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Jim Carroll Origins: 'Browned Off' (Ewan MacColl) (18) RE: Origins: 'Browned Off' (Ewan MacColl) 26 May 20


For those who didn’t know Ewan as a poet (Sean O’Casey, commenting on Ewan’s play-writing, ended with the words “a poet, I think”) – this is a long, poetic monologue he wrote for The Festival of Fools when the Vietnam War was at its height – I nevr say it performed, but I’m pretty sure he spoke it (he spent all the Festival of Fools performances I saw hunched behind a directors desk)
I still find it very moving, just reading it
Jim

Let us, for a moment, suspend
Our Parliariment of Fools
For the space of time that lies between
The impulse and the act
Of lifting glass to mouth,
Or holding lighted match to cigarette,
Briefly, that is, in the hope our ears
Will catch the dry weeping of the dead

Each year there are many dead.
The annual harvest of lives
Which have passed from seedling state
Through growth to flowering,
From thence to the bearing of fruit
And then to dry, narcessant autumn –
The natural dead,
And there are the others, those
Who are prematurely trampled down,
Or withered before flowers spring
From the bud.
It is they who weep;
The awful silent weeping of the dead.

That they had names is obvious,
And it can be presumed that someone,
Father, mother, husband, sweetheart, lover,
Their closest kin, know them well
And habitually addressed them by affectionate diminutives.

To us, their names were strange
And lay awkwardly on the tongue,
So they remain anonymous –
“Those people who were killed on August 9th
When bombs fell on that town in Viet Nam
What do they call it ?"
Or the ones who died at Stanleyville In March, or was it April ?

They died as ants die under the gardeners foot,
Unnoticed.
They screamed, moaned, shrieked, implored,
Raved in delirium, wailed like infants,
Wept or cursed………and died.
Those nameless, prostrate men of
The agency photographs,

Anticipating with fierce, rolling eyes
The lethal boots of Congo mercenaries;
Or standing, garlanded with ropes,
In pre-execution photos for men
Skilled in the use of delicate equipment.
From the newsprint they appear
To look through us as if we don't exist,
Knowing they are beyond succour,
Expecting no manumission
Of the sentence our silence has decreed.

Do they see anything beyond the grass and trees ?
Do they hear sounds other than those
Made by the crickets and low-flying beetles ?
All of which will still be there
When they, the men, are gone.
Do you ever wonder if their need for justice,
Their beliefs in the ultimate decency of human relationships
Survived those last few moments
When the casual cruelty of their enemies
Appeared to be the sole reality ?

Anthropologically speaking they were one, two halves
Which made a whole.
Both sides belonged to homo sapiens;
They walked upright,
Had fashioned tools to work with,
Developed elaborate languages
With which they could communicate
The most subtle nuances of thought.

The executioners were, as the phrase goes,
Civilised.
Shakespeare, Homer, Dante, Bach, were theirs
And Newton, Democritus, Planck and Heisenberg;
They had domesticated plants and animals,
Tamed rivers, plundered mountains,
Irrigated barren places,
Learned the secrets of flight from birds
And explored the primeval constituents of matter.
But when it came to the point,
None of these things.
Was nearly so significant
As the sudden, downward thrust
Of field boot on a naked skull.

No, we cannot say we knew them.
We had a momentary knowledge of them
That is all, as we munched on breakfast cereal,
And glanced observerwise upon
The image of a youth in Viet Nam
Captured by two agents of democracy
Who, at the moment when the shutter opened,
Were opening his stomach with a knife -
Believing, presumably, that once his guts was open,
His mind would open too
And joyfully embrace
A different way of thinking.

What did he, the prisoner, think of
As the knife revealed the blood and veins
And tissues of his being?
And the blistered cadaver
Of what was once a girl -
Did she remember laughter, kisses,
The racing heart, caressing hands
On breasts and thighs,
As the jet of flame
Reduced her eyes to cinders
And turned her body into
One great festering burn?

Strange to think this charred obscenity
Once had a name.

And those others, the groups, assemblies,
Numbered lists of persons unidentified
Whose short existence terminated in
The shuddering explosion of a bomb,
Conceived as a precision tool
By learned men in classrooms or by
Specialists who, like cooks or surgeons, in white
coats, Stoop over drawing boards ten thousand miles away.

These dead and 'smaller-than-average' people
In their drab skirts and flapping canvas trousers
Bleached by the sun like sails of yachts
At Cowes Regatta are,
At the moment of death, depersonalised
Turned into units, the sun of which
Fits neatly in a war communique.

How can we comprehend them?
Their life and death are equally
Beyond our comprehension;
As is their courage.
For they rise up against the weight of centuries,
They oppose their brittle flesh against
The armoured hosts of men made terrible
By the fact that, from the cradle,
They have been conditioned to believe
That everything they do is right.

How can we knew then?
How?
The shabby corpses littering the streets
Of San Domingo in the July days -
Did they have names?.
The 2,000, 3,000, 5,000,
7,000 dead.
Did they, in the divided second
Before the bullets smashed the instrument of memory
Remember the music of guitars;
Did their belief in the inherent rightness of their cause
Survive the steel fiesta Staged by uniformed Neanderthals?
And the mestizos, high in the Andes of Bolivia and Peru
Those men and women of mixed Indian and Spanish Lineage -
Who struck in the mines for a weekly increase
Of eightpence farthing -
What were their last thoughts in the moment
Just before the bombs of jellied petrol and napalm
Destroyed the mechanism of thought?
It is not comfortable to speculate
Upon such things.
Nor is this the time
To mention them.
No?

When is the time?
Tomorrow? The day after? Never?
It's important.
But not so important
As the fact the bar may close
And leave you thirsty, or that
Public transport may abandon you
Ten miles from home, or that you forgot
To post your coupon.
And yet, it is a simple fact
That the dead are weeping
And that they weep on our account.
They pity us,
Because we are too weak to hear.
Their deaths upon our shoulders,
Too cowardly to examine the roots and causes
Of these wanton deaths,
Too lazy to accept responsibility.
Above all, they pity us for our pride,
The childish vanity which leads us
To indulge in self-deceit and snug self-flattery
By referring to ourselves as human beings.
So ends this little All Saints Sermon.


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