Three days before Armistice Sunday
and poppies had already been placed
on individual war graves. Before you left,
I pinned one onto your lapel, crimped petals,
spasms of paper red, disrupting a blockade
of yellow bias binding around your blazer.
Sellotape bandaged around my hand,
I rounded up as many white cat hairs
as I could, smoothed down your shirt’s
upturned collar, steeled the softening
of my face. I wanted to graze my nose
across the tip of your nose, play at
being Eskimos like we did when
you were little. I resisted the impulse
to run my fingers through the gelled
blackthorns of your hair. All my words
flattened, rolled, turned into felt,
slowly melting. I was brave, as I walked
with you, to the front door, threw
it open, the world overflowing
like a treasure chest. A split second
and you were away, intoxicated.
After you’d gone I went into your bedroom,
released a song bird from its cage.
Later a single dove flew from the pear tree,
and this is where it has led me,
skirting the church yard walls, my stomach busy
making tucks, darts, pleats, hat-less, without
a winter coat or reinforcements of scarf, gloves.
On reaching the top of the hill I traced
the inscriptions on the war memorial,
leaned against it like a wishbone.
The dove pulled freely against the sky,
an ornamental stitch, I listened, hoping to hear
your playground voice catching on the wind.
Writing your thoughts and emotions down is a therapeutic thing to do and this poem, by Jane Weir, is a prime example of this kind of thing in writing. After all, a poem is just another piece of writing written by someone to share a thought or a feeling inside a story, or a play, or in this case, a poem. Because we treat poetry as the thing for the clever ones, we negate the need to read good poetry and that, to me, is a sad indictment on modern society.
‘Poppies’ begins “three days before Armistice Sunday,” which we all know, comes every November 11th, or the Sunday associated after that date. If the 11th is on a Thursday there are Remembrance Day services then at 11am to remember the time and day the Great War (Google that) ended and then, on the Sunday after, the official Sunday services begin, with the major one being held in London, at the Cenotaph, on Whitehall.
I can tell you from experience as a veteran that doing that march past in London is an experience, to say the least. Damn near killed me off doing that in 2008. It is such a long day up on your feet, standing easy, then to attention and then waiting for the section you are in to begin marching, only to go right wheel at the end of the street, hang another right back into Horseguards and come to a stop with all the rest. All your Army training tries to kick in, but because you have not done this for possibly two decades, you are as rusty as can be and make so many mistakes.
This is Remembrance Sunday, for me, but the speaker in this poem sees this act of remembrance in another way. Whether this poem is autobiographical or not, I do not know. I suspect it is because it sounds and feels so personal, as if only the poet would know what these feelings and raw emotions really are like. And so, she begins at a time when days before any service, “poppies had already been placed on individual war graves.”
It could be anywhere where there are war graves, but this reminds me of Aldershot and the graves there of three friends who went away to the war in the Falklands and never returned alive. Their mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers, had to deal with their loss in ways that I can only guess at and this poem, to them, would be very hard to read. It is deeply personal, for she then begins to speak to the lost child, saying “before you left, I pinned one onto your lapel,” as if she remembers adding a Remembrance Day poppy onto her son’s uniform blazer. But it is the word “blazer” at the end of this verse that worries me, with younger readers in mind, for when I first read it, my mind went towards a young boy in a school blazer. I suppose it is easy to go there, if you are a fifteen year old reading this for the first time, but upon further research, I found it to be a mother of a lost son (lost to war) who is grieving for her son each Remembrance Day season.
So do not be worried if you too become confused by this as you read the poem. It is one of those words that can do such a thing as this and becomes, for me, a major criticism of the wording. Had she written “tunic” or “uniform” instead, my brain might have seen who and where this young lad is in his life and not ‘guessed’ at the word used and got it wrong.
Even teachers can get lost in a poem you know!
She describes the “crimped petals,” the “spasms of paper red, disrupting a blockade of yellow bias binding” on his blazer and verse one ends with a fond memory of a time when she was able to love and protect her boy. The redness of the poppy we wear at Remembrance Day and the days and weeks before are represented in the colour of course, for that goes without saying, but in the end, what it shows is a willingness to remember those who paid the ultimate sacrifice and lay down their lives for others.
Thus, she sends her young son off to a war torn zone and for this reader, now sixty, it makes me remember those brave lads who went off to the Falkland Islands in 1982, but more recently, it may make us think of those heading off on tour to Afghanistan or even Iraq, depending on our age. It is meant to give us that reaction for she has written it like this on purpose.
