Wednesday, 23 May 2012

Good luck tomorrow!

Good to see so many people doing last-minute revision (400 hits--can't all be Cherwell, surely?); just ask if you have any queries or problems. :)

Thursday, 19 April 2012

At the Border, 1979

This poem describes a situation which has resulted from conflct--but also describes the conflict of feelings that the situation produces. However, it is different from most of the other poems in this collection, perhaps more obliquely related to war.

The poet, Choman Hardi, is writing out of her own experience--she was a refugee as a child, leaving Iraqui-controlled Kurdistan as a baby and returning to it as a five-year-old. The poem recounts this experience of return through the eyes of a child. The persecutions of the Kurds under Saddam Hussein led to the family fleeing again, and she was eventually granted asylum in England, where she settled, and started a career as an academic, focusing on the plight of the Kurdish people in her research about  the mental health of Kurdish women refugees.

Hardi's father was a poet, which may be why she found writing poetry a natural way of expressing herself. She says that her ealy poems were flowery, drawing on the Kurdish tradition, but that her later writing, in English, is more stark. She asserts that "Only in English was I able to write about statelessness, genocide, oppression and Kurdishness". In The Poetry Archive site, you can hear Hardi reading some of her ohter poems, and also find a more detailed biography.

The title dates the poem very specifically, and ties it to a particular time and place--it also makes it clear that the poem is autobiographical, something reinforced by the use of the first person throughout. The words 'At the border' though, are perhaps deliberately ambiguous--it does not state which border, making it a poem which can have relevance beyond this narrowly historical context.

The snatch of dialogue which starts the poem is an exclamation, emphasising the significance of 'last', and suggesting that this is why the child has remembered it. The sense of sadness, or slight regret associated with leaving throughout the poem (emphasised by words such as 'last' and 'different' is balanced by a sense of excitement about the return. At least in this first stanza, it is impossible to see whether the idea that 'everything would taste different' is good or bad.

The poem's form is that of several loose stanzas ranging from two to five lines in no apparent pattern. (3,2,5,4,5,3,5). The tone is conversational, and there is no strongly marked metre or rhyme.  Because most stanzas are five lines long, the shorter ones tend to have a sense of incompleteness, they seem to provoke long pauses. this is particularly evident in the second stanza, where the idea that 'the land under our feet continued / divided by a thick iron chain' seems to sum up some of the themes in the poem. The land is still the land, it is the man-made idea (the chain) that has 'divided' it--it is in reality continuous. It is interesting to note how enjambement is used here. the word 'continued' signals the continuance of the line across the line-break, whereas the first word on the next line 'divided' seems to be emphasised by the slight pause occasioned by the line-break. the opposition between 'continued/divided' is thus enacted as you read across the line-break.

This seriousness is then undercut in the next stanza, by the child who straddles the barrier, though the joke that she makes is making the same essential point. her ability to demonstrate the inherent connection between the two countries by standing with a foot in each shows how the barriers are man-made and therefore less significant. The border guards are clearly relaxed. The phrase 'they told her off' contains no serious threat or sense of fear, and suggests how the terrible differences between countries that made one safe for their parents to fell to, and one dangerouns, have now dissolved. As it is safe to go back, so the differences seem less significant.

A sense of yearning in introduced in the fourth and fifth stanzas. In the homeland, things appear to be better: 'much cleaner...more beautiful....much kinder', the series of parallel clauses emphasising how these beliefs of the mother are simply extrapolations of her yearning for her country: she wants to believe that everything is better there, and perhaps it does seem so in the eyes of memory. It is also a belief shared by other adults--the words 'I can inhale home' seem to suggest that the person speaking is literally inspired by the air of their homeland (this may be the most correct use of 'literally' that you ever see, children; cherish it) and here the difference between them and their children is clear: 'our mothers were crying'.

The sense of tense expectation is undercut again by the personal voice: 'I was five years old', and the poet, as a child, is seen to be more clear-sighted than the adults who wait to be repatriated. Perhaps she might be thinking, like John Agard, that a flag is 'just a piece of cloth', as she compares 'both sides of the border'. Here, the similarities are highlighted, with an echo of line 4: 'the autumn soil continued on the other side', and the repeated 'the same...the same...' creates an internal rhyme with 'chain' that links together the ideas of similarity and difference, creating almost a sing-song rhythm in the three-line stanza, as though the child is chanting this idea to her parents.

In the final stanza, this man-made 'chain' is replaced by the 'chain of mountains'. In contrast to the barrier of the border, the chain here is protective: 'the same chain of mountains encompassed all of us'. Here the words 'same' and 'chain' are again repeated, but here they are no longer in opposition, but create a harmony. When the chain is removed and the people return home, both countries appear to have become the same. The cold, official language of 'checked' and 'inspected' is a sharp contrast to the passion in 'a man bent down nad kissed his muddy homeland', the 'muddy' emphasising how much this man cares about the place where he was born--even mess does not make him shy away from the most intimate contact with it.

