Nothing I write will be as durable
as the rhyme for remembering the genders
of third declension nouns, stuck in my head
ever since Miss Garai’s Latin class.
I used to fancy I shared it with
generations of English schoolboys,
the colonial servant dispensing justice
under a tree in the African bush,
are the nouns that end in -nis
the wakeful subaltern in the trenches
before the Somme; but now I discover
the rhyme was originally German,
as was Miss Garai. The vision shifts:
and mensis, sanguis, orbis, fons,
the solar topeed official sits
not in Nigeria, but in Kamerun;
the soldier is on the other side of
what looks very much like the same barbed wire,
collis, lapis, piscis, mons,
writing to his girlfriend. I’ll call him Kurt,
like the pen-friend Miss Garai found for me
in the Germany she had escaped from
before another world war came round.
sermo, ordo, sol and pons,
dens, sal, as, grex, pulvis.
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