Archive for October 2015

Paying my respects at Verdun

It’s been a while since my last blog. That’s mostly because I have been incredibly busy setting up in a new city. No matter how many times I move – and I seemed to have moved pretty much ever two years for the last ten – it never gets easier.

The last stage was picking up my car from a Pickford’s warehouse in West London, and driving it across France, Germany, Austria, Slovenia, Croatia and then down into northern Bosnia and to Sarajevo. I was under pressure from work to get back, so took only three days. If anyone fancies doing this, I can attest to the shortest route being via Metz and Stuttgart, Ljubljana and Zagreb! But I’d recommend taking more than three days!

En route I decided to veer off to quickly pay my respects at the site of one of the major battles of the First World War, Verdun, which is just outside the French city of Metz. Verdun was the longest, and most costly in terms of lives, of all of the battles of the First World War. Like a lot of British kids, my first experience of poetry was of Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, and the poetry of the First World War. ‘Beetle’ includes a poem in sonnet form about the First World War, and – since I wasn’t far from Verdun – I wanted to pay my respects. As it happened, I arrived just as the sun was setting.

It was a moving experience looking across the battlefield and walking amongst the graves. Just like sites of great violence in Bosnia – like Srebrenica, say, or the infamous mine complex in Prijedor – there is a presence, a sadness. Perhaps its there, or perhaps we bring it with us – we overlay our own vulnerability and sadness onto the memory of others. I have been thinking about loss a great deal in recent days, and poetry is by far the best vehicle for giving voice to it. So here’s one of my favourite poems from Beetle, ‘A Poppy Field’, as a testament to how it felt to be there, alone, at sunset:

verdun1 verdun2

A Poppy Field

After John McCrae

Upon these fields we learned the weight

of this day’s given span;

our circuit round the shadowed grey

from which even suns descend.

Each field, afire for a certain time,

lit with the fury of our passing,

the reddening dusk of each lost hour.

 

We loved this lowly span of years,

the dazzling thread of light between

the dark, the shallow flight of love

from which even suns descend.

Will you consent to carry on our names?

To remember us, upon these fields,

To call the day ours, however brief the claim.