In some ways, this poem could be seen to be about how children see more clearly than adults--they do not understand national boundaries, they laugh about them, they see the similarities rather than the differences, and this is a good thing. At asnother level, howveer, it could be seen to suggest that the child fails to understand something really important about what drives people--what drives adults to tears, or to kiss muddy ground--the five-year-old eye of the poet does not understand what the adult poet understand all too well, that it is this passion for home, this sense of belonging, that makes us more fully human.

The poem could be compared interestingly to 'The Yellow Palms' (as it deals with the same part of the world, and sees the conflicts from another perspective, and also deals with the suffering of non-combatants), ro to 'Flag' or 'next to of course god america i', which also deal with a sense of national identity.

Tuesday, 17 April 2012

'Poppies' by Jane Weir

This poem discusses the effects of war upon those who are left behind, and as such is an interesting comparison to 'The Falling Leaves', also written by a woman. It was written by Jane Weir at the request of Carol Ann Duffy, the poet Laureate, to commemmorate those lost in war, and came out of her reading in the writing of women from the First and Second World Wars. As she says in an interview where she discusses the genesis of the poem., the language in the poem reflects her work as a textile designer, and in many ways this poem is one which deliberately creates a gulf between the 'domestic' world of the woman speaker and her son.

the title, 'Poppies' immediately summons up one of the most potent symbols of warfare in the twentieth century--the poppies worn on remembrance day as a symbol of the fallen. As a brutal fact, poppies grow most readily on freshly turned earth (thus they grow in wheatfields, where the earth is ploughed each year) and they grew profusely on the graves of men who died in Flanders and were buried near the battlefields there in World War 1.

In the first stanza of the poem, the speaker describes saying farewell to her son three days before 'Armistice Sunday'. She places a poppy on his lapel before he leaves, implicitly to go to war, though this may simply be an extended metaphor as he is wearing a blazer, more normally associated with school uniform than army uniform. This initial confusing image is part of a confusion sustained throughout the poem--is the speaker mourning the death of her child, or simply her fears for him? Has he gone to war, or is he simply leaving home for the first time? There is little explicit indication of which reading is correct--the focus is on the mother's sadness at parting, and her hopes and fears for her child.

Behind this poem lie many others with a similar theme, most particularly the poem 'In Flanders fields' by John McCrae, which is credited with first associating the idea of poppies with the fallen, and ultimately for starting the Royal British Legion Campaign, through the work of Moina Belle Michael.. The poem is precisely placed 'Three days befroe Armistice Sunday'. Armistice Sunday is actually something of a misnomer, conflating 'rememberance sunday' and 'artmstice day'.  The Armistice was the formal ending of World War 1, on the 'eleventth day of the eleventh month at the eleventh hour', and in 1919 the date of November 11th was declared an official day of commemmoration as a result. As time went on, this was replacd, for practical purposes, with the use of the Sunday nearest to November 11th, which became known as 'Rememberance Sunday'.

The omission of the word 'rememberance' and its replacement with the more formal term calls up the omitted word to the reader's mind, in a form of litotes, the rhetorical figure where you describe something through its opposite or its omission (as in 'he's not all bad'). This also makes the placing of the poem in time more uncertain; three days before armistice day would be the 8th November; three days before Rememberance Sunday could be within several days of this.

In the second section of the poem, the detail of the farewell is lovingly dwelt upon. The speaker recouns how she took bits of cat hair off her son's jacket by rolling sellotape round her hand to create a sticky surface to which they would adhere--a very trivial domestic gesture designed to summon up the everyday (and the modern). She neatens his shirt collar, a maternal gesture, and resists her face softening' (presumably because she wants to be 'brave' and not show strong emotion). There is a sense that she feels this might embarrass her son--she wants to make a tender gesture, something from childhood, but rubbing her nose across his in an 'eskimo kiss' is 'resisted' just as she resists the desire to run her fingers through his hair. That the hair is described as 'gelled blackthorns' both suggests that he is a teenager, and implies that he is prickly and would not welcome the gesture. It might also suggest that he is not  yet in the army, as the army has strict regulations about hair, and gelled spikes would be frowned upon. The mother feels that there are words that she would like to say, but they are 'flattened, rolled, turned into felt'. Here there is a pun between the feelings which are felt and the name of the compressed material that she describes, 'felt'. Her feelings have been turned into the past tense, they have been 'felt', they cannot be present-tense feelings as she has to suppress them. Here the enjambement goes between sections, 'slowly melting' on the next line looking almost as though it has dripped down from the line above. The idea of 'melting' is associated with frozen emotions--her feelings are so warm that she finds it difficult to keep up her brave face, though the first line of the next section assrts boldly 'I was brave'.

How To Gel Spiky Hair
Blackthorns are a lot smaller than these

The image in the third section of the poem--the world as a 'treasure chest', 'overflowing' suggests the possibilities that theworld offers to the child--the reasons why he wants to leave home. The world appears rich and full to him, and he is 'intoxicated', or drunk, att he thought of the possibilities. The use of the word 'intoxicated' may also suggest that the speaker feels that he is not quite responsible for his own actions--his desire to leave and his excitement is so strong that he may not have considered all the reprecussions of what he is doing, perhaps.

