Phil Vernon


Two days after a battle that lasted barely an hour,
the victors passed again across the moor 
and took the lives of all the wounded men they found
while others foraged far afield
in ditches, crofts and barns
and killed or captured there.

Two centuries on, 
the grazing land that stood for battleground 
is spruce and heath – all spoiled, the beasts and pasture gone.
But far below, the firth still sparkles opal blue;
the Black Isle, lit by sprinkled snow and ice-cold April sun,
is close enough to reach, beyond.


To keep his peace, our king built temples, 
courts and palaces, and scarred 
the land he’d won, with ditches, ports
and roads; determined how we die;  
and blessed us with his enmities.

To teach us irony, he named 
his cousins lords and justices. 
Apprised of God’s mistake by priests 
and clerks, on pain of punishment 
he made us speak a single tongue.

His word was written, maps were drawn. 
But laws and maps and roadways lengthened 
distances, and when he sailed, 
he left no instrument through which
to see, but a kaleidoscope.

We turn and turn its wheels but cannot
make the fractured picture whole.


The magistrate, for fear 
his fear will come to pass,
sends formal notes to regiments.

The chief of police, sure they 
wish bloodshed over peace,
calls out the words that make it so.

The soldier puts in play his plan 
to teach these people 
what he understands. 

A simple mark, 
a sound or gesture 
sets in motion – everything.

Block exit gates with bayonets.
Cut through the crowd.
Fire tear gas, baton, then live rounds

above their heads –
then lower. Aim at where 
the densest groupings are.

Don’t shrink – redouble your resolve 
when they begin to flee.
Send in the tanks.

the image of the golden sanctum 
barely shimmers,

pilgrims walk in silent circles,
heel to toe, around 
the sarovar.

How certain must they be,
who utter these commands,
the stage they stand upon – 

and laud and idolise –
is crumbling in the sea?
Where do their shadows go?

And where do ours,
who fail to stop 
their words?

Phil Vernon’s poetry has been collected in Poetry After Auschwitz (Sentinel, 2020) and Watching the Moon Landing (Hedgehog, 2022). He lives in Kent, works in the international humanitarian, development and peacebuilding field, and is writing a series of poems that explore the links between conflict, peace and place.  Twitter: @philvernon2

Flights, Issue Four, April 2022