“black truths by heart across our thresholds”

To the War Poets, John Greening, Carcanet, 2013, £9.95
reviewed by Richie McCaffery

In a documentary on Belgium’s quirks and mores, the TV presenter Jonathan Meades considered the enduring draw of Europe’s killing fields as a phenomenon he termed ‘death tourism’. If the urge to visit such fields is death tourism, is the urge to bring to life dead war poets through the imagination and epistolary verses between dead and living poets a form of ‘death poetry’? It seems that John Greening’s timely and substantial collection, To the War Poets, is doing much more than offering the reader a cheap and thanatic thrill of re-living death and bloodshed in the trenches and exclaiming the horror. In poems such as ‘To Edmund Blunden’ the speaker considers the horror the legacy of the war has become as a money-spinning tourist attraction:

A far cry from the throng back in the Flanders Fields Museum.
The tin helmet over the litter bin swings in the breeze
beside my metal bench. There are cyclists. And a lady’s
terrier snaps and growls at someone’s knapsack. It is all
… I cough and cough. But not because there’s gas.

I was initially worried that Greening would act in this collection as a necromancer ventriloquist of various famous War poets. The first few poems seem to do this, to mimic the style of poets such as Rosenburg, Stramm and Trakl. Trakl is particularly well captured:

The winter storm’s mad organ playing
is like the Volk’s dark fury,
the black-red tidal wave of onslaught,
defoliated stars.

[‘On the Eastern Front’]

After these initial scene and tone setting poems, the collection deepens into the larger theme of lessons not learned and the looming presence of conflict in society up to the present day. With such grave life and death subject matter it is not surprising that Greening’s tone occasionally slips into didacticism, for instance in ‘Reading John Clare on New Year’s Eve’ the speaker muses upon what will last a cruel and fleeting culture of celebrities:

When we had heard that distant New Year bell,
we would be carrying his black truths by heart
across our thresholds, not thumbing a remote.

Perhaps an intentional intertextual effect of the collection, I felt a number of times I had been in the same place before. In the poem ‘To Siegfried Sassoon’ we see how the television is an electronic juxtaposition of scenes of war which can be instantly changed to brain anaesthetising frivolities like dancing girls and music halls. It is the image of the TV in the corner of the hotel room which reminded me strongly of Ian Hamilton’s ‘Newscast’ where the “Vietnam war drags on/ in one corner of our living room” and where smoke only comes from cigarette puffing heads.

Greening is to be praised for remembering that the poetry of World War One in the English language should not be considered in a purely Anglo-centric light, so it is good to see a poem for Charles Hamilton Sorley. Although this poem reminds the reader of the conflicted Scottishness of the poet, it also celebrates the uniqueness of his contribution to the canon of War poetry:

…on that autumn
night in Loos

when you found a spook
song – Süsser Friede – bursting
from your vanished mouth.

[‘To Charles Sorley’]

Certainly, this is a collection haunted by echoes and revenants, even Robert Graves who is only too painfully aware that according to military papers, he was officially dead in action. Greening is to be praised for marshalling together out of the vortex such a range of voices to come up with a collection that muses on what has changed, if anything, in the centenary century. What is striking about this collection is the sheer vitality and multiplicity of voice – how words and poetry can endure – in the midst of mass graves and war torn lands:

or beneath the hundred thousand crosses
left by men who could never spell
themselves, imagine it grinning from their skulls

or groaning in the pelvic bones of women
who bore it, a surge from this serpent bend
of the river into every green corner.


Richie McCaffery


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