Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Wednesday 2 March 2016

"Memorandum" by Vanessa Gebbie (Cultured Llama Publishing, 2016)

In the author's story collection "Storm Warning" war had already become a theme. Her novel, "The Coward's Tale", took the theme further. Then there was "The Half-life of Fathers", a poetry pamphlet where about half of the pieces concerned war veterans and war. Some of that pamphlet's poems were about her father(s), and appear here too. The poems in this, her first full collection, have a different emphasis with fewer psychological scars on show. The book's in 3 sections - "London Memorials", "Other Memorials" and "Western Front Battlefields" - places initially, rather than people. The poems mostly concern the 1st World War, a war which has lost its eye witnesses. The young of today get the 1st and 2nd World Wars mixed up, which isn't surprising - I only heard of my family's 1st World War exploits via those who'd only lived through the 2nd, and memorials are often shared. Interest in WW2 has helped sustain interest in WW1. Those of us who empty parents' lofts are likely to find some echoes of both those wars. I've uncovered several surprises recently, which I've included here, so this will be as much personal essay as review.

Appreciation of these poems may be enhanced by visits to the locations. I've visited few of them though I've been to Gallipoli, Bayeaux and the American Cemetery at Madingley, Cambridge (over 3800 graves). They all have an impact. On a lesser physical scale, I pass Trumpington War memorial each day. It's engraved by Eric Gill (of Gill Sans font fame) with 8 names added by David Kindersley. It's still well maintained. And I've seen the Cenotaph, subject of the shaped poem that begins the book. Reading the poems before visiting the location in many cases will enhance the visit, encouraging you to seek out detail.

At the end of the book she writes "My father was awarded the Military Cross for Gallantry in the Field after devising and carrying out a diversionary tactic in northern Italy". To my wife's North-Italian family, the World Wars involved occupation and subterfuge. Here's my father-in-law's brother's paperwork. My mother-in-law, brought up on a farm, used to feed the rebels hiding in the woods. My English father's older brother was just old enough to have served in the 2nd world war. Over the sideboard he had a piece of shrapnel framed. I'd assumed that shrapnel was like splinters, but this piece was the size of blackboard chalk. It was why he had to return early from the continent. Maybe it saved him. Maybe that's why he framed it. My uncle Don returned from Malta with a wife.

This book is from the British viewpoint, using anecdotes to bring characters back to life. There's no sentimentality, though some of the poems have personal details. In "Remembrance, Sunday", the narrator's father prepares for leading the parade and speaking into a microphone. But ironically his memory isn't what it was. In "Stages of remembrance" the narrator's father loses a tooth on the beach, then makes sandcastles with his grandchild, digging trenches together. In the final stanza we read simply that "My father is gone". Narrator and son find shrapnel in a field, then a tooth which they re-bury. Before the tooth fairy, teeth were often buried, though only dragon's teeth grew into soldiers.

As well as sentimentality, another trap that's avoided is imitating the War Poets. There are some allusions to them in this book, but no end-rhyming. In "Edmund Blunden at Thiepval, 2014" old and new combine - "I imagine you ... shading your eyes to scan the earth for shadows. ... What is left of an art installation, The Lost Men [of?] France, trails flag-like over your head, intended to resemble skin impressed with names". p.44-46 concern the exhumation of Issac Rosenberg - "I expected to see evidence of/ lyricism, something different/ from the rest,/ the earth stained dark round the bone".

This postcard's from my uncle to my mother. There's simple, telling detail throughout the book - some no doubt the result of research (a trip to Normandy), others just the result of keeping one's eyes open. p.23 has a footnote over 5 lines long. At other times the information's merged seamlessly into the poem - "where the Council paid/ for everything, even/ an extra coffin for all/ the unidentified fragments" (p.8).

Some people could make the most of what war-time offered. In this photo my grandfather (one of the girls) and fellow soldiers are in fancy dress. When I visited Littleport (an East Anglian town in the middle of nowhere) recently, I was surprised to discover that they'd suffered a Zeppelin raid. There's a note about what happened nearby, on 11th Aug, 1916 - "‘this way to Zeppelin pits, admission 3d’ said town constable at gate field – enormous queue – farmer’s wife sat at table counting money & in centre top explosive bomb; pub closed as beer all drunk. Guided through trampled potato parch to field of oats & pit just deep enough for children to play hide & seek. 20 yards further on another. One cow struck by fragments of metal & needed vet". But any little village will have some memorial, Roll of Honour, or plaque, showing a more sombre side to the period. Several little-known monuments are listed in this book. Many more are covered by poems with dedications "Battlefields of the Somme" and "Memorials in neglected corners of municipal parks".

A memorial rarely conveys narratives. This book contains some plots; set-ups to prepare a twist -

  • "Blindfold" commences with "He still knows his locomotives/ by their sounds, their pitch// and hiss" then at the end "He regains some calm, and that frantic// whistle becomes not the order to go/ over, just the kettle ready to// make him a nice cup of tea"
  • On p.26, the initial detail might describe warfare - "Jambles really went for it./ Crept up low -/ cover my back -/ spray them left and right", but the poem's title, "Graffiti", provides a hint about the true nature of the later "siren wails and shouts".
  • In "Playing trains", Maurice, who as a kid pretended to be a guard at the train station, became a soldier, returning by train in a coffin, "An unscheduled stop".
  • p.14 imagines time going backwards, the shell unexploding, returned to the factory and emptied.
  • "Mosses" uses the first person viewpoint of mosses, first growing in the same moist atmosphere where the soldiers were raised, then in the battlefields, used as dressings for wounds, then creeping over neglected memorials.
  • In "The moths", "Rustics and Coronets, Footmen, Drinkers and Ghosts" (all type of moth, and of men) assemble for night action
  • In "Butterflies", a newly emerged insect is "Reluctant to fly/ in case flight was as final/ as going over the top". In another poem, "Lepidoptery, battlefield historian", "He pins us, dazed, to this terrain,/ presses our spines into clay,/ spreadeagles our wings into earth-flight ... We are their crowns, their lips, their tongues".
  • The prelude to "Against regulations" is for Anna Durie who, after WW1, took her son's body home to Canada in a suitcase, which makes the subsequent poem rather an anti-climax.
  • In "Unknowns", "The unknowns leave with you ... They just want to remember what living was like ... And when you are troubled, they are there at your shoulder, holding you strong" - the dead and living providing mutual support.
  • In "Cell memory" the narrator goes to the wood where their grandfather lost his boyhood, hoping to make ink from oak-tree galls. But there's no need for the chemistry experiment - the memory is stimulus enough for writing. The poem ends "How could fear not rise/ from his roots/ for the rest of his life,/ make of him a gall?."

A potential difficulty when dealing with such subject matter is eclipsing content with language that draws attention to itself, or is overly-cryptic (though given the censorship of soldiers' mail, such use might well be justified). p.13 is in 2 voices. p.21 and p.46 are found poems. "Wimy Ridge, early spring" is nearly word-palindromic. On p.50 there's a Sapphic ode. All of these add to the variety for me, rather than detracting from the content. I wasn't keen on p.47 (about whether a Welsh tunneller missed the evening light and sweet air) only because of the too-obvious contrast, and lack of twist. I think I most liked "The passing of Ezekiel Parkes" and "David Bary - poem for seven voices".

A final risk with writing war poems is appearing to over-emote about people you never knew, displaying the expected, dutiful emotion. These poems side-step that too. In a way they're memorials themselves; austere yet accessible, letting the reader supply their own emotions.

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