Review of ‘The Pity’ – Part 2: new war poems commissioned by the Poetry Society

On National Poetry Day (October 2014) four contemporary poets (chosen to represent “different poetics and perspectives”) performed new work about the legacy of the First World War. Two months later the Poetry Society published The Pity as a limited edition anthology. Given free to Society members (in the last couple of weeks it has come through my letterbox with the new issue of Poetry Review), it is also available to purchase online.

In my previous blog, I discussed the contributions of Steve Ely and John Glenday (click here to read this). Here I complete the collection with comments on the work of Denise Riley, Zaffar Kunial and Warsan Shire. Overall, I think The Pity is remarkable – a gathering of voices, each wrestling with a nigh impossible commission. The four “sustained” responses to the topic (John Glenday’s was a separate, shorter brief) all splintered into fragments under the pressure of it. Ely and Shire are the boldest in widening the orbit of the commission and interestingly are also (for me) the most successful, largely by co-opting the resultant technical schisms into what they wanted to say, both of them drawing on more contemporary material, closer to their own concerns and backgrounds.

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Denise Riley’s ‘A gramophone on the subject’ recalls Sassoon’s balancing act of anger and compassion. The two elements are held in tension partly because of Riley’s contrasting dual focus: the bodies of the dead and the possible consolations of spiritualism. More firmly focused on the 1914-18 conflict than the other sequences in The Pity and written in what Riley calls “a kind of ‘music-hall’ jingle or doggerel”, sections like ‘The postwar exhumation squad’s verse’ have a Brechtian feel. The soldiers detailed to pursue this ghastly task (often long after fighting was over) unearth bodies, “bits that [get] dropped in cloth bags”. Even the grisly bits are so devastated and decomposed as to be “almost unknowable”. The voice is one of the squad (or a compilation of their voices) and compassion is evoked through a father who pursues them, convinced that “a charred scrap of shirt” is his son’s body, only to be told (hear the stabbing effect of the harsh rhyme) “the thing was just dirt”.

Riley’s notes are as long as the poem sequence and it is the loss of the bodies – disfigurement past recognition or simply untraceably taken to pieces – that pre-occupies her. There is a sardonic, black humour in the verses. Dog-tags feature several times as (being made of “vulcanized fibre”) they are often the only remaining evidence of a life; a name without a body. The more precise the chosen voice in each of Riley’s 9 sections, the more successful the poem.

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One records the voice of an ironic “heavenly choir” of the dead, bitterly objecting to Edwin Lutyens’ observation that the dead in their mass cemeteries had been ‘Tucked in where they fell’. Anger is conveyed (in what is really a found poem) by adopting the voice of a Vogue fashion correspondent in 1916: “To find a dinner gown which will be becoming, correct, and yet not depressing to its beholders is always a problem for the woman in mourning”. The lack of understanding of what the men on the Front were enduring is one of the commonest elements of literature in the period.

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Later, Riley drops the jaunty, sardonic versifying to record (again from contemporary sources) the common resort to spiritualism in the spirit voice of a Private Dowding: “enrolled among those who are attempting to pierce the curtain that separates your world from where we live”. More touching is the spirit’s reported loneliness which is echoed in the best poem, the last, which takes on the voice of a bereaved wife. Here the satirical form is also dropped as she speaks in unrhymed, hesitant couplets, switching from first to second person in the concluding lines as she resolves to carry on, her final monosyllables eloquently conveying both the difficulty and her determination:

I look doggedly after a missing figure.

What to do now is clear and wordless.

You will bear what can not be born.

‘The Shape Remembrance Takes’, Zaffar Kunial’s 5 poem contribution to The Pity, is the least coherent. Judith Palmer’s introduction to the book quotes Kunial on what must be a common problem with such commissions: months of scribbling gave rise to “lots of ideas but no poems”. Something of this is reflected in the liturgical refrain of ‘Poppy’ which frustratedly cries repeatedly, “No, this is not enough”. The ostensible point is the difficulty of finding what Seamus Heaney calls “images and symbols adequate to” the horrors of the situation. Kunial’s voice here is deliberately prose-y, across several lines, each a longish breath-ful, spinning different ways to allude to the familiar image of the poppy:

Remember? Who’s there in the first script, on a Mesopotamian

tablet: Hul and Gil – ‘joy flower’ – a cuneiform

cocktail, our earliest remedy . . .

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In this way we visit natural history, China, Persephone, Lethe, Coleridge, Shakespeare and (most effectively for me) more personal associations with morphine being administered “through my mother’s veins, while she could still hear me”. But it’s hard to lose the sense of the miscellaneous/googly quality of some of these verses, reflected in the shifting (I’d say, uncertain) tone: “The deaths we live with. Enough said. Remember? / This is you. Wake up. You’re summoned. // No, this is not enough.

