Christopher Levenson


Paris, 1919

For six months in Versailles in their
stove-pipe hats, long frock coats and longer faces,
Lloyd-George, Clemenceau, Wilson,
people in glass palaces, hurl foundation stones
for a lasting peace
across still smouldering rubble.

At gala dinners, working lunches,
the main course is always
plebiscites, war debts, indemnities
in countries they never visit.

Between cigars and cognac
much talk of self-
determination. Statesmen gather
to foreclose in bankrupt empires,
fire sales
where everything must go.

It's time for cards on the table,
a whole house of cards,
winner take all.

In corridors, whispered deals,
and all the while in odd corners
capitulation in hand,
desperate to save
an offshore island here, and enclave there,
recall their constituents—
some stubbled peasant forced
out of his language, a fisherman
denied his shoreline—and accept
for the sake of principle, face
dragon's teeth to be broadcast
over barren ground:
half a country maybe
is better than no homeland.

So with set squares and protractors
they divvy up continents,
draw straight lines across deserts,
settle the nomads, establish tribal kingdoms,
blotting spilt blood with sand,
till Arabs and Jews both sue
for breach of promise

After they did their best
the whole botched house of cards
came crashing down.

Now we in our turn can watch
in slow motion
a scorpion rectitude,
justice tempered by vengeance.

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