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Lay for the Day
9th July

1932, Chicago: the birthday of Donald Rumsfeld. He was the 13th, and youngest ever, US Secretary of State for Defense, in the administration of President Ford (1975-77); and the 21st, and oldest ever, in the administration of President ‘Dubya’ Bush (2001-06).

(By the way, while your Coke Zero or your Pepsi Max is going down, you might sigh to yourself, “Ah, that sweet taste of Rumsfeld…” He was instrumental in getting aspartame re-legalised in the 1980s, indeed he could be said to have achieved it single-handed.)

The poem was written in 1996.

Two Towers

Once a king and his yes-men had one tower,
the queen and her ladies beside in theirs,
a few short paces separate.
Easy the commerce, over the smooth turf,

until one autumn of dwindled harvest
bad news coming from the country’s corners,
turbulence and noise of dissent,
caused the king to think of stiffer defence.

“Throw down the crenellated top,” he charged,
“the fanciful crown of my consort’s keep.
Take the stone that I need to build
from all its unnecessary turrets.”

So round the hill with one keep taller now
and one less tall, was built a curtain wall,
a fosse and moat to keep the men
of barons bent on usurping at bay,

while under the quickly-assembled boards
that capped the shorter tower now, the queen
and her ladies-in-waiting sat
out of reach of the raindrops warping them.

Until one midnight with one hungry mouth
in which no language was discernible,
many-headed with one ahead,
the mob like a wreck-strewn tide assembled

and the king’s command was, “Arm my engines
with the bulk of blocks from that neighbour pile;
let the ladies be quartered here.
At battle’s end I shall build another.”

But the queen disdained to be taken in
or to lean on the alms of an equal.
“In the lee of this briar patch
three canvas sheets shall make me a castle;

The wind-driven rain shall pour me my wine,
with the cold stars for candles and sconces,
what brambles yield for bread and meat.
Of the sky I cannot be dispossessed.”

So when in the one giant’s fist the land
had round them, like the shell of a blown egg
the frail fortress broke and fell in
and in massed the murder-minded many,

the gibbet was long where they stretched the king
and all his chivalry, fine-fledged magpies,
and the only ones spared the death
that crew of beggarwomen on the heath.

John Gibbens
from Zeus’s Camera


The Lay Reader: an archive of the poetic calendar