Stand-to-Arms: David Jones’ ‘In Parenthesis’ (1937)

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There’s an extraordinary moment in the final pages of David Jones’ magnificent poem-novella, In Parenthesis (1937), when his hero, John Ball, dying at the Battle of the Somme in 1916, imagines the tourist industry that has since grown up around the World War One battlefields. In his last moments, he abandons his rifle: “leave it for a Cook’s tourist to the Devastated Areas”. Jones’ footnote acknowledges the risk of this sounding anachronistic but insists he remembers such discussions among the soldiers, how holiday-makers will later be photographed “on our parapets”. It’s the unexpected sense of territorial ownership that makes him angry (not the sense of injustice at different lives unfolding so differently): he compares it to strangers “occupying a house you live in, and which has, for you, particular associations”.

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This searing, revelatory sense of the documentary – what it was like to be there – is just one of the reasons to read Jones’ book. Another extended footnote considers the multiple usage of the hessian material of sandbags. In their intended role “they constituted, filled with earth, the walls, ceiling, and even floor surface of half our world”. But it was also “utilized as a wrapping for food; for a protection to the working parts of a rifle, and cover for bayonet against rust. The firm, smooth contour of a steel-helmet was often deprived of its tell-tale brightness [. . .] by means of a piece of stitched-on sack-cloth. The sand bag could be cut open and cast over the shoulders against the weather or tied round the legs against the mud or spread as a linen cloth on the fire-step for a meal, or used in extremity as a towel or dish-cloth; could be bound firmly as an improvised bandage or sewn together as a shroud for the dead”. Such human and humane improvisation in the midst of nightmare reminds us that Jones did not intend In Parenthesis to be a “War Book”, but rather one about a “good kind of peace”. He himself gives us another reason to read his book in these contemporary times that we consider so ‘difficult’: “We find ourselves privates in foot regiments. We search how we may see formal goodness in a life singularly inimical, hateful, to us”.

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For those interested in poetic techniques, Jones mixes prose and verse as naturally as walking and running. He is fiercely allusive throughout, particularly drawing on Shakespeare, Malory, The Mabinogion, The Song of Roland, other Welsh and Anglo-Saxon poems, Romantic and Classical poetry. TS Eliot tends to use his intertextual or allusive techniques forensically to dissect our Modern condition, how far we fall short of heroism, how far we are from spiritual pilgrimage, how sordid and smutty our lives have become. Curiously, Jones achieves something opposite, managing to elevate his fallible, cursing Tommies to some sort of reflection of the heroism of the past. The fields of northern France are compared to Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur in ways that establish rather than sever the links between myth and legend and the twentieth century. Bursts of shrapnel are associated with “the Thunder God” as discussed in Fraser’s The Golden Bough; the death of soldiers is rhymed with the myth of the king buried to protect and make the land fruitful. Jones’ interest in and identification with the ordinary soldiers is also expressed through his use of their words, in vivid, direct, often (knowingly) hilarious forms of demotic which put Eliot’s awkward efforts at doing the ordinary people’s voices into the shade.

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For a certain type of soldier, Jones tells us, trench life in 1916 with the “infantry in tin-hats, with ground-sheets over their shoulders, with sharpened pine-stakes in their hands”, brought Shakespeare’s Henry V “pretty constantly to the mind”. It’s from that play that one of the recurring phrases in In Parenthesis is drawn. In Part 3, Lance-Corporal Lewis sings as he walks, yet he sings softly, “because of the Disciplines of War”. Jones’ soldiers treat the idea with both respect and sarcasm on differing occasions though it’s striking that in the midst of battle, as things begin to turn against them:

 

Captain Cadwaladr restores

the Excellent Disciplines of the Wars.

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The book invites the reader in with knockabout drill on the parade ground at home to begin with. Then a long march to the port of embarkation, the troops looking smart as they march through town but once beyond civilian observation “with a depressing raggedness of movement and rankling of tempers they covered another mile between dismal sheds, high and tarred”. Proleptic of what lies ahead, they get lost among the port buildings, eventually waiting for departure to France in a “spacious shed [. . .] open at either end, windy and comfortless”.