When the son leaves, the mother describes how she 'released a song bird from its cage'. Although this is described as a simple truth, a literal reality: 'I went into your bedroom', the image seems strongly symbolic. LIke the 'dove' that flies to the churchyard, the caged bird seems to represent her son and his desire for freedom.

The dove, of course, is a universal symbol for peace, and the speaker's description of his it makes her feel anxious suggests again how peace and war are intertwined. She seems to have rushed out of the house (as her son did?) unprepared 'without a winter coat', which suggests anxiety or haste, and her visit to the war memorial and its tracing of its letters strongly suggest that she is expecting her son's name to be engraved there. Leaning against it, she imagines that her body against the upright memorial forms the V-shape of a wishbone, promising perhaps a wish if she breaks her pose. The dove becomes something that looks like a fiction, a decoration, as she thinks back to her son's childhood. If you take the reading that this woman has merely sent her son off to school, then of course her desire to 'hear your playground voice catching on the wind' is a real one--she is hoping to hear her son playing happily at school. It seems more likely, though, that she is thinking of the past, and that she is wishing that he were again a small child, and therefore safe from the perils of war.

The form of the poem is fairly loose. Lines are not regular or metrical, but seem to be about ten syllables long, varying from 13 to 7, with the majority 9 or 11. There are often strong caesuras in the middle of lines, emphasising this sense that it is prosaic, and conversational, and also emphasising the enjambement as sentences move between lines. The speaker addresses the reader directly, using 'you', but it is clear that this is an address to her son (as in 'Out of the Blue' where the 'you' becomes 'my love'), and references to him occur throughout the poem to establish the relationship.

There are a series of possessive phrases which knit together the second person possessive pronoun 'your' to particularise it and make it the speaker's son:: 'your lapel', 'your blazer', 'your shirt's', 'your nose', 'your hair', your bedroom', 'your playground voice'. These references also make 'you' into an everyman figure--in some ways this could be anyone's son, something that the poet refers to when she speaks of the warm reception this poem has had from the mothers of fallen soldiers. They are also opposed and matched by a similar number of references to the first person possessive pronoun: 'my hand', 'my nose', 'my fingers', 'my words', 'my stomach', which similarly both particularises the speaker and makes her into a symbol of mothers everywhere.

The semantic field of the poem is interesting, because it is strongly reflective of the writer's interest in textiles. Images throughout focus around clothing, sewing, or material of one kind or another: 'lapel', 'bias binding', 'blazer', bandage', 'shirts', 'felt', 'tucks, darts, pleats', 'stitch'. To start with, these are literal--it might be significant that the speaker notices the bias binding on the blazer, but it is not symbolic in itself--but as the poem progresses, the language transforms into the metaphorical, first as words are described as 'turned into felt', then as the speaker's nervousness is described as 'my stomach busy/ making tucks, darts, pleats' until finally  the dove becomes 'an ornamental stitch' in the final section. Even her action of walking along the edge of the wall is turned into a work associated with clothing: 'skirting'.

 This seems to be part of the central division in the poem, between home and warfare. the idea presented thoughout--that the man who goes to war was once a child, and that the memories of him as a child are still powerful to his mother--is put across by an opposition between the domestic and the warlike, so that opposed to this intensely homely semantic field is one of battle, injury and conflict: 'Armistice Sunday', war graves', 'spasms', 'blockade', 'bandaged', 'rounded up', 'steeled', graze', 'brave', 'reinforcements'.  Often, the writer juxtaposes words from both fields, or describes something domestic with words that we might normally associate with conflict. Thus, 'reinforcements' become only a scarf or gloves to protect against cold weather, and the 'blockade' is simply the edging of a coat.


Saturday, 14 April 2012

Extract from 'Out of the Blue'

This poem comes, as its title suggests, from the much longer poem 'Out of the Blue' which Simon Armitage wrote to commemmorate the fall of the twin Towers in 9/11. You may find the whole poem on youtube, and it is well worth watching it all so as to see the overall cotext--and because it is a beautiful piece. In this interview with the BBC he explains that the section that has been selected fior the anthology (from section 3) comes from a particular piece of video footage that he watched, and that some of the effects in the poem are directly related to this experience of watching the oringinal events unfold.

If you would like to look at the section with the film attached, see the above video, where the section is read by Rufus Sewell, using as a backdrop the piece of camerawork that Armitage describes in his interview. BEWARE--YOU MAY FIND THIS REAL-LIFE FOOTAGE DISTURBING. Looking at the footage, though you may find it distressing, does make some of the imagery clear. For instance, the image of the 'gills' of the building becomes much more easy to understand.

