Vanessa Gebbie is the author of seven books, including a novel, short fictions and poetry. Her work has been supported by an Arts Council England Grant for the Arts, a Hawthornden Fellowship and residencies at both Gladstone Library and Anam Cara Writers and Artists’ Retreat. She teaches widely. Her website has more details of her work and life: www.vanessagebbie.com
Vanessa’s latest book, MEMORANDUM: Poems for the Fallen, is a haunting collection of poems that summons voices from the shadows of the First World War. Here’s the review by RK Biswas.
The wounds of war, any war, like plastic embedded on earth, may take a thousand years to leave their human hosts. Like plastic, the toxic elements of war may still leach into the surroundings, bleaching human sensibilities, until zombie-like the need to feed turns frenzied. Perhaps that is why poets down the ages have reacted to war quicker than story tellers. Poetry is story condensed into its starkest form. Therefore poetry penetrates hearts faster.
Vanessa Gebbie is a storyteller and a poet, and in this volume of forty-seven poems, her snapshots of those unknown and unsung casualties of war come alive like testimonials.
Reviewing a book of war poems by a poet from a country that inflicted indelible wounds on my own can be daunting; at least that is how I felt when I approached the book initially. I was prepared to enjoy the poems for their poetic finesse, having read Gebbie’s work before, but otherwise, keep myself aloof. This was not to be. Sadness and regret and a feeling of kinship descended from the first poem itself. Soon after, questions began to meander through the shape of the mother of all questions for war: When and where does it all end? How does it end? Will it ever end?
War wounds not only those who never sought it, yet did their duty by their respective countries, the fallen “Unknowns,” but also those who are left to watch the reddest berries of ripe bittersweet drip their life away (La Boiselle pastorale, a diversionary tactic, the last poem in the collection). This is the chord that runs through the vertebrae of Gebbie’s poems in Memorandum. In each of the three sections – London Memorials, Other Memorials and Western Front Battlefields – a kind of bewilderment prevails beneath the verses, at the senseless of it all.
The book’s nine-line opening poem, “Cenotaph” lures in the reader with deceptive gentleness, like the ceaseless whisper of silt. And immediately after, Gebbie takes us to the elsewhere places of war memorials: The still places that more suited to the distillation of angels (Transfiguration). Dead soldiers’ memorial hall, where their voices rise up in protest singing of their glory days (The soldiers’ ragged choir, St Pancras New Church). The Euston Station Memorial built to commemorate the LNWR employees who fell in the First World War. The memorial bears four bronze figures, one each from the Navy, Infantry, Artillery and Flying Corps, and in her poem (The Euston Mob and Caroline) Gebbie provides us with a guide – Caroline – who walks us down the road through that fateful day. Who is Caroline? We know her through her grief. A mass funeral for fifteen school children (A special occasion) where one green coat transcends a world where grown men/drop bombs on children/out of a sky as blue/ as the robes of Our Lady.
Gebbie’s style is taut, a distillation of everything that led to the poems. And as she walks us down the places, through the lives of the people ravaged, the deepest essence of that history rises as light as locomotive steam, or a singing kettle. Slices of life from the immediate and distant past are woven to create a sense of bustle in her poems (The Meat Porter’s Derby, for example), and allowed to be ploughed through by an incident of war pegged to the place. As Gebbie remarks through the persona in the poem (Ceramic Poppies, Tower of London), A few more days and/ they’ll be gone. Wish them good luck./ For all their bluster,/they look fragile to me. The characters in her poems are so wounded that they carry a mesh of noise with them through their lives. Even reimagine the path of a piece of artillery in reverse, until it is as distant as the flash…of energy/ on the surface/of an adolescent star (Artillery).
The second section, Other Memorials, blurs the line between the physical world and the preternatural. It’s as if those who were felled, most of them too young, and therefore all the more alive in death, have remained forever bound to their last circumstances. And those who were unfortunate enough, like Alf Norman, to have lived through two wars and not so much as a splinter, are also tied to their feeling of shame and disbelief, until doomsday. Not all of the fallen had earth to hold them. Not all were soldiers. Gebbie relives the tragedy of the death of 1198 passengers and crew of the ocean liner RMS Lusitania, sunk by a German U-boat in 1915. The poem’s last lines – Some fell to the sea as larger nuggets rained/into the darkness and clipped/our new wings in their fall – plunging us into the ocean in the wake newly departed lives.
