Christopher Beck

Dunkirk 80

A sensible plan: Ostend by late May,
the old girl to con her way along the coast.
Then weather comes in from the north –
time for a reef. Still the hull’s hard pressed
and her weather side’s pissing in.
A turn of the wheel and she lays
the old breakwater, a surf to sanctuary
that brings her bow-on to the grey stone town.

Old ghosts muster for our arrival,
give us the guided tour; the air
is crazy with sweet Philadelphus,
the harbour with little ships.

Northern France 1940: the days
of May turn warm as time and armies stall
and dark plumes plunder the sun.
Below, blazing decks, ships awash
or aground, granite walls to rubble,
a town’s blood and tears.

No go now the graveyard port,
no go the palais or the pub. Only the beach
can buy them time and space to curse
and pray, to wait in line and tread a tide
or more, or make for the breakwater.

One third of a million reasons were enough
to call defeat a kind of victory.

As waves crash and scraps of fog
strafe the beach, I linger by the flowers
on the sand where they stood,
waiting for the weather.