Some things that you might like to note about the poem... It is a monologue in four-line stanzas, in the voice of one of the victims of the attack on the World Trade Centre in September 2001 known as 9/11. Armitage has imagined himself into the place of one of the people involved, a man who finds himself trapped on the top floors of the burning building, aware of his position, but unable to escape. This situation was one of the ones which most horrified people who watched footage of the attacks--people could be seen waving from windows, looking for help, and yet there was no way to reach them before the towers collapsed. The spesker directly addresses us as readers throughout, actually making us feel alightly voyueristic in watching this film, and selecting this person to watch: 'you have picked me out / Through a distant shot of a building burning'. In this respect it is interesting in that it deals with a non-combatant, and a victim of conflict, though not a victim of a war, but of a terrorist attack. The speaker's horror and disbelief are powerfully conveyed in the poem, and the extract ends with the dark suggestion that his ability to keep speaking is disappearing 'I am failing, flagging'.

Dante's Inferno

The poem is simply rhymed with half-rhymes and quite loose rhymes focused on the participles which are used throughout the poem to gve a sense of continuous action: 'burning...turning...watching...trying'. Half-rhymes used as internal rhymes rather than as end-rhymes also reinforce the sound of the poem: 'twirling, turning', 'wailing...failing['. This continuous use of participles creates the effect of events going on as we read, with no completed actions, which emphasises a sense of entrapment. the speaker cannot escape from his state of fear, as though he is trapped in a continuous torment, like a Dantean ghost from the Inferno,. It is striking how Armitage has sometimes reversed word-order to continue this effect--for instance 'a burning building' would be a more natural syntactical construction in English, but we here have 'a building burning' which lays stress upon the continuous action of 'burning' rather than on the building. A useful exercise is to go throught he poem and just see how many -ing' words you can actually find, and how they change in the course of the poem. The shift from the quite upbeat 'twirling, turning' with their short vowel-sounds to the long 'failing, flagging' at the end seems to mimic the growing exhaustion of the speaker. The rhymes also seem to grow more evident as the poem progresses, with the failrly sharp monosyllabic half-rhymes 'out/now', 'come/crumbs' replaced with the repetitive participles until the final stanza has three rhymes: 'tiring/firing', 'wailing/failing', 'sagging/flagging'.

Repetition is very important to the poem, and again enhances the entrapment of the speaker. Sometimes the repetition actually enacts the meaning, for instance 'waving, waving', where the repeated word suggests the repeated waving motion, or 'watching watching', 'trying and trying' which achieve similar effects, suggesting that the action is literally repeated. At other times repetition emphasises helplessness, so 'appalling. Appalling' emphasises (especially with the sentence-break) the speaker's horrified stasis in comparison to the terrible 'wind-milling, wheeling, spiralling, falling' with which it is contrasted.

The short lines of the poem seem to emphasise the breathlessness of the speaker, referred to in line 24, with a sense that it is delivered in a series of short bursts of breath. The largely endstopped lines contribute to this effect. In fact the lines are not always endstopped where they appear to be, but then continue on, enjambement moving on the meaning where it would hvae been possible to stop. For instance, in line 7, 'does anyone see' is a complete thought related to the previous line, so the added 'a soul worth saving' seems almost like an afterthought, suggesting that the speaker is finding it difficult to speak fluently and implying his growing discomfort as the 'bullying' flames grow nearer.

Punctuation in this poem is worth noting (though don't copy it for paper 1!) as unusually, Armitage somewhat over-uses commas, which again suggests a breathy speaker. This is partly because he does not use many conjunctions. Instead, for instamce, of saying 'bullying and driving' (l 14) ''leaving or diving' (l.16) he simply uses a comma to separate the two words, meaning that the pause suggests a taking of breath. This effect is called asyndeton (literally meaning without conjunctions) and you can see it most strikingly in line 20, where the effect of the words immediately following each other is to suggest the continuous motion of the falling people it describes.

The direct address to the reader throughout this poem, with the use of 'you', involves us in the poem, and reflects on the effects of conflict upon those not directly involved. The 'my love' referenced in the final line, however, suggests the pain for those watching the twin towers knowing that someone they loved was trapped there, and abruptly distances the reader, as though we have been eavesdropping on a private conversation, and the 'you' has not actually invited us into the poem at all. In this respect, Armitage may also be thinking of the ways in which the normal barriers of privacy were broken down during 9/11 with people pleading to send messages to their loved ones through strangers' phones, or dropping messages in the hope that they would be found.

You might link this poem to 'The right word' which discusses the idea of terrorism (and also has a not dissimilar form) or to 'The Yellow Palm', or 'The Falling Leaves', or 'Poppies' which all deal with the effects of war on those not directly involved in the fighting.