Part 2 has the men marching through France, Jones capturing their first naïve witnessing of war’s destruction where a shell has fallen on the road they are pursuing: “men were busy here shovelling rubble into a great torn upheaval in the paving. A splintered tree scattered its winter limbs, spilled its life low on the ground. They stepped over its branches and went on”. One of the great themes of In Parenthesis ironically is the presence of Nature, often offering some consolation, some mythic pattern of life, death and re-birth to the soldiers, as well as (here) being subject to the destructions of human warfare. The natural processes of time, night and day, the seasons turning – also offer some consolation. Here is the magnificent opening to Part 4, John Ball seeing dawn break over the trenches:

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So thus he sorrowed till it was day and heard the foules sing, then somewhat he was comforted.

 

Stand-to.

Stand-to-arms.

Stealthily, imperceptibly stript back, thinning

night wraps

unshrouding, unsheafing—

and insubstantial barriers dissolve.

This blind night-negative yields uncertain flux.

At your wrist the phosphorescent dial describes the equal seconds.

 

The flux yields up a measurable body; bleached forms emerge and stand.

 

Where their faces turned, grey wealed earth bared almost of last clung weeds of night weft—

behind them the stars still shined.

 

The final seventh Part breaks more consistently into verse. Jones seldom uses line breaks to create the swaying rhythmic units of lyric verse but more usually for disjunction. His free verse recreates the soldier’s eye swinging from one thing to another, often in panic and confusion, the sudden bursting of danger from left field, from shells above, mines below. It allows him also to recreate the thrilling illogic of the stream of consciousness of his fighting men. Private Ball survives longer than many but is eventually wounded.

 

[. . .] it came as if a rigid beam of great weight flailed about his calves, caught from behind by ballista-baulk let fly or aft-beam slewed to clout gunnel-walker

below below below.

 

When golden vanities make about,

you’ve got no legs to stand on.

 

He thought it disproportionate in its violence considering the fragility of us.

 

He crawls away, encumbered by the weight of his rifle which he eventually leaves behind. An Ophelia-like figure, the Queen of the Woods, cuts garlands for the dying soldiers, whispering quietly to each of them, according respect (when the real circumstances of their deaths received anything but) elevating their passing to ritual. (Here is a brief animation and reading of this moment). That Jones can achieve this mythic sense, simultaneously dwelling on the clumsy encumbrance of Private Ball’s rifle, and allowing his fleeting thoughts about the future Cook’s tourists is a breath-taking moment of literary achievement. The whole is “a work of genius” (TS Eliot) and “a masterpiece” (WH Auden). For Adam Thorpe it “towers above any other prose or verse memorial of that war (indeed, of any war)”; for Thomas Dilworth it is “probably the greatest work of British Modernism written between the wars”.

 

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David Jones

 

I have been reading little other than In Parenthesis for the last few weeks. The narrative precision clarifies with each re-reading, as does the characterisation, the recurring motifs become more significant, the gem-like passages of exquisite poetry leap out. I have come to it very late; a reason for some regret but it is the best thing I have read in years. Perhaps the title put me off. It sounds arid and a bit tricksy. Jones suggests the parenthesis was the war itself (perhaps again indicating his real concern with how we live our peace), though he also cryptically adds “because our curious type of existence here is altogether in parenthesis”. The whole work concludes with lines taken from The Song of Roland: “the man who does not know this has not understood anything”.

 

The Poetry of Peter Huchel #1

I have been working off and on over the last year on translating the third collection by the German poet, Peter Huchel. I hope to complete this for publication in the next few months and here (over this and my next blog post) I have been gathering information about his life and times. I’ve found people know of his work but not in much detail. In a working life that saw him through some of the most traumatic events of European history, Huchel published only 4 collections of poetry in 1948, 1963, 1972 and 1979. Throughout his career the substance of much of his work is his vivid observation of the natural world, moving gradually towards a usually brief, free verse form, a withdrawal from the personal and a steadily darkening vision which comes to be dominated by elegy and lament.

