Week 291: Walking Wounded, by Vernon Scannell

This piece by the colourful Vernon Scannell (1922-2007), based on a personal experience of the poet in Normandy where he served with the Gordon Highlanders, is perhaps one of the more memorable poems to come out of the Second World War, the compassionate eloquence of its conclusion underpinned by the realism of the preceding detail. 

The Walking Wounded

A mammoth morning moved grey flanks and groaned.
In the rusty hedges pale rags of mist hung;
The gruel of mud and leaves in the mauled lane
Smelled sweet, like blood. Birds had died or flown
Their green and silent antics sprouting now
With branches of leafed steel, hiding round eyes
And ripe grenades ready to drop and burst.
In the ditch at the cross-roads the fallen rider lay
Hugging his dead machine and did not stir
At crunch of mortar, tantrum of a Bren
Answering a Spandau’s manic jabber.
Then into sight the ambulances came,
Stumbling and churning past the broken farm,
The amputated sign-post and smashed trees,
Slow waggonloads of bandaged cries, square trucks
That rolled on ominous wheels, vehicles
Made mythopoeic by their mortal freight
And crimson crosses on the dirty white.
This grave procession passed, though, for a while,
The grinding of their engines could be heard,
A dark noise on the pallor of the morning,
Dark as dried blood; and then it faded, died.
The road was empty, but it seemed to wait—
Like a stage that knows its cast is in the wings—
For a different traffic to appear.
The mist still hung in snags from dripping thorns;
Absent-minded guns still sighed and thumped,
And then they came, the walking wounded,
Straggling the road like convicts loosely chained,
Dragging at ankles exhaustion and despair.
Their heads were weighted down by last night’s lead,
And eyes still drank the dark. They trailed the night
Along the morning road. Some limped on sticks;
Others wore rough dressings, splints and slings;
A few had turbaned heads, the dirty cloth
Brown-badged with blood. A humble brotherhood,
Not one had suffered from a lethal hurt,
They were not magnified by noble wounds,
There was no splendor in that company.
And yet, remembering after eighteen years,
In the heart’s throat a sour sadness stirs;
Imagination pauses and returns
To see them walking still, but multiplied
In thousands now. And when heroic corpses
Turn slowly in their decorated sleep
And every ambulance has disappeared
The walking wounded still trudge down that lane,
And when recalled they must bear arms again.

Vernon Scannell


Week 290: To Norman Cameron 1905 – 1953, by James Reeves

Elegies tend to be sad by definition, but this one by James Reeves seems sadder than most in that it interweaves a lament for a dead poet friend with a lament for the drying up of his own poetic gift. At one point I thought that the ‘he’ referred to in the fourth stanza might be Robert Graves, who was friend to both Reeves and Cameron but had by this time long left England for Majorca, but I am now persuaded that it is simply a continuing reference to the river-god, as symbolising Reeves’s source of inspiration.

To Norman Cameron 1905 – 1953

I asked the river-god a song
Wherewith to mourn your fallen head.
No answer: but a low wind crept
About the stones of his dry bed.

The fingers of insomnia
Turning the pages of self-hate
Are like the incurious wind that stirred
The papery reeds on that estate.

In other days I knew the god
Who flashed and chuckled in the sun.
Where has he taken now his moods
Of shadow and his sense of fun?

The requiem I might have had
From him you would have understood
Just as you also understood
How hard a thing it is, though good,

To hold your peace and wait your time
When there is nothing to be said.
I know it now: I knew you both,
But he is gone, and you are dead.

Even the wind has stopped; no sound
In this dull air is born to live;
So I my desperate silences
To you my friend and poet give.

James Reeves

Week 289: Spraying The Potatoes, by Patrick Kavanagh

Another poem by the Irish poet Patrick Kavanagh whose work I delight in for its quirky originality and its wonderful inclusiveness.

Spraying The Potatoes

The barrels of blue potato-spray
Stood on a headland of July
Beside an orchard wall where roses
Were young girls hanging from the sky.

The flocks of green potato-stalks
Were blossom spread for sudden flight,
The Kerr’s Pinks in a frivelled blue,
The Arran Banners wearing white.

And over that potato-field
A hazy veil of woven sun.
Dandelions growing on headlands, showing
Their unloved hearts to everyone.

And I was there with the knapsack sprayer
On the barrel’s edge poised. A wasp was floating
Dead on a sunken briar leaf
Over a copper-poisoned ocean.

The axle-roll of a rut-locked cart
Broke the burnt stick of noon in two.
An old man came through a cornfield
Remembering his youth and some Ruth he knew.

He turned my way. ‘God further the work.’
He echoed an ancient farming prayer.
I thanked him. He eyed the potato-drills.
He said: ‘You are bound to have good ones there.’

We talked and our talk was a theme of kings,
A theme for strings. He hunkered down
In the shade of the orchard wall. O roses
The old man dies in the young girl’s frown.

And poet lost to potato-fields,
Remembering the lime and copper smell
Of the spraying barrels he is not lost
Or till blossomed stalks cannot weave a spell.

Patrick Kavanagh

Week 288: The Wife of Usher’s Well, by Anon

One of the great Child ballads, Child 79, shot through with a pagan wildness and superstition coexisting uneasily with its veneer of Christianity. The old woman of the title is no meek acceptor of God’s will but a powerful witch, able to curse the elements themselves, that have taken her sons from her, and give them no rest till those sons are returned to her. And so they are, but not ‘in earthly flesh and blood’ as she had wished, but as revenants still bound, like the ghost of Hamlet’s father, to Purgatory, and all her efforts to feast them and give them rest are doomed: one night is all they are allowed.

What has always struck me about these grim, spare poems is how, give or take a few strange words and spellings, they remain so alive and immediate for us, often more so than much of the poetry of later centuries.

carline wife = old woman
fashes = troubles
flood = sea
birk = birch
syke = gully, trench
sheugh = ditch, furrow
daw = dawn
channerin = grumbling, chiding
gin = if

The Wife of Usher’s Well

There lived a wife at Usher’s well,
And a wealthy wife was she;
She had three stout and stalwart sons,
And sent them o’er the sea.

They hadna been a week from her,
A week but barely ane,
When word came to the carline wife
That her three sons were gane.

They hadna been a week from her,
A week but barely three,
When word came to the carline wife
That her sons she’d never see.

‘I wish the wind may never cease,
Nor fashes in the flood,
Till my three sons come hame to me,
In earthly flesh and blood!’

It fell about the Martinmas,
When nights are lang and mirk,
The carline wife’s three sons came hame,
And their hats were o’ the birk.

It neither grew in syke nor ditch,
Nor yet in ony sheugh;
But at the gates o’ Paradise
That birk grew fair eneugh.

‘Blow up the fire, my maidens!
Bring water from the well!
For a’ my house shall feast this night,
Since my three sons are well.’

And she has made to them a bed,
She’s made it large and wide;
And she’s ta’en her mantle her about,
Sat down at the bedside.

Up then crew the red, red cock,
And up and crew the gray;
The eldest to the youngest said.
‘’Tis time we were away.’

The cock he hadna craw’d but once,
And clapp’d his wings at a’,
When the youngest to the eldest said,
‘Brother, we must awa’.

‘The cock doth craw, the day doth daw,
The channerin’ worm doth chide;
Gin we be miss’d out o’ our place,
A sair pain we maun bide.’

‘Lie still, lie still but a little wee while,
Lie still but if we may;
Gin my mother should miss us when she wakes,
She’ll go mad ere it be day.’

‘Fare ye weel, my mother dear!
Fareweel to barn and byre!
And fare ye weel, the bonny lass
That kindles my mother’s fire!’