This week being Remembrance week got me thinking about Causley’s war poems, apart from everything else… One which has always struck me as packing a particularly visual punch is ‘Convoy’. I just made a preliminary sketch to try and work out some sort of composition. There are lots of decisions to be made about emphasis when so many things are going on in a poem. And that’s if you decide a poem can suffer an illustration anyway.
Draw the blanket of ocean
Over the frozen face.
He lies, his eyes quarried by glittering fish,
Staring through the green freezing sea-glass
At the Northern Lights.
He is now a child in the land of Christmas:
Watching, amazed, the white tumbling bears
And the diving seal.
The iron wind clangs round the ice-caps,
The five-pointed Dog-star
Burns over the silent sea,
And the three ships
Come sailing in.
There was a horrific loss of life in WWII’s Allied Arctic convoys. These were sent in treacherous conditions to the Soviet ports of Murmansk and Archangelsk. Stalin had demanded help from the Allies after Germany invaded Moscow on 22 June 1941 and the most direct route was by sea.
The supplies passed through a narrow funnel between the Arctic ice and German bases in Norway. Conditions were among the worst faced by any Allied sailors. The loss rate for ships was higher than any other Allied convoy route. Over four million tonnes of supplies were delivered to the Russians. This was useful politically as it was proof that the Allies were committed to helping the Soviet Union, and probably helped the Allies with Russian diplomacy later in the war.
I remember Causley saying in an interview he joined the Navy rather than the Army as he had watched his father suffer so much and then die from injuries sustained in the trenches in WW1. To be of that generation, having seen the wounded around the town trying to lead normal lives as you were growing up, it must have been terrifying to imagine doing it oneself, again, only with more technology, more efficiency, more killing. Rather than that cinematic, knowing-the-ending version of WWII we all have – not knowing. Knowing nothing. And yet, Causley said the single thing that terrified him most about the Navy was the sea itself.
‘Convoy’ is a relatively short poem and to me has echoes of Wilfred Own’s ‘Futility’. Causley’s ‘Draw the blanket of ocean/Over the frozen face…’ seems to dig at:
‘Move him into the sun—
Gently its touch awoke him once,
At home, whispering of fields half-sown.’
Causley takes a different tack with his poem, not providing comfort for the thought of the dead but placing it in the solid ice of the Arctic, hidden in the ocean like a dirty secret. As I was working out how to illustrate it, I realised there is a lot of venom in it. Anger. You feel Causley has become an angry young man. This poem could so easily be written off as couching that loss in something sweet – ‘a child in the land of Christmas’. Of course, that ambiguity is the place where poems live – but you can’t help but feel the poor young lad is dead and Causley is unable to conscion further losses can be justified. That’s when this poem stops being just about Causley and WWII, and starts being about all conflicts which crash on, leaving us with no real solace at their close.
This week I’ve also been illustrating ‘My mother saw a dancing bear’ – which seems like a far clearer run until you actually realise you have to draw a brown bear doing a somersault. And ‘playing’ dead. And to be honest, watching lots of dancing bear footage online gets really depressing. But it’s all I have. That and lots of anatomy references.
So I went to Dartmoor Zoo (for research, not for actual fun you understand) and tried to meet the bears. Hayley, the European Brown Bear I needed to meet, stayed in her hut. Fudge however, the vanilla-furred Syrian Brown Bear was very sociable – in a slow-moving, slightly-annoyed-to-be-awake sort of a way. These were both morning bears and had their lunch between 11.30am and 12pm. As they weren’t there when I first arrived, a kind keeper called Ben arranged to come and find me when they were up and about. This time of year they go into semi-hibernation and sleep most of the afternoon. I really do identify with that need….
It seems the UK doesn’t have many bears in its zoos. And the reason Hayley and Fudge are older is there don’t seem to be many breeding programmes for brown bears. Bears used to inhabit the UK in the wild. I rather like the idea. Though I’m not sure about this ‘rewilding’ theory that we should reintroduce them now. Even if they are fun to draw.
Writing-wise, I’ve been working on a poetry collection, among other things. I thought it might be useful to look again at Ted Hughes ‘Crow’ and Max Porter’s ‘Grief is a Thing With Feathers’. Many of my poems concern loss and grief and how it arrives in odd ways during the day. I feel less inclined to write here about that, but I found an old poem I had forgotten I’d written.
I couldn’t place it anywhere. In which case it’ll probably never be placed anywhere, so I might as well put it here ( The first line is the last line of a Michael Donaghy poem ):
What was shaped first, the hand
or the caress? What figure shaped
your absence, felt this emptiness?
Whatever space has granted us,
our gravity has drawn us back.
Whatever flesh that we might press,
could prick conscience, punish us.
When in the line of duty faith
makes love contented least,
short words seem best.
So close your hand in mine,
my love, divine superlatives –
say quickest how these palms cross palms,
why spirits move like this –
Charlotte Walker will be artist-in-residence until Christmas 2016