Thursday, 12 April 2012

Belfast Confetti

This poem explores a conflict which, unlike 'The Charge of the Light Brigade' or 'The Yellow Palm' took place actually in the UK, and in recent times, though it links to both of these poems in interesting ways. The author, Ciaran Carson (you can hear him reading his poem here, and find out more about him as well) is from Northern Ireland, and the poem recounts the experience if being caught up in the civil war--the 'troubles' between Loyalist and Republican forces in Belfast. Like many fine Irish poets, this experience has haunted him, and here it is as though it has a literal effect on his poetry--the punctuation with which he writes is fragmented like the pieces of a nail bomb through the poem to enact his confusion. Carson says about his conflict poetry '…I see those poems as being very much just as if I were an eye on the scene. As if I were alert to the sounds of the time and what was going on at the exact time.’ You can read some interesting information about the background to the troubles on this site

The title of the poem seems at first to be confusing--what should be special about Belfast confetti?--but its meaning, did you not already know, is made clear almost immediately. Belfast Confetti is a slang name for the contents of a home-made nail bomb, an ironic name for a vicious thing. Ordinary confetti is a shower of paper or flower petals, sometimes in 'romantic' shapes, traditionally thrown over a bride and groom for good luck as they come out of the church after a wedding. It is fragile, bio-degradable, and a symbol of good luck and friendship. Belfast confetti is something utterly different, it is the small hard objects thrown by rioters at the forces of authority. Carson reports:

‘-if there was a riot in the shipyard they would assemble the collective nuts and bolts, iron bits for this and that and the other thing… ‘For we’ll throw some Belfast Confetti on them and see how they will be getting on with that.’-and the accent comes across…‘Belfast Confetti’…it’s not nice.’

In this case, the idea seems perhaps to have been extended to include the shrapnel from an explosion (mentioned in l.4), which may reference the use of a nail bomb. With this kind of bomb, around the explosive charge of a bomb is packed any number of metal objects--traditionally nails, but as in this poem nuts, bolts, screws, (indeed it imagines how effective metal type would be) or whatever will do damage. As the bomb explodes all these metal pieces are fired out as shrapnel and cause huge damage to people.

The shape of the poem on the page is interesting. Initially, it looks like a poem which has longer lines which have not been able to fit on the page, so that a couple of words from each go on the line below. But looking at the lineation, and at other copies of the poem, it is clear that the poet intended these alternating long and short lines. What they do is crate a fragmented feel-because of the tiny pause at the end of a line, when there is enjambement across several lines, the thought seems fragmented, as in 'And/ the explosion/ itself'. This means that the poem enacts its meaning to some extent: 'it kept / stuttering' actually sounds like a stutter. There is a jerky feel to the poem that seems to match well with the confused thoughts expressed by the speaker. As the second stanza is shorter than the first, this also adds to the feeling of incompleteness.

One of the central images of the poem seems to me to be drawn from cartoons--the ways in which in the work of Roy Litchenstein, for instance, or the early marvel comics, action was shown through large exclamation marks and bursts of colour. Here the 'exclamation marks' that seem to be raining down on the speaker indicate the surprise of these small objects coming at you from the sky, and links to the idea of 'a fount of broken type'. Here, Carson is surely wryly playing with the word 'font', used to indicate typeface, as well as indicating how the bits of metal are showering around. The explosion itself is seen in terms of how it would be represented on paper--as 'an asterisk on the map'--with gunfire a 'hyphenated line' (this reminds me of the start of 'Anthem for Doomed Youth' with the 'stuttering rifle's rapid rattle'--it seems to have something of the same feel to it, perhaps because of the use of 'stuttering in l.8). The speaker is 'trying to complete a sentence in my head' (reminiscent of the process of poetic composition), but it is fragmented, as though his thoughts are as fragmented as the bomb, or as the little bits of metal showering around. The image of metal type here is built into an extended metaphor that runs through the rest of the poem.

Metal moveable type
The punctuation marks that are used for writing now become part of the imagery used of the explosion. The routes of escape from violence seem to be 'blocked with stops and colons', as though punctuation marks instead of signs are blocking up the streets. In the second stanza, the speaker asks himself--or us--'I know this labyrinth so well...why can't I escape?' The 'labyrinth' that he speaks of here seems to be something more than just a literal maze of streets, it is a way of thinking. He knows the way out, but can't manage to use his knowledge. Perhaps Carson is thinking here (as Heaney thought before him) that Poetry itself represents a means of escape from violence, a way out of the small neighbourhood in which he feels trapped. Of course at the same time he is literally trapped by the riot police and their reaction to the violence.

Saracen armoured cars in Northern Ireland
The street names that he lists--the list, without the use of 'and' is an example of asyndeton, which adds to the sense of the streets going on and on--are drawn from famous British army battles (you might recognise Balaklava from 'The Charge of the Light Brigade') and remind us of the colonial position of the British in Northern Ireland. By referencing 'Crimea Street. /Dead end again', Carson may be suggesting that the British are re-fighting old battles in a new way, the use of enjambement here reinforcing that sense of a 'dead end' in more than one way-- 'every move is punctuated'. Here 'punctuation' has a double meaning, and suggests control--the speaker is being moved about like a word on a page, controlled and told when to stop and go by the forces of the riot police. The mention of the 'Saracen' armoured car creates another threatening image. the riot police have become literally faceless in 'Makrolon face-shields' and 'mesh', surrounding him in the 'labyrinth' of streets from which he needs to escape.

