Friday, 15 May 2009

Willows Poems

Here are some poems I wrote while writing my book Willow / Wilg / Weide / Saule (Ypres Willows):

Willows Poems

Shock of Recognition, Pilckem Ridge

Blood-dark, stark against the sky
are war’s images we carry from photograph’s still grain,
the film’s foolery of the eye, a painting’s pigment,
the landscape sweep of panoramas . . .
Their shapes jolt vision, shake sense, dislocate;
these fields were, are.

Tree-fans of high explosive smoke erupt from fields
where willow rods now claim the sky.
Spring’s lanyard jerks at the breech,
a green fuze triggers spurting sap’s gaine;
willow fingers start their splaying trajectory.

We are in the killing zone, once quick with death’s dawn timetable,
its tide marks of cartographic plots:
the field guns’ creeping and standing barrages,
the machine gun barrage,
the bombardment by trench mortars,
by medium and heavy artillery.

Here men flounder over fractured earth,
through nets of wire,
through air roaringly reticulated;
flayed by a burning sleet of lead,
scouring shrapnel balls’ fiery hail,
a steel scourge of splinters.

Napoleon’s Fifth Element, Passchendaele

Earth, rooted;
Air, breathing and dancing;
Fire, all around;
Water, the life blood;

The Line of March, Messines

Static sentinels,
or stalking figures, up the track, along the hedge;
then in open order,
shaking out into line
or artillery formation.

their rods
explode into the sky.

Ancient Pollards, Ploegsteert
(‘Old willow boles, rarely sound and falling about untidily,
continue to shoot vigorously’)

Spiky, hoary polls -
the old sweats, who once fired
fifteen rounds rapid.

Rotting, raddled corpses,
And survivors, old wounds healed
around shell splinters, steel rods, concrete,
screw pickets, wire barbs.

White Willows, Cross Roads Farm

Some white willows are weeping,
their lashes stroking the moat’s breast,
dropping tears.

Bat and Ball; drawing a blank

The backs of the leaves flicker white in the wind
as a ghost, or an angel, passes;
the felled tree’s flesh glimmers with the pallor of a shroud.
Sawn straight from it, the undressed white willow slab, square cut,
like the round which will not kill
is called a blank (not ball).

Reading the Runes, St Yvon

How to read the brown hare,
lored with wicca and moon,
breaking in February’s sunshine over the plough,
along no man’s land, from the trees around the flooded mine crater,
from the wired brushwood by the concrete pillbox sherds?

Trees as text
or as signs, symbols;
conventional signs on the map –
the dots penning the flowing beke,
shoring the still dyke or pool?

Read their linearity, their punctuation,
their studding, their scatter in the landscape.
What information do they yield, these willow patterns?
Some deep, ancient pattern of cultivation, of mulch and tilth,
of gabion, wattle and revetment against the rushing water,
the drilling rain, crumbling bank.

That here Flemish farmers fought the rheumy clay
to work their root crops and pastures,
seed their land,
plant their rods, harvest the osier crop
along the ditch, around the teeming pool and moat.

They line the cultivation, mark the gutter,
form field boundaries, divide lush pasture from clay plough.

Or that here was a battle
leaving a hecatomb of corpses?

The Quick and the Dead
(with acknowledgements to Robert Graves)

A tree of enchantment,
the moon’s willow is the fifth tree,
one of the seven wise pillars, with their planets, days and letters,
one of the seven noble, sacred, trees of the grove.
Its branches waving at the fifth month
start May Day’s orgiastic revels, spring magic dew,
urge the season of the renewed sun.

Helicë, the willow sacred to poets,
names Helicon, home of the Nine Muses,
wanton priestesses of the Moon-goddess.
Mount Helicon’s willow fairy, Heliconian the Muse (the White Goddess),
waves her willow-wand,
starts the wind whispering inspiration in the willows,
puts poets’ minds under a strange and potent influence.
Mystically eloquent, Orpheus received his gift
by touching willows in Persephone’s grove;
outside the Dictean Cave the Orphic willow grew.

Water-loving willow, goddess of wells and springs;
witches went to sea in willow basket-sieves, sailed in riddles,
the liknos, used for winnowing corn, telling the future.
Poseidon, to whom a Helicean Grove was sacred,
led the Muses, guarded the Delphic Oracle, before Apollo.

Belili, Sumerian White Goddess, was a willow-goddess of wells and springs.
Beli, her divinatory son, a Sea-god, tutelary deity of Britain - his ‘honey-isle’.
A god must commands its waters –
the grey Narrow Seas, green Western Approaches, blue High Seas –
before he can rule an island.

Weep, willow, for your lost lover;
wear green willows in your hat as a sign;
and as a charm against the jealousy
of the Moon-goddess.

White Moon-wood, dove, barn owl;
Willow’s landscape is the terrain of death, of the White Goddess,
whose prime orgiastic bird – the wryneck, snake-bird, cuckoo’s mate,
spring migrant hissing like a snake,
nests in willows.

Europë on coins from Cretan Gortyna,
sits in a willow tree, osier basket in hand, made love to by an eagle;
is Eur-ope, of the broad face, the Full Moon,
and Eu-rope, of the flourishing withies, Helice, sister of Amalthea.

