The poet Mary Oliver, who has died at the age of 83, wrote some of the poems I cherish most. Born in 1935 in a small Ohio town, she often found escape from a hard childhood and an abusive father by walking in the woods. “It was a very bad childhood for everybody, every member of the household, not just myself I think. And I escaped it, barely,” she later said. But I got saved by poetry. And I got saved by the beauty of the world.”
That experience was distilled in one of her finest poems, The Journey:
One day you finally knew what you had to do, and began, though the voices around you kept shouting their bad advice – though the whole house began to tremble and you felt the old tug at your ankles. “Mend my life!” each voice cried. But you didn’t stop. You knew what you had to do, though the wind pried with its stiff fingers at the very foundations, though their melancholy was terrible. It was already late enough, and a wild night, and the road full of fallen branches and stones. But little by little, as you left their voices behind, the stars began to burn through the sheets of clouds, and there was a new voice which you slowly recognized as your own, that kept you company as you strode deeper and deeper into the world, determined to do the only thing you could do– determined to save the only life you could save.
Following in the footsteps of Whitman and Thoreau, Oliver’s poetry is grounded in her close observation of the natural world and a deep sense of being in the world as a kind of spiritual experience, as she wrote in A Summer Day:
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is. I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass, how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields, which is what I have been doing all day.
I think it is very very dangerous for our future generations, those of us who believe that the world is not only necessary to us in its pristine state, but it is in itself an act of some kind of spiritual thing. I said once, and I think this is true, the world did not have to be beautiful to work. But it is. What does that mean?
Despite being one of the most popular and garlanded of modern American poets (in 1984 her collection American Primitive won the Pulitzer Prize), Oliver has often not been taken seriously as a writer. But for me she was one of the best.
You do not have to be good. You do not have to walk on your knees for a hundred miles through the desert repenting. You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves. Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine. Meanwhile the world goes on. Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain are moving across the landscapes, over the prairies and the deep trees, the mountains and the rivers. Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air, are heading home again. Whoever you are, no matter how lonely, the world offers itself to your imagination, calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting over and over announcing your place in the family of things.
– Wild Geese
Who made the world? Who made the swan, and the black bear? Who made the grasshopper? This grasshopper, I mean— the one who has flung herself out of the grass, the one who is eating sugar out of my hand, who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down— who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes. Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face. Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away. I don’t know exactly what a prayer is. I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass, how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields, which is what I have been doing all day. Tell me, what else should I have done? Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon? Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?
– The Summer Day
When death comes like the hungry bear in autumn; when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse
to buy me, and snaps his purse shut; when death comes like the measle pox;
when death comes like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,
I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering: what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?
And therefore I look upon everything as a brotherhood and a sisterhood, and I look upon time as no more than an idea, and I consider eternity as another possibility,
and I think of each life as a flower, as common as a field daisy, and as singular,
and each name a comfortable music in the mouth tending as all music does, toward silence,
and each body a lion of courage, and something precious to the earth.
When it’s over, I want to say: all my life I was a bride married to amazement. I was a bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.
When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder if I have made of my life something particular, and real. I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened or full of argument.
I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.
Let’s sing for old December. Thea Gilmore’s 2009 album, Strange Communion – one of the best ‘Christmas’ albums ever – has been reissued this month in an expanded form. Christmas is in quote marks there because Strange Communion is not a conventional seasonal album, but one that raises a glass to all, ‘whoever you praise.’ The collection’s true inspiration is the conjunction of celebrations that mark this season
Raise a glass for these days And sing, sing, sing for old December
To mark this re-release, here’s a re-post of my original blog post from December 2009:
It seems to be a rich year for Christmas albums (and I am not
referring to the Dylan one). For jazz, Carla Bley has produced the
excellent Carla’s Christmas Carols, while the greatly-underrated Thea Gilmore has produced what may be, for me, the best non-jazz album of 2009: Strange Communion.
Actually, Christmas album is a bit misleading: this collection of
songs is redolent of all things wintry, the sense of short December
days, cold outside and warmth within. So Christmas is here, but more in
its pre-Christian pagan form.