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Peter Huchel was born Hellmut Huchel in 1903 in Lichterfelde (now part of Berlin). As a result of his mother’s ill health he was taken from the city to grow up on his grandfather’s farm at Alt-Langewisch, in the Brandenburg countryside near Potsdam. Huchel himself later argued “it is precisely the experiences of childhood, roughly between the ages of five and ten, that exercise a decisive influence in later years” (acceptance speech for the 1974 Literature Prize of the Free Masons). If this period was something of an idyll then it was shattered dramatically and forever by the death of the eleven year old boy’s grandfather and the outbreak of war in Europe.

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After defeat and his country’s humiliation at Versailles, Huchel, now 17 years old, took part in the conservative Kapp-Putsch against the Weimar Republic in 1920 which was fuelled by a resentment against the German government for signing up to the punishing conditions of the Treaty of Versailles. In the fighting associated with the failed coup, Huchel was wounded and it was during his recovery in hospital that his sympathies for socialism and Marxism fully developed.

From 1923 to 1926, Huchel studied literature and philosophy at the universities of Berlin, Freiberg and Vienna. Though always temperamentally an outsider, these were years of political, economic and artistic ferment (though ultimately something Huchel would react against) and in the final years of the 1920s he travelled to France, Italy, Greece, Hungary, Romania, Turkey. In 1930, he changed his first name to Peter. His early poems were being written and published from 1924 onwards and were already strongly marked by the atmosphere and landscape of Brandenburg. He appeared out of step with the times, writing nature lyrics, using conventional metre and rhyme, though the natural landscapes he portrayed were far from pastoral. The rural world he grew up in was providing ways of articulating concerns about the shortcomings of the world about him: his close observations of Nature showed her as a harsh mistress and the poverty and suffering of Huchel’s Brandenburg peasants were both very real and politically charged.

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Working as an editorial assistant for Die Literarische Welt by 1932, Huchel’s poems won a prize and his first manuscript was accepted for publication under the title Der Knabenteich (‘The Boy’s Pond’). In 1934, Huchel married Dora Lassel but with the rise of Hitler in 1933, Die Literarische Welt ceased publication and Huchel withdrew his book partly for political reasons. He fled to Romania for a while and was deeply troubled that the Nazi’s liked his work, reading into it as they did a version of the blood and soil nationalism they hoped to foster. A few of his poems were published but by 1936 he was refusing permission and he did not publish a new poem during the rest of Hitler’s rule. Instead, he withdrew to the Brandenburg countryside but was eventually drafted in 1941, ending the war in a Russian prisoner of war camp.

With the fall of the Third Reich, Huchel enthusiastically shared the democratic and socialist optimism of many of his compatriots about the reconstruction of Eastern Germany offering a vision of freedom and equality to all. He began working for East German radio, published his first collection, Gedichte (‘Poems’), in 1948 and in 1949 became editor of the influential poetry magazine Sind und Form (Sense and Form’). Huchel’s poems were applauded both for their craft and evident socialist undercurrents though he did not satisfy some who demanded much more explicit support for the German Democratic experiment. Huchel’s dark rural landscapes offered at best equivocal support for the socialist regime and his instinctively conservative harking back to childhood and the natural world (rather than the modern revolutionary transformations of human society) were rightly seen by many as falling far short of the expected unquestioning celebration of the GDR’s project.

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Here’s Huchel’s ‘The Polish Reaper’ – from this period – as translated by Michael Hamburger. Compared to Huchel’s later work, there is an exclamatory and ‘poetic’ quality to many of these lines (despite being nominally spoken by a migrant worker in Germany). Also the political content is more explicit in the fields mowed but not owned, the poor conditions of the workers and the rather hefty symbolism of the returning eastwards to a red dawn!

 

Do not cry, golden-eyed frog,

in the pond’s weedy water.

Like a great conch

the night sky roars.

Its roaring calls me home.

 

My scythe shouldered

I walk down the bright main road,

Dogs howling round me,

past the smithy’s grime

where darkly the anvil sleeps.

 

Down by the outwork

poplars are drifting

in the moon’s milky light.

Still the meadows exhale heat

in the crickets’ screeching.

 

O fire of the earth,

my heart holds a different glow.

Field after field I mowed,

not one blade was my own.

 

Blow, autumn gales!

