks pursue instruction?

Train not the mind but the nostrils.
Sniff in each tatter of flesh –
be fox-like, yes, and shark-moulded –
but do not allow gains made
to add up to hope.
Hope pumps the blood too fast

and re-sets the brain to patterning –
its own worst enemy
(see line six for corollary).
The most brutal truth of all:
if you need to ask why,
you’re already gone.

5. The Unthinking Hand

Nothing so bad as his hand on your shoulder.
To this as trifles were the sores and scabs
brought by the girder crashing on your foot
when that fool Nul Achtzehn tripped and dropped his end.
Even the first day, when you all had to stand
naked for hours in two inches of water,
must have hurt less by virtue of its own
clear-eyed malice; but now this Kapo,
a green-triangled professional cretin,
saw fit to wipe his grease-covered hand
on your wretched yet precious jacket.
Doubtless if there’d been a cloth within reach
he would have used that, and you were at pains
to emphasise it wasn’t vindictive –
precisely the point, of course. Small wonder
this was the moment of judgment, more than
anything more graphically hateful.

He wiped first the palm, then the back of the hand,
in a sort of slow-motion double slap.
I’d like to put in a bid for that hand,
chopped off at the wrist as Exhibit X.
As large and hairy as a gorilla’s
it would lie on my pillow each night
while its proud new owner dared himself to sleep.

6. Ladies of the Lab

So much to chat about, so little time –
“This year’s flown by so fast.
Soon another Christmas will be upon us!”
A remote view of the past

in the ears of one who lives
by a clock that stands so still.
A year ago your life was the purest flame;
now there’s room for a certain chill

in the heart of the fortunate few
which certainly includes you
beavering away in the lab with real hope
even if to them just another “stink-Jew”

whose questions can’t be met directly
but must be filtered through a more robust third party
lest their chemical reek
invade the channels of the not-so-hale-and-hearty.

7. Towarowski

Humanity restored like a plant
brushed with rain after long drought
or a shrouded face brought to life

by saintly mopping. Honour that Pole
(that Franco-Polish Jew, I mean) who asked
that the beneficiaries of the search

for a life-saving stove should sacrifice
a slice of bread to each member
of the working team – not least Primo,

its audacious leader. (How you’d grown,
and shaped the enemy within
into one of the sharpest tools.)

The true moment of liberation
came in the hearts of the sick
warming the hands that at first had stuck

to the frozen sides of the stove
but now joined in unwonted sharing
of all that remained, from potatoes

to the presumption of doom.
The long march into the dark,
sweeping away Alberto, could not stamp out

that final, spluttering spark.

 

Previously published in Sentinal Literary Quarterly, February 2015.

Mutants by Nick Cooke

Bursting out of our own skins, we

grow every second, unstoppable

as accelerated beanstalks, except

we are purple and yellow and not

especially thin, but contrary to rumours

 

we mean no harm. You can’t get a handle

on what our genesis will do for

world and atmosphere, since

we know no more than you what drives us

into being and twists our biology so.

 

We only know we’re abnormal

from hearing it a million times on your TV.

The more we multiply the more

normal we get, n’est-ce pas?

You see, there was you thinking we was dumb

 

just because the news implies as much;

but when our supersonic sprouting ceases and we

stand before the cameras as finished articles,

we’ll put out a press release aimed at

celebrating mutant culture and all

 

that’s gone into its hitherto obscure making.

That’ll be a pile of fun, will it not?

And very instructive for the countless

millions of self-styled citizenry

knee-jerked into mutaphobia.

 

Meanwhile we call on all our supporters

to continue the battle for our rights

even in the face of cruel persecution

and outright opprobrium.

We kiss your brave faces with our pulsing lips.

