Instructions Set in Bone

With my own knife, by my own hand,
I carve these words in no-man’s-land
Upon the skull of my late foe,
Who sheltered here some weeks ago.

He’d only paused to rest a time,
And plug a hole, broad as a dime,
Drilled into him from our front line
By someone’s rifle—maybe mine.

His charge was stopped, his mates turned round.
He found a refuge in the ground:
The crater of a tenth-ton shell,
Within which roils a murky well.

He’d bled out then, afraid, alone—
No way to part or to atone,
Save for a scrap of paper there,
Clutched in his fist, the bones laid bare.

The ink has long since rinsed away,
His wishes lost to rain and spray.
They mingle thus with bile and blood,
And float atop the pool of mud.

Now here I sit in our shared tomb,
Half hour or less before my doom.
I too was felled, but in my case,
These letters shall not be effaced.

I set upon his head my blade,
And flayed what hadn’t yet decayed,
Or what the crows saw fit to spare:
Odd bits of scalp and matted hair.

I washed his skull with my canteen,
And buffed it to a perfect sheen.
I’ll etch now my last testament,
And strive to make it eloquent.

I know not whom this verse will reach,
And do not dare opine or preach.
No words of mine could much deserve,
More than my foe’s, to be preserved.

I was a brother and a son,
Taught only how to hold a gun,
And how to skin a hare or deer
Back home, with Pa, in yesteryear.

So I’ll write this, and then must go:
Should these words reach a wiser foe,
Take up your knife—see it’s not dull—
And carve your wisdoms in my skull.





Nightly, while I lie in bed,
Dreaming dreams—though she be dead—
Of freckled skin and windswept hair,
And all the goodness that was Claire;

Throwing round her frame my arms,
I embrace her with alarm—
My love, you see, slips through my grasp
In wisps of flesh and puffs of ash.

Though I’m not a maudlin man,
Human wonts mean I still can
Perceive the sights I used to see:
The lilac, lark, and bumblebee;

Hear, too, sounds that I once heard:
Her gentle laugh, the hummingbird;
And smell what once beguiled my nose:
Her rain-soaked clothes, the fresh-cut rose.

Sights and scents of yesterday
Serve me now to ward away
Those that take root here today:
The dirt, the grave, her sweet decay.

To love my love I had agreed
A fearsome bargain to concede:
‘Though loss be arduous to assuage,
’Tis but a whit of solitude’s wage.’

Claire, my Claire, though she be dead,
Lives yet onward in my head,
And in the gifts she left for me:
The lilac, lark, and bumblebee.



Peter Lillios is a previously unpublished poet based in Sound Beach, New York. He is an auditor by profession.

NOTE TO READERS: If you enjoyed this poem or other content, please consider making a donation to the Society of Classical Poets.

The Society of Classical Poets does not endorse any views expressed in individual poems or comments.

CODEC Stories:

21 Responses

  1. Patricia Redfern

    Both poems are magically creative and powerful to this poet. Moreover, they inspire me to stretch my limits! Thank you for such a gift. Others here will comment far more, than I! You really have impressed me and opened windows for me! Two touching worlds of art!.
    In appreciation,……. Patricia Redfern

    • Peter Lillios

      Amazing to hear that I’ve inspired a fellow poet. My sincere gratitude for your kind words!

  2. Paul Freeman

    ‘A previously unpublished poet’! No way! These two poems are fantastic.

    I found the first poem, ‘Instructions Set in Bone’, incredibly moving, extremely well-read to the audience in the audio file, and with the perfect illustration chosen by Evan.

    Second poem? ‘Claire’! Incredibly moving, too.

    Both poems are well worth another read and I’ll be doing to that later. Your WWI poem (I presume it is WWI, though it’s not stated) reminded me in its atmosphere and sentiment of Owen Sheers’ ‘Mametz Wood’, which I have in front of me right now.

    Fabulous stuff, Peter.

    • Peter Lillios

      Thanks so very much! It means a great deal to someone like me, just getting his feet wet. ‘Instructions’ is indeed set in WWI.

  3. g.KayeNaegele

    Very moving and powerful poetry that will linger long in my mind. Thank you for giving voice to the horrors of warfare; which intensifies my angst at why humans just keep at it for spurious reasons. Well done. G

    • Peter Lillios

      Many thanks! I had hoped it would provoke thoughts along those very lines.

