Alan Morrison on
Alun Lewis – Raiders’ Dawn
(George Allen & Unwin Ltd., 1942)
Poems in Khaki
I recently acquired a small, delicate hardback of Alun Lewis’s strikingly titled Raiders’ Dawn. Its spine split and almost entirely cracked away only adds to the simple elegance of the production: thin pale beige dust jacket glued on to cardboard cover replete with a stark etching of the author, his chiselled Welsh physiognomy and downward glower bearing a slight resemblance to a circa 1950s Stanley Baker (the Welsh actor who went on to produce the classic Zulu, in which he also starred). But that’s by the by.
Alun Lewis (b. 1915) had just finished his second volume, Ha! Ha! Among the Trumpets (to be published posthumously in 1945), and had already achieved critical acclaim for his debut volume Raiders’ Dawn, when, at a mere 29 years of age, he was found unconscious with a shot to the head while on active service in Burma, on 5th March, 1944. He died of his wound a few hours later. Theories abounded of suicide, since a smouldering gun was found in his hand – but his body was discovered near the officers’ latrines after he’d been washing and shaving, so either he had been ambushed and tried too late to defend himself, or, as the Army tried to argue, he had tripped and accidentally let off his gun (though according to other sources, it was assumed - 'off the record' - by practically all his regimental comrades that he had indeed committed suicide). But why he should have been holding his revolver while shaving is anyone’s guess. Still, this is more the stuff of forensics.
My kind of forensics in this case is in giving a distanced opinion of the poetry in this volume, having investigated it fairly thoroughly now. That fact, in itself, is partly a recommendation. Reading Lewis, I note a tone of humility to the writing, rather similar to Wilfred Owen, though stylistically less grittily descriptive and metaphorical, but slightly more lyrical and gentle. Lewis indeed reads as a gentle, even passive soul, caught up in a violent scenario in which he is forced, reluctantly and self-critically, to participate. He has, as a poet, even less in common with his contemporary Keith Douglas, the latter being a more strikingly metaphorical poet, only – but significantly – lacking in the emotional directness and palpable compassion of the former. This, like Owen, is one of Lewis’s great strengths, to write compassionately without over-sentimentalising. And like Owen, Lewis’s work seems often preoccupied with War as a motif for Pity.
The opening poem in Raiders’ Dawn, ‘Prologue: The Grinder’, is an exceptional epigrammatic lyric, echoing some of the prayer-like, epitaphic qualities of Douglas’s haunting ‘Simplify Me When I’m Dead’. But while Douglas opts for the abstract in that poem, Lewis, in ‘The Grinder’, goes straight for the soul, or at least, the space where the soul is supposed to be:
Nothing to grind? Then answer, and I’ll go.
Who carved the round red sun?
Who purified the snow?
Who is the hidden one? You do not know.
As with Douglas’s classic of self-negation, Lewis too, in this poem, expresses a sort of futility, but in its defiant conviction and almost Socratic rhetorical jousting, the experience of reading ‘The Grinder’ is more strangely comforting.
This poem is a real gamble for the beginning of a debut volume, since it is challenging the role of the poet, the ‘grinder of words’, the describer; it is an expression of one poet’s sense of powerlessness in attempting to make a statement on his experience in war, using just words, which in this scenario he feels are tools just not up to the job. And so the poet starts out in his first book by negating himself, his own role as a poet, and that of poetry itself to truly evoke and express extreme experiences. This makes ‘The Grinder’ a peculiar paradox as well as a beautiful poem.
After the opening set of questions, the poet then tells his addressee that he is going to summon his poetic powers to provide spurious, more fanciful answers to these insoluble propositions:
Then, as you cannot answer, I will take
Such odds and ends as likely you possess,
And grind them fine and patch them for their sake
And other reasons which you may not guess.
And then, even the hint of a poet’s instinctive exploitation of mortal traumas in his greed for subjects:
I grind my words like knives on such events
As I encounter in my peddling round.
Though then, almost penitently, admits in the process that any such attempts will prove impotent:
But the worn whetstone’s whirling face prevents
The perfect statement of the truths I found.
Further on, the fool that is the poet then turns on himself in the mirror, and honesty strips him down:
But why should a grinder of words be counted much?
He negates his own importance, and even that of the beings on which he preys for inspiration:
– who values such
A stroller through ten thousand petty lives?
The poem ends as it begins with this riddling tone:
Who carved the round red sun? The sun has set.
Who purified the snow? The hills are white.
Keep grinding them, though nothing’s left to whet –
Bad luck unless your sparks can warm the night.
With the repetition of the first stanza’s questions in the last, and the poet’s deliberately mundane and cold scientific explanations, as opposed to actual answers – ‘The sun has set’ and has not been ‘carved’ by any God, because in this cruel reality there evidently isn’t one – it seems Lewis is mocking poetic perception, trying to show how unimportant poetic considerations are in the harsh uncompromising reality of warfare. The poet, then, presents us with his own poetic disillusionment under the flying ‘sparks’ of gunfire. He has indeed ‘worked to outline with precision/ Existence in its native nakedness’. It’s a hard-hitting piece, but every bit as chillingly honest as, say, Owen’s ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’.
