Sheenagh Pugh (sheenaghpugh) wrote,
Sheenagh Pugh

Review of "Mr Willett's Summertime" by Martin Malone, pub Poetry Salzburg 2018

This is a themed pamphlet, of 25 poems about and around the Great War. It opens with what might be construed as a disclaimer and a warning, a poem called "Séance" which implies that at this distance, "occluded by one century/and the paradigms of myth", professional historical methods have little more chance of getting at the truth of those times than does the tawdry sham that is a séance.

And of course it is true that nobody could expect 25 poems to provide a comprehensive overview of five years of global carnage, nor is that the aim. The poems are more like torches, pointed into odd and sometimes unexpected corners to highlight whatever was going on there at the time. It isn't always life at the front. The title poem commemorates the inventor of daylight saving, William Willett, whose early-morning rides inspired him to bring the "morning, incandescent with summer" to those still asleep behind their curtains. The irony of this happening in 1916, when the extra daylight was spent in extra work and worry, and the even greater irony that Willett had died of influenza the year before:
1916, and, like many a medal, your monument arrives
post-mortem, the blinds still drawn in Petts Wood
is as much part of the times as events in the trenches. So is "Mrs Mounter", the landlady immovable in her doorway who has seen so many young men come and go.

The torches do seem to shine on artistic individuals more often than not – the artist Christopher Nevinson, poets of several nationalities, Saki, Helen Thomas, widow of Edward. I think my favourite of these was "Let Us Sleep Now", an imagined encounter in which Owen has the "strange meeting" with his one-time enemy not in hell but on a Vienna tram, and finds him "clean and good-looking and well again" – albeit headed towards the cemetery at the end of the line. And there is an unforgettable blackly humorous moment in "Phoebus Apollo", about the aristocratic Julian Grenfell adjusting to life at the front:
As with all sport, you took to it well, bagged a laurel;
found increase in battle, love in the taking of life
and gilded your game book with three Pomeranians.
That brief moment when the reader thinks: even an English aristo wouldn't shoot small fluffy lapdogs, before realising that these are the Pomeranians who live in Pomerania, is surely deliberate, and very effective.

But for my money the poems in the voices of the less famous bring the physicality of the war most vividly to life. In "The Turnip Winter" it is easy to identify with the German mother's feelings of inadequacy at not being able to provide for her children, while in "Trench Requisites" we have one of the pamphlet's most successful voices, that of a sardonic and embittered veteran whose attitude to new arrivals at the front is one of pardonable impatience and brutal honesty.
Yes, how we hate you, you cheerful young men
with your tinned kippers and today's Daily Mail;
the periscope from Harrods, the warm new boots.

It will be noted from the above that we are still in officer country here, and in fact other ranks make relatively few appearances except, interestingly enough, in the poems influenced by French and German poets and in one poem about the Russian women's battalion. Non-English views of this war don't seem to gravitate so inexorably toward the experiences of the officer class. However it was one of the poems translated from German (from an original by Heinrich Lersch) which had, I thought, the only genuinely weak ending in the pamphlet. I don't know the original, so can't tell if Lersch alone is to blame for "at home, a mother dries her tears", but it didn't work for me.

A lot of research has clearly gone into these poems, and despite the disclaimer in the first poem it seems to me that the result is to shine a genuinely convincing and vivid light on those aspects of the time that he has chosen.
Tags: book reviews, history, poetry
  • Post a new comment


    default userpic

    Your reply will be screened

    Your IP address will be recorded 

    When you submit the form an invisible reCAPTCHA check will be performed.
    You must follow the Privacy Policy and Google Terms of use.