Fire and the Feast by Nick Cooke

For the girls choosing self-immolation rather than surrender

 

You want fire

From your hot little mama

Your hot little nine-year-old mama

Hot little nine-year-old mama of a bride

 

And she gives you a fire

And the rich aroma of a feast

And when you walk in and whiff it

You might think this girl’s a decent cook

 

And rub your hairy hands

With thoughts of a winter’s supper

And a lovely lipsmacking bonus later on

Between the newly washed matrimonial sheets

 

Where the child exchanged

For a sliver of your life’s hoard

Will arise like the flaming sword

And sear the clouded heavens open

Kenyan Ladies’ Karate Club by Nick Cooke

So you prefer older gals?

That’s the tale we heard.

You think we’re ‘more safe’

than the fresher meat

because we won’t have

much in the way of

what’s called love life,

 

therefore we must be clean

and won’t kill you

after you’ve killed us.

Ingenious thinking.

You boys should be

in the cabinet

with stuff like that.

 

I suppose you’d turn

me round to face the wall

before lifting my blood-red skirt…

what’s that old saying

about mantelpiece and fire?

To you boys I guess

the lot of us are much the same

down where it counts,

 

but get this, kiddies:

we’re all in training,

spend our days like boxers

in the gym, belting

sweet hell out of leather

and now we’re ready to

kick for Kenya

 

and yes that includes

anyone making so bold

as to try & knock us over

like Mau Mau days,

and only fair to warn,

under the pillow

I keep my best panga.

Soldier on Fire by Nick Cooke

The flames leap from him

and for a godly moment

they burn only cloth.

 

He started in York,

qualifying with honours,

the Catterick king

 

as he was then dubbed

by admiring co-trainees.

No boots shinier,

 

no salute sharper,

he proved a dead-eye marksman

and blazed his way to

 

lieutenant, earning

praise wherever he was sent.

He signed for Iraq

 

before a bomb fell,

little caring about those

W.M.D.

 

when you had a git

like fucking Sadam in power.

A tank commander

 

of rare quality

and the rawest of courage,

he went to Basra

 

full of stout purpose,

the battle of hearts and minds

aching to be won,

 

and even if when

Saddam went things got hazy

on the endgame front,

 

he never questioned

the basic mission. Captain

now, and much revered

 

by all his boys, he

sent letters and snaps back home

to his proud mother

 

that bear comparing

with any Great War missive.

‘We’ve got to hold firm

 

or chaos will reign,

this folk at each other’s throats

while doomsday unless

 

someone’s here to keep

’em honest.’ On that last day

he sent a photo

 

of himself standing,

beaming, one hand clamped onto

the side of Bessie

 

as he always called

his faithful Challenger,

who perished with him

 

two hours later.

His other hand was a fist

clenched and uplifted

 

like an Olympian

toward the sun he never

saw set. R.I.P

 

John (known as Jackie)

Henn, ’81-’05.

What would you say now?

Soldier on Fire by Nick Cooke

The flames leap from him

and for a godly moment

they burn only cloth.

 

He started in York,

qualifying with honours,

the Catterick king

 

as he was then dubbed

by admiring co-trainees.

No boots shinier,

 

no salute sharper,

he proved a dead-eye marksman

and blazed his way to

 

lieutenant, earning

praise wherever he was sent.

He signed for Iraq

 

before a bomb fell,

little caring about those

W.M.D.

 

when you had a git

like fucking Sadam in power.

A tank commander

 

of rare quality

and the rawest of courage,

he went to Basra

 

full of stout purpose,

the battle of hearts and minds

aching to be won,

 

and even if when

Saddam went things got hazy

on the endgame front,

 

he never questioned

the basic mission. Captain

now, and much revered

 

by all his boys, he

sent letters and snaps back home

to his proud mother

 

that bear comparing

with any Great War missive.

‘We’ve got to hold firm

 

or chaos will reign,

this folk at each other’s throats

while doomsday unless

 

someone’s here to keep

’em honest.’ On that last day

he sent a photo

 

of himself standing,

beaming, one hand clamped onto

the side of Bessie

 

as he always called

his faithful Challenger,

who perished with him

 

two hours later.