Humour skips through the book like a flat pebble across a pond’s surface, providing needed relief in places. It is also a reflection of the times when people sought out lightness, and even the dead held their tongues firmly in their cold cheeks. In the poem “John Kipling at St Aubyns” for example, a young soldier is miffed to find his portrait hung among men he didn’t know, as if/we who fell in the same war/ought to rub along well. Then, the feeling sinks, swiftly, as Gebbie turns our attention to the passing of the two McEachnie brothers in separate battles of one prolonged war, and the grief borne by their mother. Both poems offer a rear view of the mother bending towards her dead sons, though in the first poem “Questions for Sgt. James McEachnie” the woman’s identity is left ambiguous. In the second “Scrying,” maternal grief is let out in all its rawness, to quote a passage: All you know is the dead of night,/the fact of their dying is unfathomable,/and all the manner of their dying plays against/your eyelids, echoes of/boyhood screams of fighting games//on the stairwell, ones you could never prevent.
In another poem “Playing Trains,” written for eighteen-year-old Maurice Turner, a mother reminisces about her sons, the older Fred also killed (at a later age) in the war, as she waits for his coffin to come home. The simplicity of the lines belie the weight of sorrow in this poem. But even more searing is “Mosses,” a poem dedicated to the memorials of unknown boys lying in the neglected corners of municipal parks. And in “Rooks,” she asks the question, What if the souls of men/rest where their names are written,/as well as where their bones are buried?//…how will he know which place is his/when he has no bones to come home to? The devastations of war could not be more eloquently described.
Gebbie also has a poem dedicated to the Sikh soldiers who died fighting for the British. “Waheguru” describes in staccato rhythm the Chattri Indian Memorial, Brighton. The last poem in this section follows the journey of remembrances along the coastline through a tooth lost in Seaford, and another found in Delville. A slice of one family’s history, a boy’s boyish stash of shrapnel and a whole, intact tooth. Not stamps, not cards, not marbles, but war relics.
Tooth returns as a smaller motif in “David Bury – poem for seven voices,” in the final section of Memorandum – Western Front Battlefields, and leaves behind a mouthful of war taste. The poem written like a play is a dialogue between six dead soldiers who died during WWI and David Bury who was shot down and dragged himself to Chili Trench WWI Cemetery, before succumbing. Bury used to visit the cemetery as a boy, and his is the only WWII grave there. In the poem, his comrades recall a young boy whistling as he walked among the graves. And Bury remembers then that he used to go there as a child. The way the dead draw comfort from each other and the wind sweeping across the field above them is a chilling evocation of the effects of war. Another reminder is “Against Regulations” in which a mother takes her son’s body back home to Canada in a suitcase. And another, (Beneath La Boiselle), which could be mistaken for a horror poem, if one didn’t know better. But then again, is there anything more horrifying than war? So one turns to Lonsdale Cemetery, Authuille, the setting for Gebbie’s poem (At the grave of Ernest Polack, a Jew) where before/ the march of darkness/the dying light holds/all the colours/that mercy surely is. For mercy is what brings sanity back, returns humanity to men.
The titular poem in the collection – Memorandum – set at the beginning of the final section of the book, returns us to the minutiae of war’s residual remains. Gebbie’s poem is an admonition, tasking her readers with the responsibility of never forgetting that the soil that nurtures all good growing things, also holds on to the iron motes too small/ to call harvest, and paler/ fragments too painful to name.
It is impossible not to seek out a quiet place to let the poems settle down to the seabed of one’s heart. In the stillness of the gloaming one can dream of a better world.
This book is not just recommended reading for lovers of poetry. Anyone who has even the remotest of interest in the immediate and long-term effects of war ought to read and see how it brings to life the minutiae of war. You cannot walk away unmarked; you cannot leave these places/ on your own. The unknowns leave with you… (Unknowns for C). Because “Memorandum poems for the fallen” is that flaming brand which tattoos its readers indelibly.
Buy MEMORANDUM Poems for the Fallen by Vanessa Gebbie here.