Poetry Month 2012. 30: War Poetry

I used to read a lot of war poetry. It was Siegfried Sassoon’s fault first of all:

     Suicide in the Trenches

     I knew a simple soldier boy
     Who grinned at life in empty joy,
     Slept soundly through the lonesome dark,
     And whistled early with the lark.

     In winter trenches, cowed and glum,
     With crumps and lice and lack of rum,
     He put a bullet through his brain.
     No one spoke of him again.

     You smug-faced crowds with kindling eye
     Who cheer when soldier lads march by,
     Sneak home and pray you’ll never know
     The hell where youth and laughter go.

This haunted me. Wilfred Owen was another, with Dulce et Decorum Est.

I wrote my own (don’t be mean, I was thirteen):

     Back to War

     Glum soldiers say ‘Back to the trenches,’
     Faking their calm and their pride;
     Now their short time at home is up
     It’s back to war – they cannot hide.
     They’re back to toil and hardship
     With lives swamped by the rotting dead;
     Gangrened and decaying limbs,
     Decomposing, swollen heads.
     They keep their secret silently –
     It’s a well disguised fact,
     That the words ‘Back to war’
     Mean simply ‘Suicide pact.’

It was quite smug of me. What did I know. Thirteen! We were doing war poetry at school at the time.

W. B. Yeats also wrote one that I obsessed over:

     On Being Asked for a War Poem

     I think it better that in times like these
     A poet’s mouth be silent, for in truth
     We have no gift to set a statesman right;
     He has had enough of meddling who can please
     A young girl in the indolence of her youth,
     Or an old man upon a winter’s night.

He does have a point. On that note, here is Carol Ann Duffy’s tribute to Harry Patch, the last British soldier to fight in the First World War, who died in 2009 at an impressive 111 years old.

     Last Post

     In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
     He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

     If poetry could tell it backwards, true, begin
     that moment shrapnel scythed you to the stinking mud…
     but you get up, amazed, watch bled bad blood
     run upwards from the slime into its wounds;
     see lines and lines of British boys rewind
     back to their trenches, kiss the photographs from home –
     mothers, sweethearts, sisters, younger brothers
     not entering the story now
     to die and die and die.
     Dulce – No – Decorum – No – Pro patria mori.
     You walk away.

     You walk away; drop your gun (fixed bayonet)
     like all your mates do too –
     Harry, Tommy, Wilfred, Edward, Bert –
     and light a cigarette.
     There’s coffee in the square,
     warm French bread
     and all those thousands dead
     are shaking dried mud from their hair
     and queueing up for home. Freshly alive,
     a lad plays Tipperary to the crowd, released
     from History; the glistening, healthy horses fit for heroes, kings.

     You lean against a wall,
     your several million lives still possible
     and crammed with love, work, children, talent, English beer, good food.
     You see the poet tuck away his pocket-book and smile.

     If poetry could truly tell it backwards,
     then it would.

The poem I really wanted to share though, is this one by Kate Clanchy:

     War Poetry

     The class has dropped its books. The janitor’s
     disturbed some wasps, broomed the nest
     straight off the roof. It lies outside, exotic
     as a fallen planet, a burst city of the poor;
     its newsprint halls, its ashen, tiny rooms
     all open to the air. The insects’ buzz
     is low-key as a smart machine. They group,
     regroup, in stacks and coils, advance
     and cross like pulsing points on radar screens.

     And though the boys have shaven heads
     and football strips, and would, they swear,
     enlist at once, given half a chance,
     mark down Owen’s darkening lanes
     to join the lads and stuff the Boche –
     they don’t rush out to pike the nest,
     or lap the yard with grapeshot faces.
     They watch the wasps through glass,
     silently, abashed, the way we all watch war.

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Poetry Month 2012. 29: Advice to a Discarded Lover

This poem is gross and mean but I love it. It’s by Fleur Adcock, and I very much think it’s true.

Advice to a Discarded Lover

Think, now: if you have found a dead bird,
not only dead, not only fallen,
but full of maggots: what do you feel –
more pity or more revulsion?

