Fleur Adcock

Mnemonic

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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.

Masculini generis

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.