On the bare boards of lofts

hungry sleepers awaken.

Not alone I walk

down the bright main road.

 

At the rim of night

the stars glitter

like grain on the threshing-floor,

where I go home to the eastern country,

into morning’s red light.

 

I’ll continue Peter Huchel’s life story in my next post.

The Soviet Briar: poems of Vladislav Khodasevich

In the light of recent political events in the UK, it seemed important to be thinking about wider perspectives this week – Europe, Revolutions, the role of poetry. The poems of Vladislav Kodasevich came easily to mind and I have wanted to praise Peter Daniels’ translations of them for a while now.

What emerges from Peter Daniels’ Vladislav Khodasevich: Selected Poems (Angel Classics, 2013) is a vivid picture of a poet who was, both by temperament and historical circumstance, very much an individual. From a Lithuanian Polish background, coming to creativity at the fag end of Symbolism, witnessing Russia’s revolutionary year of 1917, going into permanent exile in 1922, Khodasevich (1886-1939) was perhaps inevitably a writer with little sense of belonging, of sure identity. It’s no surprise that he plays with images of doubles, often standing outside himself, then counters such doubts with rather grandiose claims to his poetic vocation.

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The consequent difficulty of pigeon-holing him as a poet is one of the reasons why he is less well-known than his more familiar contemporaries – Mandelshtam, Akhmatova, Tsvetayeva and Pasternak. He is also difficult to pin down because he is “a modernist, but with a classical temperament” (Daniels’ Preface). In a period when others were tearing up rule books (poetical and political) Khodasevich harks back to the “eight little volumes” of Pushkin’s works. Amongst the ruck of Symbolists, Acmeists, Futurists and Cubo-Futurists, Khodasevich’s poems mostly retain traditional forms and he proudly declares: “I grafted the classic rose / to the Soviet briar bush” (‘Petersburg’). Such formalism presents great challenges for the translator, of course, with Khodasevich flaunting his conservative and poetic concerns – “O may my last expiring groan / be wrapped inside an articulate ode!” – and, like many before and since, he argues such formal frameworks are paradoxically the way to find release. (Carol Rumens has discussed some formal aspects of a Daniels/Khodasevich poem for The Guardian). Curiously, his last ever poem was in praise of the iambic tetrameter, the classic metre of the Russian tradition:

 

Its nature is mysterious,

where spondee sleeps and paeon sings,

one law is held within it – freedom.

Freedom is the law it brings . . .

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Vladislav Khodasevich

If Khodasevich uneasily straddles a variety of poetic strategies, there is a fascinating parallel to this in his views on self and society. The self is at one moment urged to “be a star that breaks away from the night” but in the next is “grunt[ing] to yourself, / looking for spectacles or keys”. This “usual self” is preoccupied with tarnished spires, the tops of cars, old iron eaves, and in ‘Berlin View’ sits shivering and sneezing in a café, surrounded by “plate-glass” reflections of itself. A couple of years later, at what seems a Dantesque ‘mid-point’ in his life, Khodasevich stares hopelessly into a mirror: “Me, me, me. What a preposterous word! / Can that man there really be me?” This is the Modernist side of the poet, observing from “the gutter”, watching a sordid Parisian cabaret, a dismal demi-monde of “tinselled chaos”. Yet the poem quoted here – ‘The Stars’ – goes on to suggest our gaze may sometimes incline upwards, “from the horizon to the stars” and – at least on occasions – we are aware of a “starry universe in glory / and the primordial loveliness”.

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Khodasevich and Nina Berberova, Sorrento, 1926

This suggests Khodasevich was still enough of a Symbolist to see the poet’s role as seeking out such “loveliness”, the transcendent within the quotidian (as Michael Wachtel’s Introduction defines this key Symbolist intent). This accounts for Khodasevich’s repeated images of stars often unseen above us (but still there) and also of the flourishing of seeds in the earth as an image of personal and social growth. The title poem of The Way of the Seed (1920), in rhymed couplets, describes the traditional sower, with seed gleaming golden in his hand, but scattered into “the blackness of the land”. There it finds “its moment for dying, and for growth”. Latterly, the poem suggests this is also the path of the “soul” as well as “my native country, and her people”. This nicely sums up Khodasevich – the progressive conservative, these organic and traditional images of the farmer absorbed into bold ideas of growth and change incorporating both a dying back and re-birth. A similar pattern is reflected in ‘Gold’ – a coin is placed into the mouth of a corpse, buried, and after many years, in the unearthed skull, the coin is found again, rattling: “the gold will flash in the midst of bones, / a tiny sun, the imprint of my soul”.

