What appeals to me about this piece by the Australian poet John Manifold (1915-1985) is partly the enchanting lilt of its movement and partly its quality of wistful innocence – meaning no disrespect to our armed forces, but that’s perhaps not the first thing one would look for in a poem about a bunch of squaddies marching past a pretty young girl.
(6/8) for Sixth Platoon, 308th ITC
One morning in spring
We marched from Devizes
All shapes and all sizes
Like beads on a string,
But yet with a swing
We trod the bluemetal
And full of high fettle
We started to sing.
She ran down the stair
A twelve-year-old darling
And laughing and calling
She tossed her bright hair;
Then silent to stare
At the men flowing past her –
There were all she could master
Adoring her there.
It’s seldom I’ll see
A sweeter or prettier;
I doubt we’ll forget her
In two years or three.
And lucky he’ll be
She takes for a lover
While we are far over
The treacherous sea.
Another one from Welsh poet and doctor Dannie Abse (1923-2014), written, I assume from the Vietnam reference, in the late sixties or early seventies. The theme is a common enough one in literature – that haunting sense of the other place, once known or dreamed of, that one can never quite get back to or come to: Alain-Fourner’s lost domain, H.G.Wells and his door in the wall, Edwin Muir’s childhood Eden, the unscheduled railway halt of Robert Graves’s poem ‘The Next Time’.
That old country I once said I’d visit
when older. Can no one tell me its name?
Odd, to have forgotten what it is called.
I would recognise the name if I heard it.
So many times I have searched the atlas
With a prowling convex lens – to no avail.
I know the geography of the great world
has changed; the war, the peace, the deletions
of places – red pieces gone forever
,and names of countries altered forever:
Gold Coast Ghana, Persia become Iran,
Siam Thailand, and hell now Vietnam.
People deleted. Must I sleep again to reach it,
to find the back door opening to a field,
A barking of dogs, and a path that leads back?
One night in pain, the dead middle of night,
will I awake again, know who I am,
the man from somewhere else, and the place’s name?
No doubt we all have our favourite Seamus Heaney collections (and while ‘Collected Poems’ are very satisfying and serviceable, is there not an excitement that a ‘Collected’ can never quite replace about reading a poet’s collections as they come out?). For me, it has to be ‘Field Work’, which I think shows the poet in his prime, in full relish of his mastery. This week’s choice is a relatively simple lyric from that collection, compared with some of the complex and demanding (but very satisfying) poems that it contains. I have to say that I’m not too sure about the image in the first line. It seems to me that a girl would need to be wearing an awful lot of lipstick in a lot of unusual places to look anything like the berry-laden rowan trees I’ve seen. But I do like the second stanza. Appropriately for an Irish poem, the last line echoes the answer given by the legendary hero Fionn mac Cumhaill, who when asked what he thought was the best music of all said ‘The music of what happens’.
A rowan like a lipsticked girl.
Between the by-road and the main road
Alder trees at a wet and dripping distance
Stand off among the rushes.
There are the mud-flowers of dialect
And the immortelles of perfect pitch
And that moment when the bird sings very close
To the music of what happens.
Another of Randall Jarrell’s war poems, an unillusioned view of military life superbly clinched by its final couplet.
For wars his life and half a world away
The soldier sells his family and days.
He learns to fight for freedom and the State;
He sleeps with seven men within six feet.
He picks up matches and he cleans out plates,
Is lied to like a child, cursed like a beast.
They crop his head, his dog tags ring like sheep
As his stiff limbs shift wearily to sleep.
Recalled in dreams or letters, else forgot,
His life is smothered like a grave, with dirt;
And his dull torment mottles like a fly’s
The lying amber of the histories.