His other hand was a fist

clenched and uplifted

 

like an Olympian

toward the sun he never

saw set. R.I.P

 

John (known as Jackie)

Henn, ’81-’05.

What would you say now?

The Face of War by Nick Cooke

They ask the boy not to wipe his face

so all can see the blood and gunpowder.

Does he whine or protest? He does not.

Does he cry for his mother? He does not.

He goes along with everything they ask

because, let’s face it, he is dead inside

or if not dead, then an automaton,

a bloody five-year-old automaton.

 

He’s a boy that should be in the street

with a ball, and if you threw one at his feet

and told him he had to play, he likely might –

with the same blank eyes that admit no light.

 

We are people that should be on the street

and some may be, but most are in their seat

sure as they can be it will come out right –

there are always others to carry the fight.

 

We gaze from behind the polished lens

and clearly see the blood and gunpowder.

Do we whine or protest? Not really.

Do we cry to our gods? Not sincerely.

We go along with everything that’s done

because, let’s face it, we are dead inside,

or if not dead, then just plain bloody beat.

Pass me the remote – the rout’s complete.

Centenary by Nick Cooke

Announcement. War. Consternation. Speeches.

Excitement. Buzz. Duty. Country.

Empire. Speeches. Recruitment. Medical.

Training. Cameraderie. Lee-Enfield. Bayonets.

Ruthless. Farewells. Pride. Speeches.

 

Lucifers. Boat. Brigade. Oath.

Tradition. March. Bombardment. Counter.

Kill. Thrill. Nightmares. Ambush.

Retreat. Snipers. Vigilance. Extreme.

Trenches. Rats. Tetchy. Itching.

 

Temperature. Fever. Infirmary. Shelling.

Constant. Hallucinating. Nurses. Angels.

Recovered. Back. Greetings. Delight.

Victory! Christmas. Football. Surreal.

Resumption. Hostility. Endless. Crazy.

 

Meaningless. Orders. Decamp. Reinforcements.

Anniversary. Intensification. Terror. Secret.

Verdun. Speeches. Courage. Rally.

Together. Push. When? July.

Where? Somme. Jesus. Time.

 

Flying. History. Letters. Home.

Pray. Orders. Fix. Bayonets.

Madness. Surely. Insanity. Duty.

Flags. Screaming. Go. Go.

Go. God. Help. Us.

‘The Moon’ by Nick Cooke

The prisoner is led

Hands cuffed behind back

Out into the yard

And the glare of noon.

 

Were he not hooded

He’d know there was a gun

Pointed at his cranium

(Though he can probably guess).

 

He’s ordered to sit.

A wooden stool awaits him.

His hood’s wrenched off,

His head pointed skywards,

 

He is made to stare

At the shimmering yellow disc

And quietly asked, ‘What’s that?’

His reply’s a shattered whisper…

 

‘The sun’ At once the gun

Smites him across the temple;

He clenches his teeth to stop

Himself uttering a sound.

 

Again ‘What’s that?’ Again ‘The sun’.

Again the blow over the head

But harder. And this is how

It’s always been for countless

 

Centuries and always will be.

Sooner or later the right

Answer will come, if not from him

Then from the next in line, who will

 

Have had to bury him before

Replacing him on the stool;

And if not him, the one after.

So what Petruchio asked Kate

 

Was not really a test

But a blueprint, a model

For the discipline of souls,

First words of the manual.

Ancillary by Nick Cooke

He say I no good

cant clean right am lazy like

all the rest of them

 

I got one hoover

made in the nineteeneighties

to do 7 floors

 

& they make me do

work of two people after

my friend Rosa went

 

but for same money

& only 4 hours a day

to get all finished

 

& if I miss out

1 toilet or rubbish bin

he go round & check

 

& he tick his list

on 1 of them stupid boards

like think he real boss

 

when he not even

the proper supervisor

who work in Bedford

 

& call him twice day

to ask about all his list

& bloody liar

 

he tell her I need

constant vigilance he says

but it’s him need it

 

otherwise he just

read paper in his office

going on about

 

bleedin immigrants

fuckin suicide bombers

should just go back home

 

& blow people up

on their own doorstep not here

with decent people

 

but if he think he

1 of them decent ones you

really got to laugh

 

& that only way

I keep from going crazy

laughing in silence

My Husband the Artist by Nick Cooke

Do you prefer my second face,

this artefact you’ve cast anew?