As she sends him off, she has “sellotape (which I always thought began with a C but never mind) bandaged around” her hand as she was before this, trimming his uniform before he set off, so he looked his best; a mother’s prerogative and privilege, I dare say. Had I gone to the Falklands, (I had left the service two years before) then I am sure my mother would have been the same with me as she cried and waved me goodbye, not knowing if she would see me again. Weir says she “rounded up as many white cat hairs” as she could and then “steeled the softening of my face” in that last, final moment when her son was alive. It would be the last time she would see his face and smile, looking at her and saying “it’s alright Mum. I will be fine.” Of course, you never know for sure that you will come back from such conflict and this is what this poem is so good at, in bringing this truth to life in the written form.
She says she “wanted to graze [her] nose across the tip of [his] nose, play at being Eskimos like we did when you were little.” To those who do not know, this is the form of Innuit welcome, the Eskimo welcome where you touch the end of the nose to the other person and then rub sideways in affection. It is something my mother did with me when I was very young and something I still remember and a sign of affection that signified love of the deepest sort, the sort of love that is perfect and pure. It made you feel somewhat warm and safe inside, as if you knew all would be well in that awkward moment.
Of course, we know this lad never came back and we see the lady in this poem resist “the impulse to run [her] fingers through the gelled blackthorns” of his hair. He had a spiky, prickly cut, which can signify more than one thing. The first and most obvious would be the haircut of the British army recruit, but another could be a cut that is short enough, but also brutish enough to scare the heck out of the enemy. I somehow doubt it was the latter, favouring the buzz cut or skinhead cut the army sometimes gives, one I have adopted most of my life since my time in the TA. It is just something you get used to and find hard to come out of wearing.
At that moment, she says that “all my words flattened, rolled, turned into felt, slowly melting.” In other words, her thoughts, her words, her wishes for her son all melted into nothingness and to a point where only a look would be enough. This must have been a hard moment in her life and it is one of those where you choke up, with absolute pride, but also out of utter fear for the safety of your child. Suddenly, this is where most people, even those who do not believe in a God, actually say something like “God, keep him safe.” It is a time of utter terror.
She says “I was brave, as I walked with you, to the front door, threw it open, the world overflowing like a treasure chest,” using a truly remarkable simile to describe her feelings at that point. For a treasure chest to be overflowing means it is totally full of all that it holds and some of it is even trying to get out, so the mixture of emotions felt here is total, hence the simile, but for “a split second” in the moment, she feels utter pride, a very different emotion than abject fear and then, in an instant, he is “away, intoxicated” in the moment himself as he takes a deep breath and off he goes, to war and to possible death.
Then the tone of this poem changes, as she speaks other thoughts after he had gone and how, in the days and weeks afterwards, she “went into [his] bedroom” and “released a song bird from its cage.” Somehow, I doubt that this actually happened, for it means a rough, tough, army lad who has a songbird at home and the image does not sit well with my experience of squaddies at home, but the idea that “a single dove flew from the pear tree” does because the dove is the worldwide symbol of peace and it is in that vein that this poem is written, to share the raw emotion of loss from war and conflict, on a very personal level.
She even tries to follow the path of the bird through to “the church yard walls,” when she is trailing herself to the graveyard with her “winter coat or reinforcements of scarf [and] gloves,” knowing that her memory of him is fading and that as each year passes, so does her reality of a memory of him. She will always remember him, but her visualization of him will change over the years, even though the fact is that she will have photos of him in her home. Time is a killer to the memory of a person you love. Anyone who has lost a loved one will tell you the same thing.
At the top of the hill, she traces “the inscriptions on the war memorial” where his name is inscribed on stone, to remember him in another way. It is the sort of thing that we do when we wish to remember our loved ones. She then leans “against it like a wishbone,” which is a great simile to represent the relief from the whole moment as something special happens to her. She sees the same dove, that symbol of peace, flying “freely against the sky” and describes it as “an ornamental stitch,” like a stitch in sewing, or in the skin, when wounds are stitched, that suggests a flight pattern that is direct but also showing that it knows of her presence in the area of its flight.
Of course, there is a much more sentimental idea to this dove, in that some people will believe that this is the long dead spirit of her son covering her, protecting her, shadowing her as she spills her grief, so that what she experiences in that special moment, is a glowing sensation of love for her lost son rather than anything negative. It is so well written at the end, that it makes the heart glow and for that, I shall be forever grateful, as an English teacher, a former soldier and someone with a heart that feels for people who have lost loved ones in times of conflict.
This, for me, is why this is such a powerful poem because the last thing she shares is her listening to the dove and the quietness of the morning, as she hopes “to hear [her son’s] playground voice catching on the wind.” We who are teachers know what “playground voice” refers to, for whenever we have been out on playground duty, supervising you all when you were playing in your spare time, we have heard what one comedian once described as “white noise,” which he said was the sound of happiness, the sound of kids playing and shouting and screeching, usually very loudly. It is something we should all rejoice at when we hear it, for that is the best laughter around.
The more I read this poem, the more I love it!