Wednesday, 22 June 2016

Genesis of a poem

Today is the centenary of the Red Dragon blow, in Givenchy, Pas de Calais. A visit to the spot and many others in 2011, in the company of military historian and battlefield guide, Jeremy Banning, sparked not just the draft of a novel, but poetry.
       Perhaps it might be of interest to see the story behind a poem? So here, tweeted this morning by Jeremy, and with his permission, is the story of William Hackett and Thomas Collins. Then, my thinking, and finally, my poem.

I found it impossible to stand and look at that field without feeling that time is wobbling,  folding in on itself, and that those men are somehow there below ground, and not there, at the same time. See the field after harvest, after ploughing, and there is an almost imperceptible depression in the furrows.     Below that, all those layers down, the space where a hugely brave man sacrificed himself for a fellow tunneller. On both sides of my family in south Wales not that long ago, there were miners. Maybe there is something echoing down the years?

But how to respond to this particular place in poetry, when I was working on a collection of poems responding to WW1 memorials and places? Maybe my background as a writer of prose, stories, allows me to imagine, try to share for a second the horror those men would surely have experienced, the fear, the pain, the hope, then the despair when they realised that rescue efforts had stopped? But then what? What words would be good enough? I didn't write for some time. For a couple of years at least.

My grandmothers, both of them from Merthyr Tydfil, lived in two of the many rows of terraced houses that cling to the valley sides. They both had great pride in their back gardens, little patches of dark soil. One grew produce, fruit trees along an old brick wall, and in the borders there were shallots, herbs, potatoes  - the other had a rose or two, a straggle of flowers, a tiny lawn. An apple tree. What would I do if I knew time was short, and I was entombed underground? If I knew I was close to death. If all was dark, no light anywhere?

I had the poem.

So this is for both men, but in particular for Thomas Collins from Swansea. Who got no awards, but died in the most awful way in his efforts to do his bit. And whose injuries led to William Hackett's extraordinary, extraordinary comradeship and bravery, for which he was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross. Here's to them both.

To a Welsh tunneller killed in 1916 in France, whose body still lies 40 ft below ground
Did you prefer your garden wild, 
all edges softened, scented? Did grasses 
seed for you 
in the evening light, and 
Spanish daisies dance 
                                    down the old brick step? 
Did shallots wait in untidy rows, with 
chives and parsley frills and leeks, and 
on your two apple trees, did russets grow?

Was all stone mellow, 
none bright, and in the ivy 
were dunnocks nesting year on year, 
and robins too, wood pigeons in the ash?

Everywhere was light, everywhere 
the kindest shadow,
and when it rained 
at night
did you stand at your open window,
                       the sweet air on your skin,
and listen
to the small sounds, 
                                as though

you could hear the whole world, greening?

From Memorandum, poems for the fallen. Published Feb 2016 by Cultured Llama.

1 comment:

  1. A very moving poem. I recently read Birdsong (Sebastian Faulks) coinciding with the anniversary of the Somme, and it ends with a scene much like the story you relate here, with tunnellers trapped underground by an explosion, it is very graphic and utterly terrifying. Sometimes I am grateful that I am unable to imagine such horror.