And all this before even enter the collection proper. The first section, ‘Poems in Khaki’, begins with the book’s title poem, which is another deceptively straightforward lyric, startling in its lingering simplicity which smacks of some intrinsic though not instantly pinpointed wisdom – a true Blakean echo. The first stanza, though softly written, instantly wakes us up with a start at a shuddering reality of war’s moral anarchy:
Softly the civilized
Paper on paper,
Peter on Paul.
Civilisation falls flimsily as the Biblical paper it’s based upon. The poem ends on a stunning image:
Blue necklace left
On a charred chair
Tells that Beauty
Was startled there.
‘All Day It Has Rained’ is, in spite of its occasionally straining enjambments due to insisting on couplets, is another beautiful piece, beguilingly descriptive (‘And the wind that made the canvas heave and flap/ And the taut wet guy-ropes ravel out and snap’; ‘And we stretched out, unbuttoning our braces,/ Smoking a Woodbine, darning dirty socks/ Reading the Sunday papers…’) and, typically of Lewis, admirably compassionate:
And thought of the quiet dead and the loud celebrities
Exhorting us to slaughter, and the herded refugees;
– Yet thought softly, morosely of them, and as indifferently
As of ourselves or those whom we
For years have loved, and will again
The poem concludes on a consummate couplet, citing one of Lewis’s poetic heroes:
To the Shoulder O’Mutton where Edward Thomas brooded long
On death and beauty – till a bullet stopped his song.
‘The Soldier’ employs sexual imagery (‘Feel the dark cancer in my vitals’) to evoke the visceral spasms of warfare to ‘its climax of disaster’. Nature, as with religion and belief, is depicted as a hapless bystander, a picturesque anachronism in war’s brutal presence:
And summer leaves her green reflective woods
To glitter momently on peaks of madness.
In ‘The Public Gardens’, the poet in khaki observes civilians and children, from an emotional – thought empathetic – distance; his scribbling solipsism interrupted as if in relief by children who ‘passionately/ Snap my drifting lines with laughter’.
In ‘The Sentry’, beginning no-holds-barred with the line ‘I have begun to die’, Lewis beautifully expresses an anticipation of final departure by presenting life itself as a mere intermission in a darkness, by juxtaposing this sense with the ominously quiet break in fighting, giving time to reflect in the stillness:
…the guns’ implacable silence
Is my interim, my youth and age,
In the flower of fury, the folded poppy,
‘odi et amo’ is a tour-de-force of naked lyricism. In it, Lewis brilliantly expresses a sense of disembodiment from his actions:
My body does not seem my own
Now. These hands are not my own
That touch the hair-spring trigger, nor my eyes
Fixed on a human target, nor my cheek
Stroking the rifle butt; my loins
Are flat and closed like a child’s.
The poem culminates in the stunning couplet, again echoing the Nature as Impotent Witness motif of ‘The Soldier’:
And summer blossoms break above my head
With all the unbearable beauty of the dead.
Lewis frequently shocks us out of any complacency by often luring us in with deceptively bucolic verse, only to shatter the fantasy:
And then he sought within the glades of Love
The bleating wounded beast that was his voice.
Lewis is unflinching in his graphic images in order to hammer home his moral point:
When bees swarm in your nostrils
And honey drips from the sockets
Of eyes that to-day are frantic
With love that is frustrate,
What vow shall we vow who love you
For the self you did not value?
‘After Dunkirk’ captures the poet raging against religious hypocrisy:
First, then, remember Faith
Haggard with thoughts that complicate
What statesmen’s speeches try to simplify;
Horror of war, the ear half-catching
Rumours of rape in crumbling towns;
Love of mankind, impelling men
To murder and to mutilate; and then
Despair of man that nurtures self-contempt
And makes men toss their careless lives away,
While joy becomes an idiot’s grin…
An honest and self-critical misanthropy, sprung, as it often is, from a damaged compassion, gifts us ‘The difficult tolerance of all that is/ Mere rigid brute routine’, in a passage describing the repetitiveness of military life.
‘From A Play’ has – albeit less abstracted – echoes of Eliot’s ‘We are stuffed men/ Leaning together’ from ‘The Hollow Men’:
We are the little men grown huge with death.
Stolid in squads or grumbling on fatigues,
We held the humour of the regiment
And stifled our antipathies,
Stiff-backed and parrot-wise with pamphlet learning,
We officiated at the slaughter of the riverine peoples
In butcheries beyond the scope of our pamphlets.
Lewis skilfully portrays the pathos of the unquestioning soldier – or perhaps the less defensible complicity of the soldier shirking responsibility for his actions as if he has no moral choice in carrying out another’s orders: ‘So we guard out littleness with rifles’.
