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‘Sae fare weel, ye banks o’ Sicily’

Jeff Cloves examines some recent poetry books.

It may surprise you to learn, dear readers, that I try to avoid writing too often about books here. Trouble is, kind people keep sending me them because they think they’ll interest me. Invariably they do. Take, for example, the collection of poems by John Lucas published in 2010 by the estimable Five Leaves Publications whose books often get a mention here.

Things to Say (£7.99) is a wide-ranging substantial body of work by an established poet of reputation and clout and is divided into three sections: Past and Present, In the Wars, Thorny Matters. These are accurate descriptions and it becomes immediately obvious the poems are written by a man of my age with some shared experiences and affections to call on: jazz, sport, parents and friends, among them.

I was a child during the Second World War and am increasingly haunted by my memories of it, so I was immediately drawn to “In the Wars” and therein discovered this powerful meditation on John Lucas’ experience of what came to be known as The Home Front.

“June 1942” is preceded by this quotation from the American poet Theodore Roethke: “How graceful the small before danger”. It’s a sentiment I desperately want to be true and which is demonstrated in this marvellous poem. In it, the poet tells of a mother (his own?) who wakes “in a rented house” to hear approaching bombers about to raid. What to do? What do mothers in Afghanistan do in the face of drone bombers? This mother decides to put on her best dress, wear her “loved jewels” and be “beautified”:

    ....Of course she doesn’t think that what
      she’s done

    might shield her children, knowing no
     plea of hers
    could be of any use, and in extreme
    age confesses to her ageing son that why
    she chose that action haunts her like a
        dream

    she’s never understood; and yet “what else
    was I to do”, she claims, making the case
    for all who offer nothing against violence
    but instinct of a pure, unsaving grace.

By the time she’s transformed herself “the bomber’s moon” has directed them elsewhere and her pure instinct has calmed her perhaps in the face of terror. It has often seemed to me that, for some people, the Second World War was the time of their time. The continual imminence of death perhaps gave them a heightened sense of reality and, ultimately, survival.

This is evident in another book I’m reading, Hamish Henderson: Volume 1. The making of the poet 1919-1953 (Polygon 2009; £14.99). It’s the biography of this poet, songwriter, folklorist, scholar, translator, Scottish Nationalist and champion of spoken Scots, and he appears to be one so blessed. He wrote songs for his beloved Highland Division – amongst them the legendary tale of The D-Day Dodgers – and his wartime letters and journals exhibit an undeniable relish. He identified absolutely with the “the poor bleeding infantry” but he was a tall, charismatic, charmed and charming officer himself, and he had what was known – in the chilling terminology of those times – as “a good war”. I fancy by the time I read to the end of his war I’ll discover he found peacetime something of an anti-climax. If I can bring myself to read it, volume 2 will tell.

So what do these two books tell us in their separate ways? What we all know: that the time to oppose wars is before they start. Once they do, we small pacifists are simply pissing into the wind. Hamish Henderson had a vocation to save Europe from the fascists and bring back a Highland Division committed to the Scottish breakaway. He believed in the just war, fought it gladly, and found time to exhaustively chronicle every thing that happened to him and his braw Scots.

I find his notebook entries and poems are an exhausting read. He’s at his considerable best when he wrote to stiffen the sinews of the Highland Division and these songs are very moving. John Lucas’ account of the mother’s private and personal gesture is too, and thus the Home Front in blitzed Britain and the Second Front in devastated Italy meet in a philosophical no man’s land to express the eternal suffering of war.

    Look around the mountains,
    In the mud and rain.
    You’ll find the scattered crosses
    (There’s some which have no name).
    Heartbreak and toil and suffering gone,
    The boys beneath them slumber on.
    Those are the D-Day Dodgers who’ll
        stay in Italy.
        (tune: Lily Marlene)

Topics: Culture