All the Way Home
By Jane Clarke
The Irish experience of the First World War has been largely overlooked and even denied until relatively recently; now we know that 210,000 Irish soldiers fought and up to 40,000 died. When the Mary Evans Picture Library in London invited poet, Jane Clarke, the winner of the 2016 Hennessy Literary Award for Emerging Poetry, to write a sequence of poems in response to a British First World War family archive, she accepted the challenge: how to find fresh ways of writing about the First World War. This week at WWrite, read the post, "All the Way Home," Clarke's account of imagining the forgotten experience of Ireland through an account of a WWI British soldier.
Against barbarity, poetry can resist only by cultivating an attachment to human fragility, like a blade of grass growing on a wall as armies march by.
---Mahmoud Darwish (1942-2008)
*When the Mary Evans Picture Library in London invited me to write a sequence of poems in response to a First World War family archive, I was initially hesitant. While the photographs and letters were immediately evocative, I was all too aware that poems come of their own volition. I didn’t know if I would find the emotional resonance needed to spark not just one poem but a series. In fact what was most difficult was finding fresh ways of writing about the First World War.
The work I loved by Wilfred Owen, Francis Ledwidge, Siegfried Sassoon, Isaac Rosenberg echoed loudly. I had to abandon the first flush of poems because they were too clichéd or derivative, using over-statement and worn out imagery. I searched for a more allusive approach. The first poem that worked, ‘After we’re gone’, was inspired by an account in Richard Mabey’s Weeds of the flower and vegetable gardens planted in the trenches. In Where Poppies Blow, John Lewis-Stempel writes about soldiers’ detailed descriptions of the surrounding landscape, birds, plants and animals in their letters and poems. Their affinity with the natural world helped sustain them, humanising an inhuman existence; this gave me a way into the sequence.
Albert Auerbach joined the British army on 1 September 1914, aged twenty, and died at the Somme four years later to the day. He and his elder sister, Lucy, were close and his many letters to her gave me insights into both their lives. A poignant line from one of these became the epigraph for the book: “It will all be over one day, and what a day it will be.” As the poems accumulated I saw a story emerging in their voices - from an evening in a September garden before Albert joined up in 1914 to Lucy’s pilgrimmage in 1920 to the trenches where he died.
In one of the photographs Lucy’s standing close to a Jersey cow on the farm in the Malverns where she helped out as part of the war effort. I wondered what it was like for a young woman brought up in a middle-class London family to learn how to milk a cow. Remembering my own attempts as a child, the thought of her struggling to find the necessary combination of strength and rhythm in her fingers led to a poem entitled ‘Milk’. Another poem, ‘Axe’, looks at change in women’s lives as a result of their contribution to the war.
Lucy was a gifted pianist and went on to study with the celebrated Myra Hess. When I read that Albert was invalided home with shell-shock and dysentery I wrote a poem in which tuning and playing the piano is a metaphor for her wish to soothe his anguish. In Albert’s last letter home on the 18th August 1918, he thanks Lucy for sending a sprig of heather. I wondered what that sprig held for her and what it meant to him to receive it; this led to a poem entitled, ‘Ling’.
All the Way Home by Jane Clarke
Date: Apr 24, 2019
Jane Clarke’s powerfully moving poems respond to the Auerbach family archive of World War I letters and photographs represented by the Mary Evans Picture Library.
A visit to an exhibition in the National Library, Dublin in July 2017 revealed a rich archive of letters between Irish soldiers on the Front and their families at home. The Irish experience of the First World War was largely overlooked and even denied until relatively recently; now we know that 210,000 Irish soldiers fought and up to 40,000 died. Imagining Albert and an Irish soldier lying in the same Casualty Clearing Station led me to rework an earlier poem into ‘Mortal Wound’. In that exhibition I saw a photograph of people in a bog picking moss. This set another poem ticking, ‘Base Hospital, Boulogne’. I was familiar with sphagnum moss from hillwalking but I hadn’t known about its powerful antiseptic qualities or that tons were gathered in Irish bogs, made into at least a million dressings and sent to military hospitals throughout the war. Another poem was inspired by the eyewitness account of a football match on St. Stephen’s Day 1916 by Fr. Frank Browne, Jesuit chaplain to the Irish Guards. He wrote, “This is just one little incident of the war, showing how little is thought of human life out here. It sounds callous, but there is no room for sentiment in warfare, and I suppose it is better so.”
Among the many books I read over the eighteen months working on the sequence, Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth stood out. A scene in which she describes seeing her fiancé’s kit returned after he died at the Front, helped me imagine Lucy’s response to her brother’s death in this poem entitled ‘Snow’.
began to fall before dawn,
blown horizontal in easterly winds
from across the hill. 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,
your helmet, slightly dinged,
and the watch you won at school.
I could believe you’ll be with us
for dinner, having walked in your trench boots,
all the way home through the snow.
While I was learning about the role of nationalism, imperialism and militarism in the lead up to the First World War, nationalism was on the rise again all over Europe. Most European countries were doing all they could to avoid taking in refugees from war in Syria with a largely zenophobic public discourse about what we Europeans would lose rather than what we could gain. A visit to the In Flanders Fields Museum in Ypres highlighted the vast numbers of people displaced by all wars. This led to a poem about a Belgian refugee. Meanwhile Brexit was threatening the relatively fragile reconciliation in Northern Ireland and the maturing relationship between Ireland and the UK. It mattered to me that All the Way Home, with its 21 poems and 11 photographs, was coming into being through collaborative relationships across the Irish Sea, with the Mary Evans Picture Library in Greenwich, Albert and Lucy’s niece, Patricia Aubrey in Ealing, and the publisher, Smith|Doorstop, in Sheffield.
Poems respond to stories, tell and retell stories and also unearth stories we have buried. When I read from All the Way Home, audience members often speak about their family’s involvement in the war, experiences that were unspoken in Ireland for generations. Last November, having heard a radio interview about my book, my uncle contacted me to ask if I knew that my great-grandmother had lost two brothers in the Battle of the Somme. I must have heard this as a child but somehow I had forgotten, a memory erased like so many other Irish memories of the First World War. It seems to me now that in responding to Lucy’s loss I was also responding to my own great-grandmother Abby’s loss and for this I am deeply grateful.
All The Way Home was published by Smith|Doorstop in April 2019. http://www.poetrybusiness.co.uk/shop/1000/clarke-all-the-way-home
*A version of this article was first published in The Irish Times on April 4, 2019. It was edited, adapted, and extended by the author for WWrite.
Jane Clarke is an Irish poet living in Co. Wicklow. Her first collection, The River, was published by BloodaxeBooks in 2015. All the Way Home, Jane’s illustrated booklet of poems in response to a First World War family archive held in the Mary Evans Picture Library, London, was published by Smith|Doorstop in April 2019. Her second book-length collection, When the Tree Falls, will be published by Bloodaxe Books in September 2019.
Jane holds a BA in English and Philosophy from Trinity College, Dublin, and an MPhil in Writing from the University of South Wales, and has a background in psychoanalytic psychotherapy. Her first collection, The River was shortlisted for the Royal Society of Literature’s Ondaatje Prize, given for a distinguished work of fiction, non-fiction or poetry evoking the spirit of a place. In 2016 she won the Hennessy Literary Award for Emerging Poetry and the inaugural Listowel Writers’ Week Poem of the Year Award. She was awarded an Arts Council of Ireland Literary Bursary in 2017. www.janeclarkepoetry.ie