The ancient word for willow
yields witch, wicked, wicca, wicker;
at Fricourt, by no strange transposition,
Wicket Corner became Wicked Corner.

Druids offer human sacrifice
in wicker baskets
at the full moon.
Rods sprout from willows’ polls, make baskets ensnaring the moon.
Flints knapped to willow-leaves,
inscribed with crescent moons,
are funery.

Willow is sacred to Hecate, Circe, Hera and Persephone,
the Triple Moon-goddess’s witch-worshipped death faces;
so you haven’t got a chance, boys, in the willow landscape.

Willow service

Trussed with rust-barbed wire,
they stand
as fence posts,
supports for notice boards,
field boundaries;
revet the stream banks,
yield rods, poles, firewood,
nests for birds,
lashed cross-branches skied crows’ nests,
cross-trees for storks, kites;
hiding places for children in their crowns,
for owls in their hollow skulls,
a little shelter against rain’s lashing,
shade for picnics and lovers.

Secauspion Road

I'm posting this here because my web search for Secauspion Road turned up zero web pages - a most unusual event these days! Secauspion Road was a plank road constructed across the shell-wrecked swampland of the Ypres Salient during the Third Battle of Ypres (1917). I believe the name is a composite, derived from SECond AUStralian PIONeers. Does anyone have any confirmation, or any alternative ideas?

This was one of the fascinating trench and topographical names I discovered while scouring trench maps, divisional and regimental histories, war diaries and other sources, for my book Rats Alley - Trench Names of the Western Front (2006).

Thursday, 7 May 2009

1914-1918 Photogrammetry and Aerial Photography

A recent book, in which I have a paper on British, French and German photogrammetry in the First World War, resulting from the University of Ghent Ghent air photo conference is:
Images of Conflict: Military Aerial Photography & Archaeology, Edited by
Birger Stichelbaut, Jean Bourgeois, Nicholas Saunders, Piet Chielens.
Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2009. ISBN (10): 1-4438-0171-2, ISBN (13):

Saturday, 2 May 2009

Trench Names in A S Byatt's new novel The Children's Book

Antonia (A.S.) Byatt has not only read my Rats Alley book about trench names, but has used it (and acknowledged it) in her research for her new novel The Children's Book, published by Chatto & Windus. She also has one of her characters write a poem about these names - this poem was also published recently in the New Yorker. Her book will be launched in London in mid-May, and she will be speaking at the Charleston Festival on Sunday 17th May at 2.30pm.

Wednesday, 1 April 2009

Imaging Golgotha; Oxford 28th February 2009

Oxford 28-2-09: additional note.

Imaging Golgotha – Aerial Photos and Trench Maps of the Western Front. Dr Peter Chasseaud
Why do we need the Western Front landscape? A mythical landscape.

We must recognise that we are all involved in the process of creating a new mythology. As Nietzsche said, history is all about interpretation. There is, of course, a myriad of interpretations.
I am today looking at the creation, during the First World War, of a conceptual and representational paper landscape which has now, for us, become a simulacrum of the ‘real’ conflict landscape of 1914-18. We recognise that landscape is a human construction, the result of thousands of years of cultivation and industry. The war landscape has the humans all mixed up in it (literally), and walking all over it. Those of us who today walk the same geographical landscape, in the full knowledge that the 14-18 war, and the intervening years, have changed that landscape, also have to acknowledge that the past is a foreign country which we do not want to let go – indeed in some way we need to hang on to it, reclaim it or redefine it, as a way of defining our own identity. It also represents, as something we did not do, a continual challenge, a sort of perpetual St Crispin’s Day: ‘What did you do in the Great War, Daddy?’ becomes for us ‘What would you have done in the Great War . . . ?, or as one speaker I recently heard put I, ‘I hope I would cut the mustard’. There is here also an element of ancestor worship, a quasi religious element. For some it has become a dubious emotional catalyst – notably on the ‘big days’ such as 1st July, 31st July, 11th November.

We are creating this myth as part of the continuum of myth-making that was going on since August 1914, and which we can recognise in the memoirs of Graves, Sassoon, Blunden and many others, and especially in the works of David Jones. It was Jones above all who, in the period 1932-7, during the creation of In Parenthesis, consciously and explicitly designated the Western Front (and, more locally, Plugstreet) as Broceliande – the enchanted forest or mythical landscape. Across no man’s land was the strange, alien territory of the enemy, where things look and smell different, where shadows flit and ghosts and vampires lurk.

We need that mythology in a way that France or Germany do not. They were fighting for national survival, and their predominantly peasant populations were not (until briefly with Hitler and Pétain) that interested in the creation of a new mythical landscape; in any case they had their heads and hands full of the old one. But for Britain it was foreign and strange, and especially for the mainly urban, industrial civilian soldiers it was a revelation, indeed an epiphany of a sort. And from the 1960s, as we lost an empire, we needed something new to believe in, and that was some defining myth which touched every family more deeply that the more recent war of 1939-45 (around which myths were also created – Dunkirk, the Battle of Britain, the Blitz, etc., but because it more directly impacted the civilian population at home somehow diffused the experience).