They bring in our wounded
flown from Baghdad to A & E
at the Royal Infirmary, Edinburgh.
Daffodils stand to attention
on Middle Meadow Walk.
The hunt for Saddam hots up
and the media bombards us
with wall-to-wall war news.
The warm spring sun feels
undeserved and out of place
as lives in limbo blur by on stretchers.
In the glass-walled waiting room
where half the chairs are broken
and nobody’s mopped the floor for days
a homeless boozer sips his tea,
grumbles to the vending machine.
A teenage mother snaps at her kid
thrashing about in his buggy,
cracking his head against the frame.
Behind curtains in Immediate Care
my loved one lies, not fighting,
not even arguing, barely breathing.
The scrawl of his heartbeat
crawls across a bleeping screen.
About this poem
This poem was included in Best Scottish Poems 2004. Best Scottish Poems is an online publication, consisting of 20 poems chosen by a different editor each year, with comments by the editor and poets. It provides a personal overview of a year of Scottish poetry. The editor in 2004 was Hamish Whyte.
Successful mix of the public and private – attempted by many poets and doesn't always work – it's difficult to avoid the feeling of it having been manufactured. This reads much more naturally – and movingly.
With this poem, the title came first. It came to me in the Accident and Emergency waiting room and stayed with me until I got around to writing the poem. As is probably obvious, this was a personal response to being caught up in a family crisis in the midst of an international one. Nothing is invented. Selected, yes, of course. There may be more selecting than inventing - in the sense of dreaming something up or plucking it out of the air - as in much creative work. The title was in itself a response to a sign which I came across many years ago outside a house in the US: Armed Response. A step up from Beware of the Dog, that's for sure.
I demonstrated against my country going to war with Iraq as, independently, did my children and the only remotely positive thing I can see to have come out of a situation which still becomes worse by the day, is that a new generation of young people became politicised.
But back to the poem and how it came about. My partner had been suffering from chest pains and, though he'd had a coronary 'event' six months previously, had not admitted the fact to himself, or anybody else, until he was well into a second 'event'. Personally I still prefer the old, less euphemistic term 'attack'. I had to drive him from the medical centre to the hospital as I was told it would be faster than waiting for an ambulance. It wasn't a long drive - but would have been much longer now that the Royal Infirmary has relocated - and each red traffic light, each queue of traffic might have been adding more damage to my partner's heart.
When I reached the dropoff point at A & E, my first sight was of bloody, battle-wounded men on stretchers being rushed behind curtains. My partner too was rushed behind a curtain and I was left in the waiting room, watching the seconds tick away on the wall clock. Of course I worried about my partner and my children who would be coming home from school and wondering why nobody was around but I trusted the doctors to do what they could - and they did - and what pressed more on me was what it must have been like at that time in Baghdad, where the allied forces sent by Bush and Blair had been bombing.
In an earlier version of the poem I had included an imagined scene in Baghdad but cut it out, partly because I didn't have enough facts and in this poem I wanted to stick to facts, selected facts, and partly because I hoped that the reader would make the connection anyway and think beyond the situation being described, in the same way as I found myself doing, about a war which had, at least in my own locality, come shockingly home.