The Promised Land
It’s in the nature of a promised land
that you won’t reach it. From the shadeless plains,
oppressed by rulers and their merchant friends,
bereaved by wild dogs and scorpions,
you lurch, whole villages of thwarted wrath,
the sick on mules to give them half a chance,
towards a narrow spur, its tiny grove
where green figs and the water prove your road.
You scale the high couloir, and build stone graves
where children fall or sickness shrinks your load
and by this shaming is your grief annealed:
to lose the weak is tinged with gratitude;
and so you swear, at the edge of a bare wold,
again, to make this journey from a state
of shuttered plenty to an even fold
rich men can scorn and cart their booty out
but may not rule, since you, the people, made
this journey on this date. The way is tight,
and spearmen in the heights leave many dead
as you press through the pass that stretches far
into and through extremities of need;
starvation kills as many and the sores
of grisly plagues confirm that beauty’s not
essential to the ways of righteousness.
Our Gods! Our Gods! The convoy quops with fright.
A false Messiah works the troubled line
with rumours of a giant strix that waits
beyond the mountains in your dreams’ domain.
Your feet are yielding and the sky is doubt;
six panniers of cheese have lost their brine.
Just then a cry goes up: the furthest scout
has reached the edge of this incessant chain
and seen the way. It is an anguished shout:
what lies below is not the coastal scene
arrayed with vines and creels of winking squid
you had imagined but another plain
as sere and sharpened as the one you fled.
A yellow wolf already teases near.
This land will take some work to make it good;
but even as you gather round to hear
each other’s counsel, others turn to go
back through the pass towards the waiting fires
the vengeful rulers there have lit. The you
that was a multitude is now at large
across the slopes of sage and weeping through
this last free night before the homeward march
to servitude and home worse than before:
the evil road, the shame-remembered gulch
and then the plain, where waits the rulers’ fire.
From this lone height you watch the darkened gulf
and learn what happens when, as happened here,
a people breaks its promise to itself.
Tony Williams’s latest book of poems is The Midlands (Nine Arches Press). He has also published poetry and short fiction with Salt, and teaches creative writing at Northumbria University.