The album contains 8 originals and 2 unusual covers: Yoko Ono’s
incandescent ‘Listen The Snow Is Falling’, which in Gilmore’s arrangment
really does conjure up that sense of muffled silence as snow falls, and
‘The St Stephens Day Murders’, a little known Elvis Costello song, that
sonically comes from the same place as the Pogues’ ‘Fairytale of New
York’ but which has lyrics that illuminate the mad hilarity and agony of
an English suburban family Christmas.
On the stunning opening track Thea, singing acapella, is joined by
the Sense Of Sound Choir on ”Sol Invictus’, that invokes the Roman sun
god, Sol Invictus
(‘Unconquered Sun’), whom the third century emperor Aurelian elevated
to one of the premier divinities of the Roman empire, inaugurating the
tradition of celebrating Sol on December 25.
Come the dark
Come the cold
Come the beating air
Chill the night
Will be dancing there
And rise up, rise up
Days stretching weary wings
Come the day
Come the dawn
Somewhere in the rain
Low my heart
Low my life
Come the day
Thief of the night
Lift his voice to sing
Now rise up, rise up
Low the tide
Low the light
Comes the sun again
Now rise up, rise up
Low the tide
Low the light
Comes the sun again
Elsewhere, Thea Gilmore’s lyrics invoke the old Yule or Yule-tide pagan winter festival, later absorbed into the Christian festival of Christmas. In pre-historic times, winter was a very difficult time for people in the northern latitudes: the growing season had ended and food stocks would br running low. As the life-giving sun sank lower in the sky each noon, people feared that it would eventually disappear and leave them in permanent darkness and cold. After the winter solstice, they would have reason to celebrate as they saw the sun rising and strengthening once more. Although many months of cold weather remained before spring, they could take heart that warmth and growth would return, so the concept of birth and rebirth became associated with the winter solstice. A slight elevation of the sun’s path would be noticeable just a few days after the solstice – perhaps by December 25, the date on which celebrations were often timed to occur. In AD 730, the English historian Bede gave December 25 as the first day of the pagan year and wrote that the Anglo-Saxons celebrated all night:
They began the year with December 25, the day some now
celebrate as Christmas; and the very night to which we attach special
sanctity they designated by the heathen term Mōdraniht, that is, the
mothers’ night — a name bestowed, I suspect, on account of the
ceremonies they performed while watching this night through
So this is far from being a sugary, American-style Christmas album in
the Christian tradition. Thea Gilmore has blended many different
traditions and cultural commentaries on winter darkness and rebirth. In
‘Midwinter Toast’ she sings:
I don’t believe in many things
But here’s my hymn to you all
‘Cold Coming’, inspired by TS Eliot’s ‘The Journey of the Magi’, the
story that began with ‘a heart upon the straw’ is pursued to our
‘streets paved with light’, its meaning ‘the old reunion of the rebel
with the fight’.
It was a cold coming
With stars upon the ground
And the sky was burning
And all the world was sound
It was a love beginning
A heart upon the straw
And the children were singing
Our Lord, our lord, our lord
Do you sing that song?
It was a cold coming
The streets were paved with light
You could hear the engines running
You could hear them all night long
It was a strange communion
His name raised up in lights
The old reunion
Of the rebel with the fight
Strange Communion does have a potential top ten Christmas single – ‘That’ll Be Christmas. The traditional Christmas staples – mulled wine, mistletoe – are here, but Gilmore cleverly crafts her words to take a swipe at Christmas while simultaneously celebrating it, which is probably how a lot of us feel about the whole thing.
