National Anthems

1 February 2013

They are the skull and crossbones of tunes
designed for winning championships
or cheering troops.

Never rock ’n roll
they’re in the classical vein
with trombones, cymbals and flutes.

All written by the same person
or so it sounds,
whether Australia or Congo,
the bony drum-rumble
and trumpets yelling.
A poet probably added the lyrics—
those high-tone phrases for camp reverence.

However unruly a place
there is a ruly brass band on parade
presidents and footballers mouthing the worditure.
They’ll manage the first verse okay—
the one about mountains and forefathers.
After that they mumble air in forgetfulness,
pipe up again for bits of the chorus,
lay a palm or fist to their hearts.
A few slouch ‘Whatever’ like we did at school.

La Marseillaise is the best of them:
It roars barricades and slums,
a get-even swagger and violent grace,
justice’s perfect noise.
You can’t imagine Jesus whistling it,
but that’s a recommendation—
he made himself his own blood sacrifice
which was a bad sign.

The marcher’s art
is in clicked heels and buffed toes,
stiff pleats and arms swung in unison,
a vicarious war of good manners and style.
An anthem’s art is the equivalent sung:
two strangers side by side can do it
and imagine common ancestors watching over them
like parents inspecting their young,
making everyone else a foreigner
not quite good enough to belong.

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