Brooke, R., 1914 & Other Poems (Complete Press,
28th impression, 1920). Restrained, a story of memory,
navy-bound with a firmament of stains, the mess
of years, paint, ink, dust and detritus. Unfortunately,
page 25 to 26 is missing. An enigma. A code of
ruptured spines and dark mottled centres, have
taken out a favourite page for constant use, J.G.
written in pencil, bound in yellow paper and saved.
A hard treasure to read upside-down, try to eke out
its mysteries. On earth or undersea an icy corpse
with a face like J.G.’s remembers the late-night rout
that took the tattered page. His favourite. He morse
coded it, bewitched it with blue pencil, hieroglyphed
it with newspaper cuttings. He was its second or third
owner, and like me J.G. lightly lifted the shroud of tissue
paper that covers R.B.’s beautiful profile, his last word,
one word, crouched in a trench. A US solder, Iraq, Turner,
called it his clavicle-snapped wish. What a phrase. Yes.
It made me think, a rarity, being more of a slow learner
these days. I blame all things except myself, more or less.
Turner’s page 25-6, present: the droning engines of midnight.
Should I remove it? For constant use, A.G. etc. The wind
took J.G., page 25-6 in his pocket (it was Brooke’s The Great
Lover, the last two pages), with this sound on his mind
perhaps as he died. As soon as Here, Bullet arrived at home
I was on the phone to M, whose father built R.B.’s tomb
on Skyros. I dreamt of snapped skeletons, whiteness, bones,
and the history of violence – unburied because it died too soon.
M gave a talk to the R.B. society on her father, Lieutenant
Colonel Stanley Casson, who wrote: Let anyone but me be hit.
I like the way her eyes sparkle when she sifts through remnants
of Casson, like a bird’s. Papers thickly inked, room gloamy, unlit
except for page 25-6 in slow looping letters. Slowly, through
suspended dust, it’s clear that death is J.G.’s equal friend,
and this is his epitaph. The re-appearance of a lost book, I knew
it was strange, came later. Turner, Casson, my father’s laugh
as he came across J.G.’s book. Weird. Owners past scrawl
their dedications on the inside cover: Marie Jaux or Joux, scored
out in someone’s heavy blue pencil, wrote With gratitude for all
the good you have done me dated Londres Juin 1921 in words
of the most delicate form, slightly slanted with g’s like scythes;
J. Gwinnell is written centrally with a scruffy marching column
of favourite pages in blue pencil on the left, Pages 20, 24, 25
doubly underlined. For constant use. J.G., History’s son,
foresaw some horror (and what about the scrap of diary marked
Saturday 26 [207-158]? New writing this time: Garden
Party 20 wounded soldiers. 70 altogether) and cloaked
it in a strange synchronicity of numbers, a coal-blue distance
in his eyes. J.G. – my friend – with your page 25-6 in hand,
R.B. is singing set them as a banner, that men may know
in your brain! Starlight, engine sputters – here lies man,
his fray-edged secret and the million bony faces of ghosts.
About this poem
This poem was included in Best Scottish Poems 2011. Best Scottish Poems is an online publication, consisting of 20 poems chosen by a different editor each year, with comments by the editor and poets. It provides a personal overview of a year of Scottish poetry. The editor in 2011 was Roddy Lumsden.
This discursive, longish poem is in mostly rhymed quatrains. It's most notable feature is the way it dips in and out of a more casual tone ('What a phrase' Yes.'). The characters of the poem flit in and out too, thought the poem returns to JG, the man who has torn out a page of Rupert Brooke for (not so) safe keeping. It's a risky strategy which is somehow saved, and admirably so, by the fraught subject matter.
The book is real – it is an heirloom – my father gave it to me, and his father had given it to him. The unknowable genealogy of books seemed to me to have such power when confronted by the spectral trauma of war – represented, in the poem, by the missing page. The book also seemed to be merely passing through my house; it gave me a different sense of time. My grandfather lost two brothers in the Second World War; I had just seen the film The Hurt Locker, and read Brian Turner's Here, Bullet. The palimpsest of family history, the inscription of an anonymous past on the book's pages, and poetry as a conduit for the ghosts of war, were all things that fascinated me. Coincidentally, I had, at the same time, become friends with Lady Jennifer McClelland, whose father built Brooke's tomb on Skyros, which unpeeled further layers of a palimpsest of family histories.