This approach is captured, too, in Elvis Costello’s only Christmas
song , The St Stephen’s Day Murders, about the day after after
Christmas. Elvis wrote and recorded the song for a Chieftains album in
1991. The lyric is a perfect portrayal of family life in the aftermath
of Christmas. He is remembering , perhaps , extended family gatherings
in his Anglo-Irish Liverpool-London childhood:
The good will that lasts till the Feast of St. Stephen
For that is the time to eat, drink and be merry
Till the beer is all spilled and the whiskey has flowed
And the whole family tree you neglected to bury
Are feeding their faces until they explode
There’ll be laughter and tears over Tia Marias Mixed up with that drink made from girders Cause it’s all we’ve got left as they draw their last breath Ah, it’s nice for the kids as you finally get rid of them In the St. Stephen’s Day Murders
Aside from ‘Sol Invictus’, the most beautiful song on the album is ‘Drunken Angel’, which could have appeared on any Gilmore album and could be listened to in July, even though it is drenched in mid-winter imagery. It is a song of affirmation and faith in beauty, feelings and renewal:
Winter tells its truth to anyone who will listen
It will whisper to you slowly when the light is low…
There are some things broken and some things to hold tight
To the few brave birds of the season who are sky-writing
Shine your light…
Now is the time that I will raise my eyes and be honest
And look out across the plain of another tired and reckless year
Give thanks for the love and wonder that was hurled upon us…
A drunken angel danced into my heart
Singing lonely days and a brand-new start
You can hear the howl of wings You can feel it when the wine is flowing The tired and the lonely lay down their weary heads And, baby, sometimes the beauty in this world Comes from just not knowing Feeling instead
The album has been picking up glowing reviews everywhere. The Independent carried an insightful review this week, which included these comments:Gilmore opens the album with ‘Sol Invictus’, a pagan hymn to winter solstice, sung a cappella with the Sense of Sound Choir, before offering ‘Thea Gilmore’s Midwinter Toast’ in agnostic manner. “I don’t believe in many things, but here’s my hymn to you all”, she admits, facing the uneasy prospect of the new year with hope but no illusions. T S Eliot’s ‘The Journey of the Magi’ provides the opening image to ‘Cold Coming’, Gilmore’s folk-rock rallying-cry celebrating Jesus as outlaw revolutionary, “the old reunion of the rebel with the fight”, and finding an even colder coming in “the ringing of the till” […] Winter tells its truth to anyone who’ll listen It will whisper to you slowly when the light is low.
Lest her Christmas slip too far towards the cautionary and sober-sided, Gilmore offers her own unabashed attempt at a Christmas single with ‘That’ll be Christmas’ – and makes a better fist of it than most, mingling sharp coinages like “faith, hope and gluttony” with unusually fresh, evocative images over a rolling pop groove streaked with slide guitar. This album’s “Fairytale of New York”, meanwhile, is not so much her melancholy separation song ‘December in New York’, as the celtic-flavoured duet ‘St. Stephen’s Day Murders’, an obscure Elvis Costello oddity on which DJ Mark Radcliffe plays the Shane MacGowan part, brusquely sharing anticipation of “laughter and tears over Tia Marias”. But it’s another obscure cover, of Yoko Ono’s ‘Listen, the Snow is Falling’, which provides the album’s most magical moment, Gilmore’s delivery a hushed murmur over a shimmering synth-pad sparsely illuminated by the occasional chime.
Elsewhere, ‘Old December’ is another non-denominational celebration of the season – “whoever you praise, raise a glass to these days” – while acoustic guitar and an intimate shiver of strings lends an Astral Weeks ambience to the lovely ‘Drunken Angel’, which carries much the same message in more evocative language, promising that
Winter tells its truth to anyone who’ll listen It will whisper to you slowly when the light is low.
Journey of the Magi by T.S. Eliot
A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.
And the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times when we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
And running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities dirty and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.
Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wineskins.
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arrived at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you may say) satisfactory.
All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.
In the summer of 1983 we were holed up in a cottage in the rolling Shropshire hills just outside Clun. Walking along a woodland track one evening, we encountered a badger, a meeting so rare and magical that the memory of it – the subject of an earlier post on this blog – has remained to this day. Last weekend, back in the same neck of the woods, we had another remarkable encounter – this time with a fox.
Meeting a fox is not that unusual, whether in town or country. But the circumstances of this encounter were strange. We were driving out of Clun along the A488 when we noticed the fox ambling along the grassy margin at the side of the busy road. We slowed, then stopped, and the fox, possibly a young female, paused too, inquisitive about us and showing no fear of the car. She looked in superb condition, a very fine animal with black-tipped ears and elegant charcoal shading to her white-tipped brush.
For several minutes we watched entranced while she, too, stared back at us.
a fox in her fox-fur stepping across the grass in her black gloves
It was only when our dog stood up in the back seat and peered at her through the window that the vixen turned tail and disappeared through the hedge.
It isn’t unusual to see a fox during daylight hours. They often hunt for food in the daytime, especially when they’re feeding a litter of hungry cubs – another factor making it likely that our fox was a female.
