Easter, 1944 by John Lucas
Childhood recollection is one of contemporary poetry’s favourite genres. It seems to replace unsettling notions that even poems may have fictional or unreliable narrators with a guarantee of frankness, freshness and, sometimes, a certain period charm. For the senior generation of poets who grew up in Britain, the memories may have less charm and more historical resonance. Gerda Mayer and Peter Scupham are among those who have powerfully re-imagined their very distinct childhood experiences during the second world war.
John Lucas, poet, scholar and publisher, is another writer haunted by “the pity of war”. This week’s poem, “Easter, 1944” comes from the “In the Wars” section of his latest, ninth collection, Things to Say (Five Leaves Publications).The section begins in the summer before the Great War, with predictable intimations of shattered innocence, and ends with “Fragments of an Imagined War Requiem”, a short sequence dated April, 2003, and culminating in the invasion of Iraq (“Satire’s Masterpiece:/ Bush. Blair. Rumsfeld. Straw.”). .
Connecting a festival of renewal and a date that signals the fifth year of the second world war, “Easter, 1944” is a title that alerts us to possible ironies. Chief of these is the fact that the child in the poem seems less innocent, or at least less deluded by false hopes, than the soldier-father.
The adult speaker sets recollection in motion with his opening, terse comment, referring to the Easter of the title: “A cold one.” This lack of expansiveness, as much as the weather itself, prepares us for the inarticulate distance between father and son. Even as the poem’s narrator, the son is unable at first to describe his feelings, and filters them through the gesture of his sister “holding hard” to his hand, as if he formed a protective shield between the dangerous male adult and the younger child.
That a tramp sleeps in the old tin bath the father has “innocently” pointed out is the boy’s big secret. It tells us he knows more than his father about the local landscape. But he is not going to share his wisdom. He clutches it to himself, as if it were too important, or slightly shameful. This reticence holds up a mirror to that of the father.. As a soldier, he must have undergone experiences that he cannot share with his son. For both, communication is blocked by the inexpressible. There is even a disconcerting hint of a parallel between the father, frightening the children who barely know him, and the tramp who (unwittingly?) scares “little girls”.
The poem is permeated by understatement. Its lines sometimes unexpectedly run on, minimising natural emphasis, creating odd jolts. A mixture of numbness and discomfort rules the rhythmic landscape as well as the emotions. As for the actual landscape, this is miserable but dramatic. Images of howling wires and bare branches thrashed by the wind bring battlefields to mind. If the description touches on pathetic fallacy, it’s still convincing. English Easters are often wintry. The anti-pastoralism is not necessarily exaggerated.
“Easter, 1944” looks as if it might be in terza rima, but it isn’t. There are hints of rhyme (howl/tell), and a repeating hiss of the s-sound as a final consonant (was/girls/face/eyes). The one strong chime is that of “walk” and “talk”. The two activities traditionally go together, as in the sentimental old song, “In the Twi-Twi-Twi-Light.” Walking and talking are elements of modern pastoral, symbolising the leisurely intimacy of lovers or friends. Here, though, we have the hollow, physical shell without the inner meaning, the walking without the talking, and so the old rhyme acquires new irony.
The emotion continues to be underplayed even as it builds into the clear distress of “I swerved from him, would not see his face.” That emphatic “would not see his face” suggests more than childish petulance. By refusing to “see”, the child is helplessly rejecting the possibility of understanding.
The adult speaks again at the end of the poem: “Father, forgive my dry, incurious eyes”. “Dry”, of course, has a double meaning, and both cynicism and lack of emotion are implied. “Incurious” negates the supposed natural condition of childhood, curiosity. The plea may point to a failure of father-son communication that reaches beyond the moment of the poem. Perhaps by now the father is dead. There is nothing in the poem to say that he even came “home for good.”
Before this concluding “prayer”, though, a new perspective has been attained. As if between stanzas, the child has grown up and become a father himself. The haunting, painful dream in which he literally loses his own children expands “Easter, 1944” beyond its wartime setting, opening out to reflect a more universal sadness between children and parents. The child eventually appreciates the parent’s point of view, but usually, by then, there really is an unbreakable silence between them.
A cold one. My father, home
briefly on leave, took me a promised walk.
My sister came too, holding hard to my hand.
There was a wind thrashed bare branches, made wires howl,
the flat, grey sky held no hope of sun. He was
strange to us and we did not talk.
In Lane End spinney he pointed to an old
tin bath half-hidden among weeds. I didn’t tell
him a tramp would sleep there, scaring little girls.
Trudging back, he spoke of walks we’d take
“When I am home for good.” But
I swerved from him, would not see his face.
There are dreams now in which I am kept to a road
under a lowering sky and I can’t tell
which way the children took or when they left.
Father, forgive my dry, incurious eyes.
Full article and photo: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/booksblog/2010/sep/27/poem-of-the-week-john-lucas