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Peter Daniels at Khodasevich’s grave

It is in such longevity, such insightfulness that continues to be true, that Khodasevich finds reasons to celebrate the poetic vocation. Though the names of the dead who fell at the Battle of Khotin (1739) are forgotten, “the Ode upon Khotin” by Lomonosov is still recited. ‘Ballad of the Heavy Lyre’ opens with Khodasevich in the Soviet-run House of the Arts, surveying his life and finding it “worthless, a quagmire”. But eventually verses burst from him till “a galaxy streams at my head” (those stars again) and a heavy lyre is mysteriously thrust into his hands and, in the final line, he understands this is the lyre of Orpheus. Written in 1921, this poem foreshadows Khodasevich’s departure from the Soviet restrictions in the following year with hopes (one imagines) of further freedoms to be enjoyed.

I was especially interested in the seven substantial blank verse poems Khodasevich wrote in a brief period between 1918-20 (David Cooke’s review of the book for London Grip makes the same observation). These in particular bring to mind the modernist-conservatism of Robert Frost (whose two first books were published in 1913 and 1914) and it’s astonishing that Khodasevich did not pursue these successful experiments with a less formal verse that seems an ideal vehicle for his quiet observational voice, his sense of the mystery or beauty that lies beneath the ordinary, his observations of a provisional self often encountering an unstable, uncertain world.

‘An Episode’ appears to record, moment by moment, an out-of-body experience Khodasevich had in 1915 (these blank verse poems are always keen to name times, places, people). At one moment, he sits before a shelf of books, at the next he is gazing at himself as if looking at “a simple, old, old friend”. The transitional moments are evoked through the marvellous image of feeling like a “diver, plunging to the deep, [hearing] / the running about on deck and the shouts / of the sailors”. ‘2nd November’ describes the aftermath of revolution – again the precision of street names, people’s responses as they emerge into the smashed and bullet-scarred streets makes this read as a very contemporary poem indeed. The narrator watches a neighbour, a joiner, building a coffin and painting it: “under the brush / the boards were turning crimson”. But the golden seed in black earth comes to mind again as a child is observed – a “four-year-old, chubby, in a flap-eared hat” – who manages a smile as if listening to Moscow’s “beating heart, / the moving fluids, growth” though for the narrator even Pushkin’s beloved works, on this occasion, fail to alleviate the shock of political change.

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The unresolved tensions Khodasevich manages to hold together in these blank verse poems create a very modern impression. Another child appears in ‘Midday’, the narrator sitting in the most ordinary street scene, recalling a visit to Venice, fleeting glimpses of those “incandescent stars” once more. ‘An Encounter’ drops the star images for a more conventional image of beauty or inspiration, a “lovely English girl” glimpsed in Venice with its “black gondolas, / the fleeting shadows of pigeons, and the red / flow of the wine”. The extraordinary poem ‘The Monkey’ replaces the stars and the girl with the bizarre image of a tame monkey in a “red skirt”, led on a chain by an itinerant Serbian man (a much inferior translation of this poem by Alex Cigale can by read in The Kenyon Review). After a drink of water from a bowl, the monkey offers “her black and calloused hand” with such “nobility”. It’s the realism of the setting – the heat, the cock crow, the dusty lilacs – that enables Khodasevich to anthropomorphise the animal to such an extent and get away with it. It becomes another epiphanic moment in which the transcendent emerges from the quotidian. Here, a great chain of brotherhood seems implied and this makes the final line all the more devastating: “That was the day of the declaration of war”.

