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Picture 10819191, image copyright Mary Evans / Sueddeutsche Zeitung Photo

The Pen from the Wagon-lit
by Derek Sellen


In the wood at Compiègne,

the carriage sped through the century,

haunted by the past

as history accelerated.


It seemed the ink had hardly dried

when another crew boarded

and changed the schedules

to Fascist time.


Two capitulations,

one cancelling the other,

a day of shame for a day of glory,

signatures as spoils of war.


Terminus: Berlin.

Spectral passengers, statesmen

who’d twice jostled the air,

shrivelled in fire at the end of the line.


In the wrecked past,

peace was an ever-receding destination;

points were switched, track mined,

bridges blown.


What remains is a pen,

its barrel lightly tiger-striped,

nib bayonet-sharp,

a relic from the journey’s start.


Later than the eleventh hour,

not yet the twelfth,

the ghosts of the battle dead

wait on the weed-choked rails


for the pen to write a lasting armistice.


© Derek Sellen
Picture 10819191, image copyright Mary Evans / Sueddeutsche Zeitung Photo


Note: The wagon-lit where the armistice was signed remained at Compiègne until in 1940 Hitler forced the signing of the French surrender armistice in the same carriage. It was later taken to Berlin and burnt. A French officer rescued a 1918 armistice pen, now in a Paris museum.


Derek Sellen’s work has been published widely in magazines and anthologies and has received awards over many years. His collection The Other Guernica (Cultured Llama Publishing) was a finalist in the Poetry Book Award 2020. Recent successes include first prizes in the O’Bheal Five Words Competition 2020 and winning the Anthony Cronin International Poetry Award at the 2020 Wexford Literary Festival. He was Canterbury Festival Poet of the Year 2018. In 2021 he is judging the Segora International Poetry Competition. He wrote ‘Conversation in Istanbul’ after a fascinating few days in that wonderful city back in 2013.

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