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When All This is Over

Lucy Collins

All the Way Home, by Jane Clarke, Smith|Doorstop, 42 pp, £6, ISBN: 978-1912196685

The First World War haunts the modern literary imagination, shaping our engagement with crisis and loss, and changing the relationship between experience and representation in fundamental ways. A century later, we renew our attention to events of this time, as well as to the ways in which they have been remembered by later generations. Through diaries, photographs, letters and personal recollections, we learn more about the lives that were shaped by this intense period of history, and deepen our understanding of the legacy of its social and political turmoil.

In April 2017, Jane Clarke was invited to write a sequence of poems exploring the war, using letters and photographs drawn from the Auerbach family archive – the result is All the Way Home, a book of great concentration and intelligence, as well as formal accomplishment. It captures the life of a young man at the Front and his sister at home; more than that, it asks fundamental questions about empathy, about how we attempt to understand lives we can only share imaginatively, and at a distance in time and space. This gathering of poems speaks to the spaces between experience and perception, to the untimely losses of war as expressive of larger patterns of human sorrow and healing.

An introduction by the archive’s custodian establishes the contexts of Albert Auerbach’s war. Signing up on the very first day of the conflict, he survived Gallipoli before being invalided home with shell shock and dysentery. He was killed near the Somme, exactly four years after joining up. To this bare outline – and the archival materials that reveal it – Clarke brings great sensitivity and insight and a perfectly attuned sense of the balance between observed detail and a larger sense of history. She bears witness to the specific experiences of this one family, yet at the same time reveals the beauty of a lost world, and a long view of human history marred by violence and warfare.

Military campaigns place landscape under immense pressure; they are altered physically in a way that is intimately linked to the suffering of combatants and to the traumatic legacy of injury, disease, displacement and death. These connections reflect the close involvement of our forebears in the life of the land – a relationship that Clarke also explored in her earlier collection The River. She remains attentive to the natural world in this new book, and we witness again the deceptive simplicity of her poetic line, and her formal mastery in the representation of both textual spaces and physical landscapes. Her eye for the seasonal patterns of farm life is given new resonance as she recaptures life a century ago, and renders the earth as a space of burial as well as one of renewal. These processes mark the passage of time both during and since the war, and leave a strong impression of bodily absence, and with it a sensation of grief renewed. This cyclical process inevitably invokes loss, yet also fosters healing.

The details of the natural world are an important dimension of the elegiac impression of All the Way Home: in the opening poem, “September”, Albert’s departure is made vivid by its seasonal specificity: “The week before he left for France / we leaned a ladder into the apple trees, // picked Cox’s Orange Pippins, / Newton Wonders, Brownlee’s Russets …” The list of apples finds an echo later in the book in the mention of “crushed chamomile lavender thyme”, as though nature’s profusion could mark a restored normality and a heightened sensory experience freed from the degradation of war.

Lists appear in a number of the poems in the book, not as mere stylistic devices but as a means to focus the mind at a time of crisis, to ground memories in the material world. For the soldiers, recollection of remembered detail provides solace – the gunner in “Mortal Wound” captures dusk in his village through image and sound, “horse chestnut trees circling the green, / children on swings, // their mother’s shout, come in / out of that or the púca will catch you”. These sounds resonate across time and space, crossing the boundaries between community and nation. There is an Irish inflection again in the image of “old men, women and children // knee-deep in Clara Bog”, as they collect sphagnum moss. These details serve as a reminder of the many soldiers who travelled to fight in Europe without the full approval of their communities, and who would long remain without official remembrance in Ireland. All the Way Home addresses these fissures in subtle ways, challenging simplistic views of allegiance in favour of more subtle bonds of love and care.

A century ago nature often served as a vehicle for emotion in poetry. Following in the tradition of botanical verse – and, in particular, of precursors such as Katharine Tynan, who drew extensively on this imagery in her representation of the war – Clarke uses nature not only as a balm, but as a way of finding continuity at a time of violent rupture. In naming the flowers in his mother’s garden, the soldier takes comfort in their familiarity, but also participates in an act of commemoration – a remembrance of lost harmony. The lad who “keeps celandine and meadowsweet // in a whiskey glass by his pallet” is engaging in a similar process, of which no trace remains when the war is over and the fields of battle return to farmland. Clarke’s engagement with the material world, not as a source of pathos but as a way of thinking about continuity, gives these poems particular emotional clarity. The “coins, buttons, tin cups, / boot laces, shaving mugs, razors” that will be unearthed in the years following the war are evidence of the resonance of everyday objects but ultimately of their expendable character.

Though these poems contain haunting images, their sonic effects are equally memorable, and voices from the archive bring words and remembered scenes to vivid life. So even silenced bells have the power of expressive communication, inferring the possibility of both celebration and grief for the community. These auditory structures are also captured in the processes of watching and listening, the endless vigilance of those left behind. The motif of music – another unifying feature of the work – heightens our awareness of the lyric mode, and offers a form of non-verbal expression that has a powerful emotional impact. We discover in the introduction that Lucy, Albert’s sister, is an accomplished musician, but even without this background the musical elements operate powerfully in the volume, as the poem “Pitch” demonstrates: “Not easy to keep a balanced pitch, / one note blended to the other, // impossible to prevent the losses / wrought by weather.” As a result of natural damage the piano takes extra effort and care to play, and thus creates a situation in which the soundscape can act on musician and listener, and can offer us comfort – here the single lines set apart from couplets render the uncertainty of that progression and highlight the precise ways in which form is used to adjust the emotional register of the poems.

In these texts the intensity of war is everywhere framed by the assurance that one day the conflict will end, yet there remains uncertainty as to what this closure will mean for the individual. “In the Dugout” sees the men play the “when all this is over” game, but the poem of that title, which appears later in the book, replaces the soldiers’ projected pleasures of home-cooked meals and domestic intimacies with a timeless journey to the river’s source as a potential moment of cleansing and renewal. Classical references also reinforce near-mythic patterns of violence and truce, followed by restoration of civic life. For the Auerbach family, as for so many of those who lost loved ones during the First World War, armistice did not bring celebration but renewed grief at what could never be retrieved. A late poem “Snow”, invokes the impossibility of renewal:

                           By evening
it lies deep in banks and drifts;

hedges become whitewashed walls,
barrels turn into haystacks,
the wood pile disappears.
I could almost believe

that we haven’t received
your mud-caked kit, breeches ripped
from ankle to hip, bloodied tunic

The attempted return to a pristine landscape, a space from which recent trauma has been erased, is almost successful – Albert’s sister holds his living image in her mind, alongside the knowledge of his death. Like Ivor Gurney’s poems of rural Gloucestershire, these texts record both the power of the remembered and imagined past and the larger sense of generational loss. The photographs included in the book capture Albert’s journey to war, his sister’s visit to the battlefield in 1920, and our own journeys of remembrance too. There is solace to be gained by reading All the Way Home, especially in its final image of endurance, but the beauty and restraint of this work involves us all in its lasting grief.

1/6/2019

Dr Lucy Collins lectures in English at the UCD School of English, Drama and Film

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