To Ivor Gurney
A clear Spring morning. The G20 leaders
assembling in London. An announcement about
the abolition of the old county names.
And we head down towards the Somme, like you
at your second attempt: leaving the organ pipes
to play their fugues without you in High Wycombe,
you whistle with the Gloucesters out across
the channel to Le Havre. You were no soldier
and yet they marched you through the famous arch
of names – Laventie, Neuve-Chappelle and Grandcourt,
Aveluy and Ovillers; and on to Arras.
Then Passchendaele. And all the while you dreamt
of Severn meadows, Cotswold hills, of Crickley
and Leckhampton, where the chimney fell – till you
too fell, were gassed. ‘Mist lies heavy on meadows…’
or on rape fields either side the M11
as we drive to Dover, ‘as ever on Ypres’.
But dawn comes up on London, over the crawl
through Dartford tunnel, over the barricades
to keep the day’s protestors in their place.
Your voice calls back from the heart of Stone House.
It calls that you are Shakespeare, you are Beethoven.
It tells you to keep your body clean, it cries
for the map that Edward Thomas’s widow brings you
and its fluid notes rise up above the parapet
like silhouetted heads, to advance, spread out
through mist towards the chattering future
where critics wait to question your sanity.
(published in 2014 as preface to an essay on Jon Silkin in Poetry in the Blood, ed Tony Roberts, Shoestring Press)
John Greening has published more than a dozen collections (notably To the War Poets, Carcanet, 2013), and several studies of poetry and poets. His edition of Edmund Blunden’s Undertones of War (OUP) appeared in 2015, along with a music anthology, Accompanied Voices. His 2016 publications are Nebamun’s Tomb (Rack Press) and the major collaboration with Penelope Shuttle, Heath (Nine Arches Press). TLS reviewer and Eric Gregory judge, his awards include the Bridport Prize and a Cholmondeley. He is RLF Writing Fellow at Newnham College. Twitter @GreeningPoet