There was a further twist to this story. Two hours later we returned along the A488 and, at the same spot, saw the fox again – this time on the opposite side of the road. Strange coincidence!
Seeing a wild animal so closely and long enough to study her every detail made for a priceless moment; but, on a busy A road, also provoked fears for her safety – as envisioned in Simon Armitage’s poem, ‘The Fox’:
Standing its ground on the hill, as if it could hide in its own stars, low down in the west of the sky. I could hit it from here with a stone, put the torch in the far back of its eyes. It’s that close.
The next night, the dustbin sacked, the bin-bag quartered for dog meat, biscuit and bone.
The night after that, six magpies lifting from fox fur, smeared up ahead on the road.
Alice Oswald expresses the same sense of the animal’s vulnerablity in her poem, ‘Fox’, giving voice to her midnight food-seeking vixen: ‘my life/is laid beneath my children/like gold leaf.’
I heard a cough as if a thief was there outside my sleep a sharp intake of air
a fox in her fox-fur stepping across the grass in her black gloves barked at my house
just so abrupt and odd the way she went hungrily asking in the heart’s thick accent
in such serious sleepless trespass she came a woman with a man’s voice but no name
as if to say: it’s midnight and my life is laid beneath my children like gold leaf
Wilfred Owen died on 4 November 1918 – seven days before the guns fell silent. Yesterday the centenary of his death was marked in the village where he died by a ceremony in which the Last Post was played on a bugle Owen took from a German soldier killed during the battle to cross the nearby Sambre-Oise.
This is a repost of the account of my visit in 2014 to the place where Owen spent his last hours.
Owen was killed on 4 November 1918, on the Sambre Canal which passes through Ors, a village in a wooded valley some twenty miles to the east of Peronne and the Somme river. Owen and his platoon had spent the previous night in the cellar of a Forester’s House in the wood outside Ors. Owen is pretty much unknown in France, but I had read that the villagers, noticing that a great number of British visitors came looking for Owen’s grave and the exact spot where he had been killed, and asking to visit the cellar of the Forester’s house, had decided to turn the Forester’s House into a monument to the poet, commissioning the British artist Simon Patterson to turn the building into a place for reflection and meditation.
La Maison Forestiere as it appeared before Simon Patterson’s intervention
The house, originally slate-roofed and of red brick with grey shutters, stands on a main road into the nearby town of Le Cateau-Camresis. Patterson decided to preserve the exterior of the house, but to remove the roof and gut the interior. The roof was replaced by a structure that appears normal when viewed from the road, but from other angles takes the form of an open book, with spine uppermost, the ‘pages’ constructed out of glass to admit maximum daylight into the interior.
Most dramatically, Patterson had the entire building rendered in brilliant white, giving it the appearance of a solid sculptural object, and making the house stand out like ‘bleached bone’ (Patterson’s words) against the dark forest beyond. You are reminded, too, of the rows of white gravestones in a British war cemetery.
The brick-lined cellar where Owen and his platoon spent their last night remains untouched, but the interior of the house has been gutted, leaving an open white space, lit from above, and the walls clad with translucent glass onto which are etched drafts of Owen’s poems.
Simon Patterson’s newly-realised Forester’s House
Once I learned of this place I was keen to visit. But I was disappointed to discover that on the day that I would be at Ors, the Forester’s House would be closed. However, the tourist office website indicated that it was sometimes opened at other times for group visits. I emailed to ask whether a group would be visiting on the afternoon I passed by, and whether I could tag along. To my surprise, I received a reply offering to open the House just for me.
I arrived at the agreed time, and was met by a guide from the tourist office at Le Cateau-Cambresis who first of all took me down the steps into the cellar, which remains untouched and is accessed by a curved ramp, alongside which runs the text of Owen’s last letter home to his mother.
Entering the cellar, you are struck by how crowded it must have been that night when 29 soldiers were holed up here, smoking like chimneys. As you begin to absorb the surrounding a recording begins of Kenneth Branagh reading Owen’s last letter to his mother. It is observant, amusing – and deeply moving.