I’d hate to think you’ve left a trace

of what was so repulsing you.

 

My eye-white spreading down my cheek,

my nose and lips half burnt away.

Come here and take another peek,

appraise me in the light of day.

 

If this look’s not quite right to show,

may I suggest you try again.

Most painters need another go –

why stop at one? You could have ten.

 

Each draft will bring dramatic change.

Vary the mix, the line of flight:

after a hurl at point-blank range,

the gentlest trickle from a height.

 

Think of a future press release;

picture Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall.

I’ll stand there as your landmark piece,

“the most acidic of them all”.

Oh, Sister by Nick Cooke

My sister is my holy grail:

she lives in Wolverhampton.

I keep on explaining

I only want to get to her

and be like her, who works

for the local council.

She studied English and IT

at the college there

that’s since closed down

due to some sort of cutting.

I tell them she’s my model

but it’s as if a curtain

came down like in chapel

when a coffin slides out of view

toward the eternal flames.

Time is frozen now, and past

achievement, progress,

evolution cannot be

a template for the present.

Here in the void I join a queue

to join a queue to join a queue,

trying to do everything

by what they call the book,

fearing that when I stumble

across the line that counts

just as I reach the door it

will shut in my smiling face.

Here on the Screen/Out in the World by Nick Cooke

Here on the screen, it’s Hallowe’en

cum Bonfire Night, and the flames

are sumptuous, celebratory, ubiquitous.

Tiny witches hold up sparklers

and stalwart lanterns, brutally carved,

play out their part and keep on grinning.

..

Out in the world Indonesia

is burning harder than Satan’s lake

and toddlers choke to death on fumes

they can’t identify, so do not fear.

Peace be to those who go ignorant,

noses twitching, eyes closing.

..

Here on the screen all the stars have been

buzzing across the scarlet rug

at the premiere of Spectre, where

the only ghost is called Reality.

The hero steps from his limousine;

one wag calls out, Is it bulletproof?

 ..

Out in the world Mr Morgan Freeman

has set up his own bee-farm, learning

another craft at the age of 77.

Saviours of the world, settle on his glove,

infuse him with your honeyed respect

and multiply in your own sweet time.

..

Bangla Blogger by Nick Cooke

This is going to kill me.

These very words

will be my sleeping pill OD,

my carbon monoxide,

my trusted cut-throat –

..

and I must be the maddest

of the many many mad

free spirits in old Dhaka town

to be committing such words

to the flytrap cyperspace

..

but the voice within me

is flushing them out

like a geyser of truth

ripping through my skin

into the lethal open

..

and I can’t hold them in

any more than I could

a jugular wound

with my bare hands,

my non-believing hands.

..

If there is a God

he is an anti-god

who is urging me

who is forcing me

to deny him

..

and I can’t see how that

would work so I

have to conclude

the force in reality

is an evil one

..

driving me to a precipice

from which I will leap

at the touch of a key.

Yes, this one tap on SEND

will send me into

..

Brief bio:
This year I have had around 20 poems either published or accepted for publication in the near future, and one Highly Commended in a competition. Magazines/online publications where I have appeared include Agenda, Dream Catcher, Sentinel Literary Quarterly, Writers for Calais Refugees and Poetry Space. I am due to have four poems in a forthcoming anthology entitled To Kingdom Come focussing on political killing, which deal with issues including the 2014 attacks on Gaza and the appalling treatment of Mau Mau suspects in Kenya in the 1950s. I am working towards a first collection which I hope to submit to publishers next year, centring on the relationship between politics, culture and art.