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Lists can be the resort of the uninspired (readers of poetry will work pretty hard to do the linking for themselves) and, despite the epigraph of Archimedes’ declaration about moving the world, the historically various battles listed in ‘The Night of the World Cup Final in ‘14’ failed to achieve much leverage for this reader. A walk around Grasmere (where Kunial has been Writer in Residence) is vivid and pleasant enough; the shapes of the fells, puddles, a wishing well all suggests “it’s all about holding, around here”. But the bar room vagueness of what follows (“So here’s to those souls / who went the other way” – what? Unheld? Dropped? Dropped?) also fails to be enough.

There is some interesting (and from what I know of his work, more characteristic) play in ‘Just the Ticket’ with ideas of home, identity and language but it was apparently standing before the cenotaph in Whitehall that sparked Kunial’s sequence off and this is reflected fairly literally in ‘Letter for the Unknown Soldiers’. The blockish 50-line single stanza, perhaps an emblem of the Cenotaph itself, takes a rather slow and discursive line (“I see . . . So here I am . . . I’d guess . . .). Perhaps this is a reflection of remembrance parades, here composed of the multitudinous dead, stretching from Durham to London, “from Lahore to Delhi”. Eventually, the stone memorial comes to be seen as an “I” or a “1”, linked with the “two quick minutes” of the 11/11 day of remembrance. While this is promising (and again draws vigour from Kunial’s concerns with identity) it’s a bit inappropriately fanciful as it stands and, in various ways, it seems right the sequence ends with the narrator stranded by passing cars on a traffic island in Whitehall:

I want to cross [. . .]

[. . . ] but I’m stuck at the minute,

stranded beside this thing that stands for you –

this I – that I’ve been stood here speaking to.

Warsan Shire’s baldly titled ‘War Poem’ appears in 17 parts and has almost no direct link to the First World War. For Shire ‘war’ is less a historically delineated event, more a state of mind, more still, a condition of certain societies (including our own). Parts 1 and 9 express this through borrowing a technique from the American poet A. Van Jordan. In his book M-A-C-N-O-L-I-A (Norton, 2004) he explores individual words, including prepositions, to develop his account of the life of MacNolia Cox, the first black finalist in the National Spelling Bee Competition in 1936. (See him read about the word ‘from’: here). Shire defines the preposition ‘in’ in two ways: war is something in which we live, being “enclosed or surrounded” by it and that it is also a span of time in which events occur. The former, less conventional interpretation is the root from which her poems in The Pity proliferate. Though born in the UK, her parents are from Somalia, so for them war is an on-going state, the hope of its cessation a reason to keep “a suitcase packed just in case”. But a sense of being exiled from our own ‘country’ is a common feeling in the continuing ‘war against terror’ so that “one war [gives] birth to another . . . a snake swallowing its own head”. Rather than the explicit warfare of trenches and barbed wire, this kind of war “sleeps between me and my partner in bed”, it haunts, it stinks, its “under my nails”. Horrific headlines wake us at night, the lover’s body offering some hope of “another version of the world”. Shockingly, ten year old sisters know this sort of war.

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Some of the 17 segments of the poem lack development perhaps, but parts 7 and 8 are stunning. The first of these records a Quinceanara (a fifteenth birthday celebration), initially in what seems realistic detail as “prepubescent girls” gather in “princess dresses”, a TV babbling in the corner. But through cinematic style jump cuts in the narrative, violence surreally invades the party, “men with gas masks / walk in”, leaving the surviving teenage girls “to pick up their teeth from the sticky dance floor”. Section 8, is a more comic variation on the theme with a girl singer, an “immigrant girl Icarus”, stunning the UK with her performance on The X-Factor, though even the glitz and glamour (even Simon Cowell) cannot disguise the “faint smoke of war” billowing about the girl’s watching family.

Shire’s sequence widens its focus after a reprise of the prepositional definitions. War now (“What is the name of this war?”) is manifest in police brutality in the USA, in returning universal “ghosts / of the / dead boys” who have been killed. She even manages to write of the beheading of James Foley in August 2014 in a rightly plain account of the video released by ISIS, but strips it of any media glibness, any risk of YouTube numbness, by the decision to repeat and accumulate lines agonizingly (a far more effective use of repetition than Alice Oswald’s in Memorial (Faber, 2011)). It’s Lucille Clifton’s work that Shire uses to model her conclusion, asking you/us to join her in celebration of “a kind of life”. As non-white women, both writers have been compelled to “make it up right / here in this immigration line”. This is a Pyrrhic victory perhaps, but no less one for all that, since “every day someone or something has tried to kill me and has failed”.

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