Owen’s letter was designed to reassure his mother, saying nothing about the impending attack, but instead poking fun at his comrades (‘So thick is the smoke in this cellar that I can hardly see by a candle 12 ins. away, and so thick are the inmates that I can hardly write for pokes, nudges & jolts’) and offering witty pen-portraits of the men (‘a band of friends’) crammed into the small space around him:
To Susan Owen
Thurs. 31 October  6:15 p.m.
[2nd Manchester Regt.]
I will call the place from which I’m now writing ‘The Smoky Cellar of the Forester’s House’. I write on the first sheet of the writing pad which came in the parcel yesterday. Luckily the parcel was small, as it reached me just before we moved off to the line. Thus only the paraffin was unwelcome in my pack. My servant & I ate the chocolate in the cold middle of last night, crouched under a draughty Tamboo, roofed with planks. I husband the Malted Milk for tonight, & tomorrow night. The handkerchief & socks are most opportune, as the ground is marshy, & I have a slight cold!
So thick is the smoke in this cellar that I can hardly see by a candle 12 ins. away, and so thick are the inmates that I can hardly write for pokes, nudges & jolts. On my left the Company Commander snores on a bench: other officers repose on wire beds behind me. At my right hand, Kellett, a delightful servant of A Company in The Old Days radiates joy & contentment from pink cheeks and baby eyes. He laughs with a signaller, to whose left ear is glued the Receiver; but whose eyes rolling with gaiety show that he is listening with his right ear to a merry corporal, who appears at this distance away (some three feet) nothing [but] a gleam of white teeth & a wheeze of jokes.
Splashing my hand, an old soldier with a walrus moustache peels & drops potatoes into the pot. By him, Keyes, my cook, chops wood; another feeds the smoke with the damp wood.
It is a great life. I am more oblivious than alas! yourself, dear Mother, of the ghastly glimmering of the guns outside, & the hollow crashing of the shells.
There is no danger down here, or if any, it will be well over before you read these lines.
I hope you are as warm as I am; as serene in your room as I am here; and that you think of me never in bed as resignedly as I think of you always in bed. Of this I am certain you could not be visited by a band of friends half so fine as surround me here.
Ever Wilfred x
Owen’s last letter
From the cellar, my guide led me into the main house where you enter a large, empty space with no photographs or war memorabilia – just Owen’s handwritten draft of ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’ reproduced along the walls. The lighting is dimmed and the words of Owen’s ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’ in the poet’s own handwriting is projected onto the facing wall as Kenneth Branagh reads the poem.
The interior of the Forester’s House (photo: Zoe Dawes, www.thequirkytraveller.com)
As a teenager, overwhelmed by the power of ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’, I would never have imagined that one day I would be here, in the place where Owen spent his last hours.
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks, Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge, Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs, And towards our distant rest began to trudge. Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots, But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind; Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.
Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time, But someone still was yelling out and stumbling And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime.— Dim through the misty panes and thick green light, As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams before my helpless sight, He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace Behind the wagon that we flung him in, And watch the white eyes writhing in his face, His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin; If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs, Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,— My friend, you would not tell with such high zest To children ardent for some desperate glory, The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est Pro patria mori.
The Sambre-Oise canal where Owen and his companions died
Shaking hands with my helpful guide, I left for the place where Owen and his companions met their fate, on the banks of the Sambre-Oise canal just outside the village of Ors. The operation planned for 4 November 1918 seems almost suicidal. In order to cross the canal, the British soldiers had to install a floating bridge under fire from the German machine-guns positioned on the opposite bank.
At 05:45 on 4 November, Owen’s battalion went into action. Accompanying them were men of the Royal Engineers whose task was to assemble, on the canal bank, the sections of the prefabricated floating bridge. The operation had barely started before it was over. A few men managed to cross the canal, but the bridge was destroyed. Hopelessly exposed, a great number of the British soldiers fell under German machine-gun fire. Among them was Wilfred Owen. Futility?
He was twenty-five years old, had published four poems and had written a hundred other unpublished texts half of which had been produced between 1916 and 1918. Two days later, on 8 November, Owen was awarded the Military Cross for his exemplary conduct in an earlier action. On the same day, he was buried in the small square reserved for British military graves in Ors village cemetery. The war ended three days later, and in Shrewsbury, on 11 November, as the bells rang to celebrate the Armistice, Owens’ parents were handed the telegram that all parents feared receiving.