Pity is for the moment of death,
and the moments after. It changes
when decay comes, with the creeping stench
and the wriggling, munching scavengers.

Returning later, though, you will see
a shape of clean bone, a few feathers,
an inoffensive symbol of what
once lived. Nothing to make you shudder.

It is clear then. But perhaps you find
the analogy I have chosen
for our dead affair rather gruesome –
too unpleasant a comparison.

It is not accidental. In you
I see maggots close to the surface.
You are eaten up by self-pity,
crawling with unlovable pathos.

If I were to touch you I should feel
against my fingers fat, moist worm-skin.
Do not ask me for charity now:
go away until your bones are clean.

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Poetry Month 2012. 28: In Defence of Adultery

For some mysterious reason, two of the most popular poetry pages here relate to poems about adultery: Sophie Hannah’s Rubbish at Adultery in which the ‘other woman’ laments that her fling with a married man is soured by his guilt about his wife and kids, and Carol Ann Duffy’s Adultery. You should go read both now, but do come back, as I have more for your adulterous pleasure. This one is by Julia Copus, and I found it in Staying Alive: Real Poems for Unreal Times (which I ended up borrowing from the library because my sister has stolen my copy).

In Defence Of Adultery

We don’t fall in love: it rises through us
the way that certain music does –
whether a symphony or ballad –
and it is sepia-coloured,
like tea that stains as it creeps up
the tiny tube-like gaps inside
a cube of sugar lying by a cup.
Yes, love’s like that: just when we least
needed or expected it
a part of us dips into it
by chance or mishap and it seeps
through our capillaries, it clings
inside the chambers of the heart
to atriums and ventricles. We’re
victims, we say: merely vessels
drinking the vanilla scent
of this one’s skin, the lustre
of another’s blue eyes skilfully
darkened with bistre. And whatever
damage might result we’re not
to blame for it: love is an autocrat
and won’t be disobeyed.
Sometimes we almost manage
to convince ourselves of that.

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Poetry Month 2012. 27: Everything

This poem is at the front of Sharon Olds’ One Secret Thing, outside the other five sections – War, The Cannery, Umbilicus, Cassiopeia and One Secret Thing.

I previously shared (or at least linked to) Olds’ The Language of the Brag – a birth poem. This is not a birth poem.


Most of us are never conceived.
Many of us are never born –
we live in a private ocean for hours,
weeks, with our extra or missing limbs,
or holding our poor second head,
growing from our chest, in our arms. And many of us,
see-fruit on its stem, dreaming kelp
and whelk, are culled in our early months.
And some who are born live only for minutes,
others for two, or for three, summers,
or four, and when they go, everything
goes – the earth, the firmament –
and love stays, where nothing is, and seeks.

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Poetry Month 2012. 25 & 26: Armour

I have in front of me two poetry collections entitled Armour. The first one I got was John Kinsella’s Armour from the end of last year. It was the PBS Choice for Winter 2011, beating Carol Ann Duffy’s The Bees which was merely ‘recommended’. The second is Christy Ducker’s fantastic pamphlet from Smith/Doorstop, which you can buy from inpress for a mere fiver. Please do stick around for this one, I’ll get to it at the bottom.

I didn’t think much of Kinsella’s book when I first got it, having received four books in one go (I’d let my membership lapse, but when I came to finally renew I asked to be brought up to date with what I’d missed. I don’t like missing out) and instead glutted on the alliterative action in Simon Armitage’s The Death of King Arthur, David Harsent’s Night, and some Sean O’Brien. I’d already, at this stage, got The Bees, and preferred it by far. As a bit of a Duffy fangirl, this shouldn’t really be a surprise.

In all honesty, I suspect that the main thing going against Kinsella here is the way my particular copy of the book is bound. It’s so tight and heavy, that when I try to hold it and read it, the covers are squeezing together, pushing me out. I feel like I have to fight to read it. I don’t want to fight to read it.

