This is one of several poems of wartime separation and loss written by the Welsh poet Alun Lewis (1915-1944), this one being unusual in that it is written from the woman’s point of view. The historical context is of course the Second World War but its message of grief is universal, and when I visited the beautiful Falklands Memorial Chapel at Pangbourne, not far from where I live, it was this poem that came strongly to my mind: there were enough in that conflict too who never came home again to wives or sweethearts.
(On seeing dead bodies floating off the Cape)
The first month of his absence
I was numb and sick
And where he’d left his promise
Life did not turn or kick.
The seed, the seed of love was sick.
The second month my eyes were sunk
In the darkness of despair,
And my bed was like a grave
And his ghost was lying there
And my heart was sick with care.
The third month of his going
I thought I heard him say
‘Our course deflected slightly
On the thirty-second day – ’
The tempest blew his words away.
And he was lost among the waves,
His ship rolled helpless in the sea,
The fourth month of his voyage
He shouted grievously
‘Beloved, do not think of me.’
The flying fish like kingfishers
Skim the sea’s bewildered crests,
The whales blow steaming fountains,
The seagulls have no nests
Where my lover sways and rests.
We never thought to buy and sell
This life that blooms or withers in the leaf,
And I’ll not stir, so he sleeps well,
Though cell by cell the coral reef
Builds an eternity of grief.
But oh, the drag and dullness of my Self;
The turning seasons wither in my head;
All this slowness, all this hardness,
The nearness that is waiting in my bed,
The gradual self-effacement of the dead.