Wilfred Owen’s grave in Ors Communal Cemetery
From the canal, I went to the communal cemetery in the village of Ors, where Owen is buried, along with his companions who also died in the doomed action on the canal. While I stood there, the last line of another of Owen’s great poems came to mind: ‘Let us sleep now …’. ‘Strange Meeting’ was written in the spring or early summer of 1918. Siegfried Sassoon thought it Owen’s passport to immortality:
It seemed that out of battle I escaped Down some profound dull tunnel, long since scooped Through granites which titanic wars had groined.
Yet also there encumbered sleepers groaned, Too fast in thought or death to be bestirred. Then, as I probed them, one sprang up, and stared With piteous recognition in fixed eyes, Lifting distressful hands as if to bless. And by his smile, I knew that sullen hall By his dead smile I knew we stood in Hell.
With a thousand pains that vision’s face was grained; Yet no blood reached there from the upper ground, And no guns thumped, or down the flues made moan. “Strange friend,” I said, “here is no cause to mourn.” “None,” said that other, “save the undone years, The hopelessness. Whatever hope is yours, Was my life also; I went hunting wild After the wildest beauty in the world, Which lies not calm in eyes, or braided hair, But mocks the steady running of the hour, And if it grieves, grieves richlier than here. For of my glee might many men have laughed And of my weeping something had been left, Which must die now. I mean the truth untold, The pity of war, the pity war distilled. Now men will go content with what we have spoiled, Or, discontent, boil bloody, and be spilled. They will be swift with the swiftness of the tigress. None will break ranks, though nations trek from progress. Courage was mine, and I had mystery, Wisdom was mine, and I had mastery: To miss the march of this retreating world Into vain citadels that are not walled. Then, when much blood had clogged their chariot-wheels, I would go up and wash them from sweet wells, Even with truths that lie too deep for taint. I would have poured my spirit without stint But not through wounds; not on the cess of war. Foreheads of men have bled where no wounds were.
I am the enemy you killed, my friend. I knew you in this dark: for so you frowned Yesterday through me as you jabbed and killed. I parried; but my hands were loath and cold. Let us sleep now . . . .”
In his lifetime Owen published only four poems. It was after the war, championed by the poets Siegfried Sassoon and Edmund Blunden, that Owen would finally gain the recognition he deserved.
Ors Communal Cemetery
In The Ghost Road, Pat Barker’s novel which featured historical figures such as Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, alongside fictional characters like Billy Prior, she vividly imagines the disaster at the canal bank:
Bridges laid down, quickly, efficiently, no bunching at the crossings, just the clump of boots on wood, and then they emerged from beneath the shelter of the trees and out into the terrifying openness of the bank. As bare as an eyeball, no cover anywhere, and the machine-gunners on the other side were alive and well. They dropped down, firing to cover the sappers as they struggled to assemble the bridge, but nothing covered them. Bullets fell like rain, puckering the surface of the canal, and the men started to fall. Prior saw the man next to him, a silent, surprised face, no sound, as he twirled and fell, a slash of scarlet like a huge flower bursting open on his chest. Crawling forward, he fired at the bank opposite though he could hardly see it for the clouds of smoke that drifted across. The sappers were still struggling with the bridge, binding pontoon sections together with wire that sparked in their hands as bullets struck it. And still the terrible rain fell. Only two sappers left, and then the Manchesters took over the building of the bridge. Kirk paddled out in a crate to give covering fire, was hit, hit again, this time in the face, went on firing directly at the machine-gunners who crouched in their defended holes only a few yards away. Prior was about to start across the water with ammunition when he was himself hit, though it didn’t feel like a bullet, more like a blow from something big and hard, a truncheon or a cricket bat, only it knocked him off his feet and he fell, one arm trailing over the edge of the canal.
He tried to turn to crawl back beyond the drainage ditches, knowing it was only a matter of time before he was hit again, but the gas was thick here and he couldn’t reach his mask. Banal, simple, repetitive thoughts ran round and round his mind. Balls up. Bloody mad. Oh Christ. There was no pain, more a spreading numbness that left his brain clear. He saw Kirk die. He saw Owen die, his body lifted off the ground by bullets, describing a slow arc in the air as it fell. It seemed to take for ever to fall, and Prior’s consciousness fluttered down with it. He gazed at his reflection in the water, which broke and reformed and broke again as bullets hit the surface and then, gradually, as the numbness spread, he ceased to see it.