Interestingly, while the book’s cover says that Kinsella is here writing his ‘most spiritual work to date’ and his ‘most politically engaged’, ‘poetry of lyric protest’, a work of ‘sharp ecological and social critique’. When I’ve picked it up I’ve read about weather, animals and the Australian outback. Kinsella says he considers himself an ‘in situ’ poet, ‘even if I’m writing about a piece of art, it’s done in the context of what I am physically experiencing at the time of writing. […] I write from the rural world.’ It would seem that I agree with him. He does, however, reject the idea of ‘nature writing’ (as indeed I’ve claimed that I don’t like that kind of thing either), saying when interviewed “I detest ‘nature writing’. I consider myself a writer of the environment – an ethically and politically motivated writer who perceives each poem, each text I write, as part of a resistance against environmental damage.”

Here is a poem from Kinsella’s Armour which feels quite apt in this odd paradoxical time of flood warnings and drought.


     The ground, a gullet, swallows the rain
     quick-fire, quick-smart; thirsty as a blank calendar –
     never ticked off, days running into each other.
     The ground drinks as if it can hold its liquor, drain
     gigalitre on gigalitre, a gutful. The cup
     runneth over, God knows where, the streams,
     creeks and rivers stay bone-dry: rain poured into seams
     of sand, rock, clay; poured through lips

     of granite, bristles of the long-gone. Dead sheep
     don’t drink much, though carcasses
     swell, fleeces coagulate: what passes
     as comi-tragic when a dry runs deep.

     Water resounds like stock epithets, strains
     at our neglected gutters – tomorrow
     score-marks of run-off, potholes dusty hollows:
     the ground, a gullet, swallows the rain.

Christy Ducker’s pamphlet presents me with a bit of a challenge. What on earth to share?! As a small pamphlet there’s not much space for extended sequences, so I’m quite relaxed about typing any of it up. It’s just that I particularly like, well, pretty much all of it.

In some ways, I don’t really want to tell you much about it – just that you should go and buy it. Less than 24p per poem. Bargain!

Ladybirds, historical grudges, boobs, language, travel, heritage, nesting, drystone walling – a very diverse collection. Tender and funny and startling and lovely by turns.

You will know why I chose this one though.


     suddenly you are here
     and I am astonished
     by the way you smell of bloody bread
     and the way you already decide
     to place a webbed fist here,
     to slow-wing a newt’s eye there.
     I am astonished that you are purple.

     And now I know glee
     at the indignant heaving bellows of your belly,
     your self-startled arms flung wide proclaiming
     your tiny chimp gums.

     And I watch to see time
     measured by your face,
     crane as you push each new word through glottal air.
     I thrill because you’re not like me
     but you and young and other.

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Poetry Month 2012. 24: Sunset

I’m not familiar with Louise Glück’s work, though her name crops up often as a recommended read by poets highlighted in the PBS Bulletin.

I can’t find her in the Bradford Libraries Catalogue. I’m tempted to blame the umlaut, but of course it may just be that she’s an American poet, and Bradford is not in America.

In any case, the first time I read this poem I thought nothing of it. However it keeps catching my eye, and after several reads I now like it quite a lot.

It’s from her most recent collection, A Village Life.


     At the same time as the sun’s setting,
     a farm worker’s burning dead leaves.

     It’s nothing, this fire.
     It’s a small thing, controlled,
     like a family run by a dictator.

     Still, when it blazes up, the farm worker disappears;
     from the road, he’s invisible.

     Compared to the sun, all the fires here
     are short-lived, amateurish –
     they end when the leaves are gone.
     Then the farm worker reappears, raking the ashes.

     But the death is real.
     As though the sun’s done what it came to do,
     made the field grow, then
     inspired the burning of earth.

     So it can set now.

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Baby loves giraffe

A lift-the-flap animal book, like so many others, Baby Loves: Giraffe doesn’t really have a story – just a bunch of friends you meet, one per 2-page spread.

There are lots of books with mirrors in – babies love themselves after all – but this is the best quality mirror I’ve seen in a book – really clear, no distortion. I personally thought that the flaps were boring – it’s not like opening a door or moving part of the illustration – it literally is just a fold-over flap with a random pattern on it. Added to the lack of story this seemed a bit of a shame. It doesn’t seem to matter to Polly though, she’s still excited by lifting it and finding out what’s hiding underneath.

