Was he the rightful five-foot three, Herbert
Burden? With his pigeon chest and his hectic
breath, and a birthday that gave him away.
‘Inferior physique,’ they said, ‘not a man
you could trust.’ But they took him, twice.
Or someone like him. Brown-eyed, hopeful
with a sweetheart tattooed on his shoulder.
He was frequently lost, slipped off
over and over to look for a friend.
I wonder what his mother’s wash-wet hands
made of her son the coward. What his father said
to the soil as he tended the cricket ground
at Catford. So much had fallen in cut grass.
Herbert’s betters pled ignorance. Misspelled
his name on the charge sheet, passed sentence
nonetheless. The boy was bound, blindfolded.
A scrap pinned over his heart. They stood in their places
at Ypres. Waited for daybreak, sickened by spirits.