  4. Norma Pain

    Incredible poetry Peter. Where have you been hiding? These two poems I will save and read again and again. I am in awe!

    • Peter Lillios

      Thank you! I’ve been hiding out in the world of accounting, quietly formulating these verses for years while preparing Excel spreadsheets. 🙂

  5. Joseph S. Salemi

    Holy smoke — there’s enough death-imagery and creepy Gothic mortality in these two poems to satisfy Edgar Allan Poe! The conceit of “Instructions Set in Bone” is wonderfully strange and arresting (carved messages on skulls is truly disturbing), in the way that all conceits should aim at. As war poetry this is up there with Wilfred Owen, and it puts the folksiness of Robert Service to shame. Evan’s choice of a still from “All Quiet on the Western Front” is truly inspired.

    “Claire” also recalls Poe, with its fascination about a dead young woman. (“The dirt, the grave, her sweet decay” is particularly reminiscent of Poe”s sepulchral obsessions.)

    About the sixth quatrain of “Claire” — in the last two lines, is that a quote from somebody? It’s punctuated as parenthetical, and its diction is markedly 19th-century. It sounds familiar, but I cannot place it.

    • Peter Lillios

      Thanks so much, Joseph! I’m truly honoured and humbled to receive such praise from you.

      As for your question, it’s actually not a direct quote from anyone, and I developed the phrasing myself. I debated this, but I decided to place it in quotation marks because, as you say, it’s a familiar sentiment. I suppose the thing I had most closely in mind when writing the lines was Tennyson’s old ‘Tis better to have loved and lost…’

      Once again, my sincere gratitude — you’ve made my day! 🙂

  6. jd

    I agree with all of the above, Peter, and thought both
    poems were extremely well written. I see a busy, creative and satisfying future ahead for you.

    • Peter Lillios

      I must admit I’m not very industrious by nature, but I find that with poetry I’m able to overcome my general inertia. So I hope you’re correct!

  7. Susan Jarvis Bryant

    Peter, these two poems are admirably wrought and beautifully read. “Instructions Set in Bone” is striking in its strangeness… a haunting strangeness that lurks amid the beauty of the language to swell in my imagination leaving the image of poetic carvings on a dead man’s polished skull, gnawing at my brain… such is the power of your words.

    “Claire” has that same strangeness… the beauty coupled with the grotesque to create a love poem that haunts my mind like a ghost of a damsel in the turret of a Gothic novel. Great stuff!

    • Peter Lillios

      Thank you, Susan! It means a great deal coming from someone with your facility with words. I’m often awed by the technical mastery present in your pieces. Truly on par with the masters of earlier and wiser eras, in my opinion.

  8. Michael Pietrack

    Peter proves that poetry is best as a performing art. I was very impressed by the writing and the reading. #entertained

    • Peter Lillios

      Many thanks! I’ve long been a proponent of the idea — espoused by EA Poe, among many others historically — that poetry should be an auditory experience (at least supplementally, if not principally). Glad to hear that others feel similarly!

    • Peter Lillios

      Why, whatever do you mean??

      Although ‘Instructions’ did give me a few ideas about how to document my next audit report….

  9. Margaret Coats

    Peter, both of these are beautifully wrought (and recorded). You say you are “not very industrious by nature,” but have been “quietly formulating these verses for years.” That may account for the splendid accumulation of carefully chosen details, inviting the reader to linger over each poem. Although both are about death and memory, there is considerable contrast in tone. “Claire” is so pleasurably light that we enter into your “wonts,” and you need to remind us the lady is dead. The uncommon use of “wont” as a noun re-enlivens this word from our Old English hoard–an achievement poets should aim for whenever a good opportunity arises.

    • Peter Lillios

      Thanks you, Margaret. I’m truly fortunate to have readers like you, and to have this outlet which brings us together.

      And I agree completely re: ‘wonts.’ I enjoy recruiting from among the ranks of Victorian vocabulary and diction — but it must only be done when it’s the right choice, and is in fact the best possible word/phrase for the occasion (Victorian or otherwise). As you say, it’s all about finding those good opportunities!


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.