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The two most Frost-like of these blank verse poems describe respectively a derelict house and a couple of neighbours chopping wood. ‘The House’ leads to reflections on transience, whether for a “palace” or a “shack”, the sudden advent of “war, plague, famine, or civil turmoil”. Such contrasts are again viewed from an Olympian height, an aloofness which has more negative capability about it than unfeeling Modernist cynicism. An old woman appears, scraping a living, and rather than pass judgement on her or her fate, the narrator joins her in stripping useful materials from the ruined house: “in pleasant harmony / we do some of the work of time”. A green moon rises ambiguously over the scene, casting light over a “tumbled” stove.  Khodasevich’s rich embrace and acceptance are also evident in ‘The Music’ as two neighbours chop wood. One suddenly claims to hear music but try as he might the other cannot hear it. In ‘Mending Wall’, Frost’s narrator likewise teased his farmer/neighbour and drew from him an old saying: “Good fences make good neighbours”. Khodasevich’s poem yields only a sense of earthly work well done together, the remoteness of the sky (from which perhaps that music fell), the clouds passing onward as “feathery angels”, or perhaps they are really no more than clouds.

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‘I Hear the Unheard Heart’: the Poems of Rose Auslander

What follows is a review – originally published by Poetry London earlier last year – of Rose Auslander’s poetry. As I say below, her work has been surprisingly little noticed in the UK literary world. The situation is rather different in her own culture where she is well-known and much admired as this entry on the germanlit.org website makes clear. She is an unusual and original poet well worth seeking out and you can find this book on the Arc website.

While I Am Drawing Breath is a revised version of Mother Tongue, Anthony Vivis and Jean Boase-Beier’s 1995 volume of  Rose Auslander’s poems. That book strode across an effectively empty stage and the same is surprisingly true of this new version: there are really no rival translations into English currently available (she’s not even included in Michael Hoffman’s Twentieth-Century German Poems (Faber, 2005)). This sadly reflects Auslander’s reception through the first half of last century. Only at the age of 64 did her work begin to be noticed, though until her death, 23 years later, she received prizes and accolades, mostly in Germany. Her relative neglect is surprising given her extraordinary personal story, surviving the worst horrors of the twentieth century, and the vivid, gem-like minimalism of her work.

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The life is important. Rose Scherzer was born into a German-speaking Jewish family in 1901, growing up in Czernowitz (then part of Austria-Hungary). The First World War forced the family to Vienna, then Budapest, but later Auslander returned to study at Czernowitz University. She made the acquaintance of philosopher, Constantin Brunner, but in 1921 emigrated to America with Ignaz Auslander (to whom she was briefly married). She returned to Czernowitz only to find it occupied by the Nazi’s in 1941. She lived in the Jewish ghetto, surviving against the odds, writing poetry and meeting Paul Antschel (later Paul Celan). The town was liberated by the Russians but while Auslander tried to arrange for the family to emigrate to America, her mother died, precipitating her daughter’s breakdown. She did not write in her native tongue again for another 10 years.

While I Am Drawing Breath contains work written in these later years (it’s a shame the arrangement of this book gives no sense of chronological development). By then the friendship with Celan had been revived and Auslander abandoned the rhyme schemes and metrical patterning of earlier work for a more free, highly compressed, yet colloquial style, rejecting all punctuation. It is this style that German readers recognise as her distinctive achievement and is the culmination of the tragic restlessness of her life as well as her fascination with language. It was hard to speak of what she had witnessed:

 

From the eyes

of sated man-eaters

smoke surges

and my words

have blackened

in it

(‘Smoke’)

Paul Celan

Eloquence, volubility, the pleasures of the text risked disrespect for the victims of war. Auslander’s words are never far from mourning:

I call out

my willow-word

to the sunken souls

the squall has

driven down

to the pebbles

(‘Willow Word’)