The final shower of questions in the last two lines is described as a 'fusillade'--meaning an organised round of gunfire from many guns. The speaker is apparently being asked by the police who he is and what he is doing at the site of the riot and the explosion, being treated like a suspect. Normal procedure would indeed be to barricade off the vicinity and question those seeking to leave the area. But here we see the point of view of the innocent bystander being treated like a terrorist. For all we know from the poem he may be one--but what comes out is his confusion and uncertainty. The questions seem as violent as bullets, partly because they seem to disorientate him. The poem would link, for this reason to 'The Right Word' or 'The Yellow Palm', as well as having the obvious link to 'The Charge of the Light Brigade'

Tuesday, 10 April 2012

The Yellow Palm

'The Yellow Palm' (click here to hear the author reading it)   is a poem born out of the author's real experiences in Baghdad. Robert Mihinnick discusses the genesis of the poem at length at Sheer Poetry, but one of the most striking things that he says is that 'there's no sign of this poem in my notebooks. I wrote it in my head and put it straight on to a computer'. This process of composition (reminiscent of the ways that poets such as Tennyson were said to compose in their head by reciting the poem over and over again) reflects the ways in which the poem is, quite simply, a memorable poem because it has a strong and repetitive rhythm and rhyming scheme.

The poem takes the form of what Mihinnick describes as 'an audenesque ballad', and its resemblance to a traditional ballad is clear immediately, with a typical rhythmic pattern of one longer and one shorter line (though not the typical ballad four-line stanza). The metre seems hard to determine initially, as the syllable length of lines is very variable--it is probably simplest to think of it as being made up of four-stress lines followed by three-stress lines, so 'As I made my way down Palestine Street / I watched a funeral pass'. It has six stanzas of six lines, each of them with a simple rhyming scheme (ABCBDB) and includes a great deal of incremental repetition, the whole poem being built around the opening line of each stanza: 'as I made my way down Palestine street'. Each stanza seems to introduce positive images (eg lilac flowers, the golden mosque) which are then contrasted with harsher ones (the face of a dead man, blood on the mosque walls)

The street of the poem is actually Al-Rasheed street, which is a major thoroughfare int he city, but Mihinnick uses the word 'Palestine street' perhaps to reference the British Colonial powers who (as in Belfast Confetti) tended to name streets in foreign countries after battles or places in which they had influence. The word 'Palestine' also summons up connotations of Christianity, through the link to palms, perhaps reminding reader of Jerusalem, and Palm Sunday, the commemoration of Jesus's entry into Jerusalem before his passion and death. This frame of reference prepares the reader for a symbolic narrative.

As the poem progresses, the use of parison emphasises the ways in which the speaker's reactions change. All his senses seem to be involved in his perceptions of the city.In the first stanza it is 'I watched...' then in stanza 2 'I heard', progressing to 'I smelled... I met'. There is a sense that he becomes more involved in what happens, reacting to what he perceives, for instance stopping at the door of the mosque to see people at prayer, or giving money to beggars. In this way he becomes more identified with the life of the city, going through a series of traumatic memories and references to events that have injured the people of the city until the final stanza, which suggests a sense of the imperishable sweetness of life.

The first image in the poem, the glass coffin in the first stanza, seems fairy-tale-like to western sensibilities. The only place most of us have thought of a glass coffin would be in the story of Snow White (excuse for a film clip), but they are also associated with saints,and the viewing of respected or sacred bodies. It's not clear here if the image is supposed to be literal, or if the glass suggests the vulnerability of the dead man and his family--in any case, there is a contrast between the glass coffin, which enables someone to see within, and the'face of the man who lay within'--a victim of poison gas, and presumably not a pleasant sight for that reason--Wilfred Owen in 'Dulce et Decorum Est recounts how the face of a man who had died in this way haunted him: 'in all my dreams, before my helpless sight / He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning'. The reference here is presumably to the Iraqui Kurds who were killed by poison gas by Saddam Hussein in Halabja--one of the crimes for which his cousin 'Chemical Ali' was executed in 2010 (for more about this episode of Iraqui history, see the website

The next stanza deals with a murder in a mosque. Although it would be easy to assume that this references some episode of the gulf war, in fact it refers to a specific event that Mihinnick describes on the 'Sheer Poetry' site:: ' 'Blood on the walls' of the mosque refers to a strange story I heard in Baghdad of invaders of the city who spoke 'a mountain language' (which means a 'primitive' language) murdering one of the boys who helped the muezzin and writing words in his blood on the mosque walls.' The idea suggested, though, is one of war and violence intruding on a peaceful and prayerful situation--that there is something violent behind the apparent peace of the 'faithful' praying at the golden mosque.