We got this at Wrose Library. It’s a new addition, and it seems Polly is the only person to have ever checked it out! Also, she now calls lions dandelions (“dananan!”)

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Poetry Month 2012. 23: From the Irish

It’s quite evident that I like Ian Duhig, having shared three of his poems before – ‘Use Complete Sentences’, Civilization and Nothing Pie – the latter with a tenuous theme of language or colloquialisms. The poem I’m sharing today shares that theme.

I borrowed some of his earlier work from the library. So far I’ve just read the one old collection – The Bradford Count. Duhig’s parents were Irish but he now lives in Yorkshire, so the Bradford of the title does indeed refer to the Bradford I live in. The “Bradford Count” is actually a measure of the number of hanks of yarn that could be spin from a fleece – Bradford used to be a mill town, and in the 19th Century was known as the wool capital of the world.

I have to say I found the collection quite impenetrable. It references a lot of history that I’m not aware of, with big words and names that don’t mean anything to me. Sadly I can’t really be bothered (today at least) to look up the meanings and back stories to access what he’s talking about.

     From the Irish

     According to Dineen, a Gael unsurpassed
     in lexicographical enterprise, the Irish
     for moon means ‘the white circle in a slice
     of half-boiled potato or turnip’. A star
     is the mark on the forehead of a beast
     and the sun is the bottom of a lake, or well.

     Well, if I say to you your face
     is like a slice of half-boiled turnip,
     your hair is the colour of a lake’s bottom
     and at the centre of each of your eyes
     is the mark of the beast, it is because
     I want to love you properly, according to Dineen.

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Poetry Month 2012. 22: A Spider

I previously shared some Colette Bryce – a poem about the Troubles in Ireland in 1981 from her collection The Full Indian Rope Trick.

This poem is from her “newest” collection from Picador, Self-Portrait in the Dark (2008). She has a more recent pocket book from Donut Press – I’m sure I’ll share a poem from that one soon too.

     A Spider

     I trapped a spider in a glass,
     a fine-blown wineglass.
     It shut around him, silently.
     He stood still, a small wheel
     of intricate suspension, cap
     at the hub of his eight spokes,
     inked eyes on stalks; alert,
     sensing a difference.
     I meant to let him go
     but still he taps against the glass
     all Marcel Marceau
     in the wall that is there but not there,
     a circumstance I know.

This poem inspired me to spend ages looking through photos of spiders and their eyes, as I was convinced they were NOT on stalks. I was correct. Bastard. Incidentally, I’ve shared poems about spiders before.

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Poetry Month 2012. 21: Theory of Marriage (The Hug)

Mark Doty’s Theories and Apparitions contains four Theories of Beauty, two Theories of Marriage, Theories of the Soul, Multiplicity, Narrative, the Sublime and Incompletion, five Apparitions and another eight poems along similar themes. This kind of duplication often bugs me, but this seems to work really well. I’m not familiar with Doty’s work before this, his eighth collection. I want to say his style is a bit narrative and a bit stream of consciousness, but I’m not entirely sure I even know what that means. There’s a three page poem about a never ending massage, and a lovely sequence about listening to some music that you never want to end.

I like this one though. Not just because it’s short and thus less typing – honest! I don’t even like pets, but I’m intrigued by what he’s exploring through them.

     Theory of Marriage (The Hug)

     Arden would turn his head toward the one
     he loved, Paul or me, and look downward,
     and butt the top of his skill against us, leaning forward,
     hiding his face, disappearing into what he’d chosen.

     Beau had another idea. He’d offer his rump
     for scratching, and wag his tail while he was stroked,
     returning that affection by facing away, looking out
     toward whatever might come along to enjoy.

     Beau had no interest in an economy of affection;
     why hoard what you can give away?
     Arden thought you should close your eyes
     to anything else; only by vanishing

     into the beloved do you make it clear:
     what else is there you’d want to see?

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