Czernowitz, probably 1941

Yet she seldom speaks directly of pogroms and persecution. ‘And Shut Out Their Love’ does record the advent of “guns and jagged banners”, but Auslander’s imagery is more mythic, more folk tale: hunger, blood, fire, snow, ashes, smoke. Faced with the “unbearable reality” of the Czernowitz ghetto, the options were to despair or dwell in “dreamwords” and there are strong escapist longings as in ‘In Those Years’ with its snow-bound world into which come seductive rumours of  a “country / where the lemons flower” (an allusion to Goethe’s 1795 lyric ‘Mignon’). ‘Immer Atlantis’ (translated here as ‘Atlantis Always Glittering’) re-creates that mythic city:

there are always celebrations in swaying gardens

well-proportioned people

always holy and delicate

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But her friendship with Brunner suggests Auslander was pursuing something more complex than the sort of consolatory fantasy this suggests. He warned against the dangers of superstition, or pseudo-contemplation: unfounded beliefs creating a distortion of true insight. Auslander regards language itself as a ‘third way’, a melding of self and world, without the risks of denying reality. In ‘Mother Tongue’, movement along the “word path” leads to transformation “from myself into myself / from moment to moment”. In ‘Words’, language is neither slave to reality nor liberated self-expression, but “my source”. In ‘The Net’ the goal is “one word / which says it all” as Brunner suggested, an ascent to a plane of spiritual (geistig) contemplation encompassing love, art, and philosophy.

That Auslander’s work pursues such goals without tumbling into arid abstraction and commentary is one of the pleasures of these tough, unselfpitying poems. She is open to “dull brown” as well as “radiant blue” (‘As If’) and her obsession “for binding words” is an attempt “to reach even further / into this known / unknowable / world” (‘Sentences’). What she hears through the cuckoo, rainbow, snow, camomile, mills, carnivals, islands and trees is a spiritual realm, given validity not by any organised religion but by the suffering she has endured:

I hear the unheard heart

in my breathing

like a clock made of air

then the melody of the music-box

is alive in my temples

its tones muted like the moving spheres

(‘The Unheard Heart’)

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”.

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

On National Poetry Day (October 2014) four contemporary poets 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 (it has just now come through my letterbox with the new issue of Poetry Review) it is also available to purchase online.

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So The Pity contains substantial poems commissioned by the Poetry Society, in which Steve Ely, Zaffar Kunial, Denise Riley and Warsan Shire (chosen to represent “different poetics and perspectives”) respond to the centenary and legacy of the First World War. The Pity was published in collaboration with Cockayne – Grants for the Arts and The London Community Foundation to mark the centenary of the First World War. John Glenday’s poem, ‘The Big Push’ is also included, providing a short coda to the volume. His poem takes inspiration from Sir Herbert James Gunn’s 1916 painting, ‘The Eve of the Battle of the Somme’, held in The Fleming Collection of Scottish Art.

In this blog, I will discuss only the contributions of Ely and Glenday; on another occasion, those of Kunial, Riley and Shire.

Steve Ely’s ‘How dear is life’ is a sequence in 7 parts mixing literary, historical and personal materials to very powerful effect. He presents nothing less than a vision of war and its causes, the careful placing of the comma in the title of the first section – ‘Business, as usual’ – indicating where he wants to lay the blame:

This time it’s oil, not markets.

This time it’s oil, not borders.

This time it’s oil, not ideas.

This time it’s money and power –

like last time and every time before.

Ely has said the whole sequence is much influenced by Henry Williamson’s fictionalized autobiography, A Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight, which presents the First World War as a sacrifice of the innocents on the altar of capital. The sequence is intended to portray a liberation from a “world-destroying growth-and-profit system”, not merely a release from the horrors of war. Though writing with commitment (see Morning Star: http://www.morningstaronline.co.uk/a-1063-Steve-Ely-commissioned-by-the-Poetry-Society-for-centenary-of-World-War-I#.VL0uW0esWss) there are two aspects of the sequence that prevent it ossifying into predictable attitudes: one a matter of materials, the other of technique.

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Ely draws on material linked with his maternal great-grand-father, Thomas Sellars, killed on the Somme in February 1917, contrasting the glorious send-off by friends and family with his eventual fate (and the shifting attitudes of those left at home):

They stuffed his lungs with poppies and crushed him

under a cenotaph. Where they weep.