100 dinar note dating from 1994
The next image, of two blind beggars, is one which shows the speaker becoming fully engaged with the life of the cty: 'into their hands I pressed my hands' suggests more intimacy than the ordinary giving of money. The dinars mentioned are the currency of Iraq, the 100 dinar note being printed in dark ink (see left) may suggest the description of 'black dinars', though it could as easily refer to money exchanged informally, on the black market ( For more information on how foreign exchange works, click here). In some countries US dollars, for instance, are valued so strongly that they can be exchanged for many times the formal rate on the black market, something often taken advantage of by travellers. These beggars salute the speaker not, as might be expected, with a simple 'thank you', but with a gesture that identifies them as part of Saddam Hussein's former bodyguard, the Imperial Guard. The 'mother of all wars' is a reference to a speech of Hussein, where he declared the first gulf war to be the 'mother of all battles'(Arabic: أم المعارك umm al-ma‘ārik). The speaker is evidently surprised that these feared troops have sunk so low, reduced to begging on the streets after their injuries.

The river Tigris as it flows through Baghdad
The fourth stanza describes the smells of the city, and the natural aspects of the country--the wide river, the burning sun--the sun is described in terms which share the semantic field of war--'barbarian..armistice', implying that in this land even the weather can be violent, but the river is described as something that 'lifts the air' implying respite from the harshness of the hot weather, and foreshadowing the ending of the poem.

A caravan of camels
Cruise missile
The fifth stanza contains what is probably the most shocking image in the poem--that of a cruise missile, a long-distance weapon of mass destruction, and something used by both sides in the first gulf war to deliver chemical and conventional weapons. A cruise missile operates like a small unmanned plane, capable of independent flight over long distances. From the description in the poem it is unclear where exactly the missile is--it could be being transported over land, creating the image of a 'slow and silver caravan' (in the middle eastern sense of a caravan being a line of animals of vehicles transporting goods) , or the image could simply describe the movement of the missile, apparently slowly, in the sky. It is reminiscent of an incident in 1991 when the BBC journalists John Simpson and Bob Simpson reported seeing a cruise missile travel (fly) down a street in Baghdad and turn left at a traffic light. The idea that a beggar child smiles innocently at this weapon, unaware of its deadliness, powerfully foregrounds the innocence of the child, and heightens the contrast formed by the juxtaposition of these two images.

The final stanza, then, seems to move away from the images of war and of past violence. As thought the child's smile has had a healing effect on 'Palestine street', the speaker now notices, instead of the debris of war and violence, the beauty of the palm trees hung with yellow dates--as he has noted in his notes for the poem, an essential food for the people. The dates fall easily into the child's arms without effort, suggesting the bounty of nature, and the preservation of good things amidst the horrors of war.

You could compare this poem to 'Belfast Confetti', as it also deals with the impact of war on non-combatants (and the street names have an interesting resonance) or in form to 'The Charge of the Light Brigade', or perhaps most easily to 'The Right Word' as it is interested in different perspectives and how they change our view of events.

Monday, 9 April 2012

'Come On, Come Back' by Stevie Smith

This poem is subtitled 'incident in a future war', and  briefly describes the fate of a young female soldier in that war. Alone and injured by a weapon which has left her physically unharmed but mentally scarred, she weeps on a battlefield. Seeing a lake, she undresses and dives into its waters in the middle of the night. An enemy soldier finds her clothes and whistles a popular song while he waits for her to surface, but unknown to him, she has been carried away by the current and drowned.

The poem picks up on several themes in which Smith was interested--most obviously, it resonates with her most famous poem, Not Waving but Drowning, which briefly describes, in the voice of a dead man, how people did not realise that he was 'not waving but drowning'. As bystanders specilate about what caused him to drown, he protests that he was not 'larking about' but in fact waving for help. It concludes 'I was much too far out all my life, /And not waving but drowning'.

The theme of this poem--the accidental death misunderstood, and the loneliness of the individual--seems to connect quite stongly to the much longer poem 'Come On, Come Back'. The title of the latter is repeated throughout the poem at key points (like the phrase 'Not Waving But Drowning') and is supposed to be the title of a popular song sung by soldiers in the 'future war'. The song links together both sides, specifically linking together Vaudevue, the young solider, and the unnamed enemy who waits for her to return. There is no song called 'Come On Come Back' that I have been able to discover, but the title implies the conflict between urging someone to go to war (for whatever noble purpose), or urging them on in battle (come on), and wanting them to come back quickly. It is slightly reminiscent of the joke current in the Peninsular Wars of Wellington, that there were some officers known as 'come ones' and some as 'go ons'. In default of the real song, here's a clip of Big Country's anti-war song 'Come back to me'.

Vaudevue seems to be a name picked to resonate with the reader; despite its lack of specific association (it is not a common name), it resembles the word 'vaudeville' which is the name for a style of musical comedy, deriving from the French name of a type of popular song, and thus has connotations of pleasure and peace--perhaps Vaudevue is supposed to be a kind of pierrot figure. The etymology is disputed--one version says that it derives from the French 'voix de ville' meaning 'voice of the city' where another suggests it is connected to the Vau valley in Normandy.  Both versions, though suggest that the word originally derived from the word for a type of popular song, which seems significant, given the importance of a popular song in the poem. the change from 'ville' to 'vue' has connotations with 'view' as in 'looking'--is Vaudevue an actor in the war who is now reduced to being a passive spectator?

