Two Poems by Peter J. King


“In September 1914, a man had to stand five feet eight to get into the army. A month later, so great was the need for recruits, the minimum height requirement was lowered to five foot five; in November, after the losses sustained in the First Battle of Ypres, it was lowered again, to five foot three.” (Catherine Bailey, The Secret Rooms, p.248)

When war broke out I was too short;
they shook their heads
showed me the door.
I sat at home and fretted that
I wasn’t five foot eight.

As thousands died, they changed their minds;
I tried again —
but still too short
I cycled home and fretted that
I wasn’t five foot five.

But things were bad along the Front;
third time’s a charm,
they shook my hand,
and I embarked in khaki drab,
a manly five foot three.

I fell for good at Plugstreet Wood1
our guns or theirs,
I wasn’t sure;
my legs were shattered by a shell,
and struggling for one last breath
amid the sounds and smells of hell
I fretted that I’d meet my death
too short once more.

1. Ploegsteert Wood was part of the Ypres salient; it later became a rest and recuperation centre.

first published in Oxford Magazine 374, 2016

1917: Zero Sum

(In the latter stages of WWI, across Europe governments ordered the melting down of church bells and organ pipes for munitions.)

To keep the chill cacophony of Ragnarok
reverberating in the frigid moonlight
riming dugouts, trenches, sentries,
and the troops who twitch in cold, uneasy bunks,
across the fields and forests, villages and towns,
the homes of which the sleeping soldiers dream,
the bells fall silent.

Peter J. King was born and brought up in Boston, Lincolnshire. He was active on the London poetry scene in the 1970s, returning to poetry in 2013. Since then his work (including translations from modern Greek [with Andrea Christofidou] and German poetry, short fiction, and paintings) has been widely published in magazines and anthologies. His currently available collections are Adding Colours to the Chameleon (Wisdom’s Bottom Press) and All What Larkin (Albion Beatnik Press).

“Caesarion” by Peter J. King

(after Kavafis)

The eldest son of Cleopatra
stands upon the steps of the Gymnasium
before the Alexandrians,
his rich and royal clothing gleaming
in the midday sun.
Slightly to his rear, his brothers
whisper jokes, but he cannot join in
their muffled laughter.
Even when a soldier faints in the oppressive heat,
Caeasarion stays solemn, not a flicker
of a smile.  A trumpet sounds.

Antony declares that Cleopatra
is the goddess Isis, Queen of Kings,
the Queen of Egypt and of  Cyprus.
Their two young sons are named as Kings
of Syria, Cilicia, of Parthia, Armenia, and Media,
their daughter Cleopatra as the Queen
of Libya and Cyrenaica.

A pause.  A drop of sweat begins to form
above Caesarion’s right eye; he feels it trickle
slowly down his cheek.  The trumpet sounds.

The voice of Antony, his mother’s husband,
now goes up in volume but its pitch is lower.
It declares Caesarion to be the son
and rightful heir of Julius, who’s recently
been made a god in Rome.  And, as the offspring
of a god and goddess, he is therefore
doubly divine, and made the King of Kings,
joint ruler with his mother of the land of Egypt.
The small boy, dressed as Horus, somehow
stands erect and bears the cheering of the crowd,
in which he thinks to hear
an undertow of mockery.

Some four years later, at the age of seventeen,
the last of the unhappy line of Ptolemy,
Caesarion lies dead in Alexandria,
his crime: to be an excess Caesar.

Peter J. King was born and brought up in Boston, Lincolnshire.  He was active on the London poetry scene in the 1970s, returning to poetry in 2013.  His work (including translations from modern Greek and German poetry) has since been widely published in magazines and anthologies.  His currently available collections are Adding Colours to the Chameleon (Wisdom’s Bottom Press) and All What Larkin (Albion Beatnik Press).