Likewise, he uses material from a more extensive time period, linked with his own background in the mining communities of Yorkshire. The pressures of economic activity which determine that (on one occasion) it will take too long to recover the body of a killed miner mean that the bereaved family is fobbed off with a “screwed down coffin            packed with the stone that / killed him” (one of 262 deaths in the pits in the twentieth century). Ely deploys this alongside the 216 deaths of Frickley and Kirkby, “ragged up through two world wars”. There are moments reminiscent of Wilfred Owen’s poems here. Owen’s ‘Disabled’ is inevitably evoked when Ely treats the plight of individuals injured in wars, sickeningly evoked in ‘The Story of my Heart’:

on spoon-fed rusk-mush

matted in my beard                 pus from a crusted wound

[. . . ]

I was more than a mouth        more than shit

once                 I was

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But it is the first, fifth and seventh parts of the sequence where Ely’s technical choices are fully displayed. Under the creative pressure of his unifying political vision, he draws together fragments (often separated by blank spaces on the same line) into new relations with each other, melding biblical, historical, mythical and more contemporary elements together to make his point:

and what did they see

river running red         with Empire

river running green      with Deutschmarks

sterling                        Frenchfrancs        roubles        dollars

the promissory land                 of bilk and money

Using the same techniques, ‘The Vision of the White Crow’ springs from information that Hitler (while recovering from a gas attack at Pasewalk Military Hospital in 1918) experienced episodes of ‘hysterical blindness’ in which he claimed to have seen his eventual rise to power. Ely voices Hitler’s convictions that the “Reichsblood” was being drained by “socialists democrats profiteers bankers” but then propels his vision forward into the later twentieth century, “unwritten pages of world book turning”. We are whirled through Washington, Moscow, Sarajavo, Maastricht, past John Lennon, and (maybe?) Andy Warhol, towards the X-Factor and twerking with Angela Merkel. This is heady poetry of conviction and the persuasiveness of phrase-making (phrase-making that leaves syntax and causality behind) is intoxicating but perhaps is the intoxication that Auden warned himself against in the late 1930s. But Ely is clearly on the side of Shelley, echoing ‘The Masque of Anarchy’ in the final section, urging the disenfranchised – who, the poem has made it clear are always the victims of the powerful and wealthy in both war and peace – urging them to “Rise . . .Rise  . .  Rise”.

John Glenday’s single poem is as different as could be. It is an ekphrastic piece, the pictorial inspiration being Herbert James Gunn’s 1916 painting, ‘The Eve of the Battle of the Somme’.

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Much of the poem’s impact is already evident in the image: the naked, vulnerable, beautiful figures of pale youth, relaxed, hedonistic, while across the swirl of the River Somme itself, the ominous daubs and pointed shapes of the army camp are almost – but not quite – out of sight. ‘The Big Push’, in its 7 regularly lined quatrains, rhyming ABAB, is calculated to be a more conventional poem than any part of Ely’s. It’s a dramatic monologue, perhaps spoken by one of Gunn’s swimmers and it tries on many familiar tropes we might now associate with WWI and its poetry: the singing in the face of imminent extinction, the waggish black humour of the Tommies, the football playing, the stoical resilience of the trench soldier. We even have a reference to Shelley’s ‘To a Skylark’, “like an unbodied joy”.

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It’s this image, drawn from the narrator’s past, that opens the way to the final two stanzas which are a sequence of associations after taking over German-dug trenches from occupying French troops, the “tiny, brilliant flowers” blooming in that place, the speculation that, if the dead might someday return, “they’ll come back green”. The poignancy of these images returns us to the Gunn painting. The young men are at one with Nature, having passed through the horrors of the Somme are gifted a return to that pastoral scene where:

. . . all the things they suffered will mean no more to them

than the setting in of the ordinary dark, or a change of weather.

I take the irony here to be at the expense of the narrative voice, whose steady, rather plangent tone and period-shaped imagination is not yet able to encompass the horrors that a modern reader all too readily associates with the battle to commence the very next day. I’m reminded of Owen again. In ‘A Terre’ (completed July 1918), his wounded officer blackly recalls Shelley (again!): “I shall be one with nature, herb, and stone”. But Owen’s narrator re-shapes the Romantic idea of the one life by envying the lives of rats, cheese mites and microbes: he already understands the horrors that Glenday’s naïve narrator has yet to learn.