It is worth noting that at the time of writing, the idea of a girl soldier (implicitly a child) would have seemed much more shocking and futuristic than it does now. This futuristic edge to the poem is emphasised not only by the subtitle, but by the reference to 'the field of Austerlitz', Austerlitz being the site of one of Napoleon's greatest battles. Instead of being an active warrior, though, Vaudevue is simply 'left' by the battle, which has implicitly passed beyond her. The end-rhyme 'Austerlitz/sits' emphasises her passivity, as does the following couplet 'alone/stone'. The alliteration and internal rhyme of 'midnight in the moonlight' emphasises how the repeated 'alone' creaes a 'dead' internal rhyme as well as an end-rhyme. The image in this first stanza is almost a romantic one.

The second stanza starts more brutally. The Memel conference is an imaginary conference in a real place--a city now in Lithuania that was annexed by different countries in WW2. The use of 'graded' and 'exterminators' creates a clinical feel--the weapon ML5 is clearly intended to be something futuristic and somehow more horrible for its lack of traditional bloody results. Vaudevue (perhaps the only survivor of the battle?) is left 'just alive' but without memory. So lost is she that she 'fears and cries Ah me why am I here?', the lack of speech marks here emphasising how we are seeing into Vaudevue's thoughts in a form of free indirect speech.The repetition of 'sitting alone on a round flat stone' emphasises how she is static, the rhyme 'here/there' reinforcing this idea of stillness and inactivity. Her loss of memory, as the third stanza makes clear, has reduced her to the status of 'a child, an idiot'.

Vaudevue's activity in the third stanza thus initially appears to be a positive thing--though the nightmarish travel 'over the seeming miles of rutted meadow' suggest how the peaceful land has been damaged, 'rutted', by the battle, and also emphasises her loneliness. The normality of 'the sand beneath her feet...firm' seems a healing thing in comparison, and we can readily understand why the lake, though 'cold...damp...icy' might seem 'adorable' in comparison with the battlefield. Her dive into the lake becomes something both adventurous and beautiful, emphasised by the metaphor of the 'ribbon of white moonlight' that might remind us of poems such as Alfred Noyes's 'The Highwayman' where the line 'the moon was a ribbon of moonlight/over the purple moor' has connotations of romance, adventure and tragedy. The metaphor is matched by a progression of similes that builds up to a final climax: 'black as her secret from her / as the water', 'as secret as profound as ominous'.

The fifth stanza is linked to the fourth by the repeat of 'ominous', its first line reiterating Vaudevue's 'plight'. She swims, apparently without motivation other than to travel in the 'river of white moonlight' which seems to represent a symbolic light in that it is not the black of her mind. The personification of the 'swift and subtle' drowning undercurrent that 'dives with her' with an 'icy-amorous embrace' makes it seem almost as though she has been rescued by a lover, and the following stanzas reflect the ways in which she has indeed been rescued by its 'close embrace', though the words 'treacherous',and  'seizing' here  foreshadow the darker end of the poem.

The 'enemy sentinel' who discovers Vaudevue's clothes in stanza 6 waits for her, something which might be seen as threatening were he not described as 'whittling a shepherd's pipe...whiling away the hours'. This peaceful activity makes him seem unthreatening, despite his enemy status, something suggested also by the refrain of the song, here heard for the first time, which makes him sound like a lover yearning for the return of his beloved. As he finishes making the pipe, he whistles out the notes of the tune and they become an imperative summons to Vaudevue, almost a promise of a happy ending, given that the song is 'favourite of Vaudevue' and 'favourite of all the troops', implying a sympathy even between enemies.

The final stanza describes how Vaudevue--whose fate was uncertain earlier--is 'asleep' in the lake. The image of her drowning is peaceful, she 'sleeps on, stirs not' in the 'embrace' of the current--the implication being that she is now safe from the distress she experienced earlier in the poem. Her failure to recognise the song is, of course, because she is dead--but also because she has lost her memory--here death is seen to be almost kinder than the kind of weapon that could destroy someone's mind. This final line 'Come on, come back' now has a deeper resonance, as an epitaph for the young soldier.

Imagery of water is strong throughout the poem. At the start, Vaudevue is described as being 'left by the ebbing tide of battle', and her mind, which has been wiped of memory, is described as black as the waters of the moonlit lake. Her plunge into the waters of this lake is clearly symbolic as well as actual, with the direct comparison 'her mind is as secret from her / As the water on which she swims'. The refrain of the song is presented as poignant--there are, it is implied, many ways in which people can be lost through warfare, not all of them obvious. In some ways, then, Vaudevue stands for all vulnerable victims damaged by war--and also for all soldiers wounded in ways beyond the obvious.

You can find out more about Smith's life and work at The Poetry Archive, which also has a recording of her reading some of her poems.