On the edge of the canal the Manchesters lie, eyes still open, limbs not yet decently arranged, for the stretcher-bearers have departed with the last of the wounded, and the dead are left alone. The battle has withdrawn from them; the bridge they succeeded in building was destroyed by a single shell. Further down the canal another and more successful crossing is being attempted, but the cries and shouts come faintly here.
The sun has risen. The first shaft strikes the water and creeps towards them along the bank, discovering here the back of a hand, there the side of a neck, lending a rosy glow to skin from which the blood has fled, and then, finding nothing here that can respond to it, the shaft of light passes over them and begins to probe the distant fields.
Doomed youth: Wilfred Owen’s regiment
What passing-bells for these who die as cattle? Only the monstrous anger of the guns. Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle Can patter out their hasty orisons. No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells, Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs, – The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells; And bugles calling for them from sad shires.
What candles may be held to speed them all? Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes Shall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes. The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall; Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds, And each slow dusk a drawing down of blinds.
In his new biography of Owen, published this year, Guy Cuthbertson offers this assessment of the poet:
Wilfred Owen remains contradictory: not quite a pacifist, he even hated ‘washy pacifists’; he wrote ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’ but he also wanted chivalry; he was the eternal boy who was a grown-up voice in an infantile war; he loved home but was eager to escape it; he was a Christian of a kind, who disliked the Church; conservative and radical, normal and abnormal; the snobbish supporter of the downtrodden; the poet of modernity who was in love with the past; the realist and romantic; he was an innovative and traditional writer who was devoted to poetry and wrote, in the preface to his poems, ‘Above all I am not concerned with Poetry’; he longed for friendship and solitude; he fought gallantly, and urged his men to fight bravely, in a war he had been reluctant to join and then came to oppose bitterly. This is another part of why the man and his poems are so popular – he can appeal to everyone, and remains intriguing.
It’s a curious thing, but just as I was entering the time of sleep lost after the arrival of the new pup, I began listening to the new release on the ECM label from the Tarkovsky Quartet. Not only was the album entitled Nuit blanche (‘sleepless night’ this side of the Channel), it also featured a dog on the cover. Not only that, the quartet, founded some years ago by the French pianist François Couturier and consisting of cellist Anja Lechner, soprano saxophonist Jean-Marc Larché and accordionist Jean-Louis Matinier takes its name from the Russian film director whose greatest works include Stalker – which was itself the subject of Zona, a brilliant meandering, meditative book by Geoff Dyer, a bunch of whose books were all that I could focus on in the indolent, zoned-out state in which I found myself. In situations like this you can’t help asking, ‘What’s going on?’ Continue reading “Backtracking: jazz encounters in the room of dreams”→
Behind the counter at the newsagent, Jamal looked a little worse for wear: ‘I didn’t get much sleep last night,’ he said, explaining that the start of Ramadan always tended to knock his body rhythms for six. He’d got to bed late after evening prayers, and couldn’t sleep. Knowing he would have to be up at 3am to eat before morning prayers, he’d finally abandoned all thought of sleep. We went on to have an interesting conversation.
Jamal is a scouser whose Yemeni father would once deliver the newspaper right to our door. He says he’s grateful that his mixed ancestry has gifted him with two countries where he feels at home. He says he’s travelled to many countries and what he has found is that people are pretty much the same everywhere. He says all of us, whatever our faith – Muslim or Jew, Christian or Hindu – are taught by our religion that it is right to feed a stranger or look out for a neighbour. But now he is troubled: his Yemeni homeland is being torn apart in a war between Sunni and Shi’ite. His Muslim identity is being fractured. And anyway, there is more to him than just being Muslim. He is English and proud of it; he is Yemeni and proud of that too; he is Liverpudlian and proud of it; he is European and proud of that too. He is moved to tears by the Manchester bombing – but also by the ISIS bomb that killed 15 and wounded dozens last night as Muslim families in Baghdad broke their Ramadan fast at an ice cream shop.