Possibly the mightiest tour-de-force in this collection is ‘Threnody for a Starry Night’, a series of brilliant aphorismic lyrics and epigrams, sequenced with numerals. III is so striking in its depiction of war’s dislocation and emasculation of its returning veterans who ‘cannot return’, that I quote it in full:
Polish girls singing, in the wind’s soughing;
We cannot go back. We dare not meet
The strangeness of our friendly street
Whose ruins lack
The clean porch, the shoe-scraper,
The Jewboy selling the evening paper,
The bow-window with the canary,
The house with a new baby,
The corner where our sweethearts waited
While we combed our hair.
We cannot return there.
By the mutilated smile,
By milk teeth smashed,
Love is outcast.
We choose the vast
Of dereliction which we fill
With grey affliction that shall spill
Out of our private parts like sawdust
From broken dolls.
V begins with the haunting aphorism, ‘Now only beggars still go singing/ And birds in forests./ We who are about/ A mass rearming for mass-martyrdom/ Are punctual and silent’. While VIII stuns in equal measure: ‘We were the daylight but we could not see’, and:
Yet now at last, in shelter, tube and street,
Communal anguish banishes
One gets the impression that the other four shorter sections of Raiders’ Dawn, namely ‘Poems In Love’, ‘Songs’, ‘On Old Themes’ and ‘And Other Poems’, consist more so of Lewis’s earlier output, the former two sections comprised of notably less mature and engaged lyrics and fantasias, though mostly all with some poetic merit, none of these more formative pieces comes close to the often startling emotional power of the poems in ‘Poems in Khaki’, and one suspects these two particular sections were tacked on to the greater works of the first. The latter two sections of the book improve on their immediate predecessors. ‘Old Themes’, as its title hints, is chiefly concerned with Greek mythological motifs and some translations (or variations) of Chinese verse, and in these aspects does not stand out particularly. The final section, disparagingly thrown to the back of the book with a glib ‘And Others’, is second only in quality to the remarkable ‘Poems In Khaki’. ‘The Madman’ is one of the most striking depictions of insanity I have read by a poet:
The shattered crystal of his mind
Flashes its dangerous splinters in the sun.
His eyes conceal behind their jagged smile…
The glow of beauty, its soft immanence.
The madman has that wonder in his eyes.
He knows life is a beautiful girl who loves no one
Yet makes the mirrors glitter and men mad.
This is not simply observation, it is insight.
‘The Mountain Over Aberdare’ serves as a tangible and candid description of the poet’s childhood home, offering something of a pastoral diversion after pages of blasted mental battlegrounds that almost obliterate the purpose of anything coming after it – but just about don’t:
Our stubborn bankrupt village sprawled
In jaded dusk beneath its nameless hills;
The drab streets strung across the cwm,
Derelict workings, tips of slag
The gospellers and gamblers use
And children scrutting for the coal
That winter dole cannot purvey;
Allotments where the collier digs
While engines hack the coal within his brain;
Grey Hebron in a rigid cramp,
White cheap-jack cinema, the church
Stretched like a sow beside the stream;
And mourners in their Sunday best
Holding a tiny funeral, singing hymns
That drift insidious as the rain
Which rises from the steaming fields…
And in a curtained parlour women hug
Huge grief, and anger against God.
But now the dusk…
Veils the cracked cottages with drifting may
And rubs the hard day off the slate.
And so on, brilliantly, with Wordsworthian rhythm but infused with gritty, tactile detail and frequently stunning metaphor. In other poems, there’s something of a verbal play springing, foreshadowing a future Welsh exponent of such, Dylan Thomas: ‘Hum of shaft-wheel, whirr and clamour/ Of steel hammers overbeat, din down/ Water-hag’s slander’, ‘…fat flabby-breasted wives’, all feature in ‘The Rhondda’. But this is a brief flourish of this kind, though hardly needed among the more typical pithy imagism of Lewis’s style, one rich in stunning aphorisms: ‘…strewing marrows carefully about the feet of saints’ (‘The Humanist’).
And just when one thinks, surely that’s it? Then comes the close, a short but perfectly formed poem, or epigram, which distils the essence of Lewis’s remarkable oeuvre, ‘The East’:
‘If passion and grief and pain and hurt
Are but the anchorite’s hair-shirt,
Can such a torment of refining
Be aimless wholly, undesigning?
Go to making
Whispered the wind in the olive tree
In the garden of Gethsemane.
This surely ranks among the best of its kind and would certainly not be out of place in Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience. The perfect simplicity in structure, the middle verse’s snap-shut Must/Dust via the clamp of a/bb/a, makes for a lasting achievement in itself, capturing in essence the extraordinary emotional distillation, in a minimum of words that in part best represents the true power and drive of Lewis.
This is poetry that beguiles on first reading, but which hits you straight between the eyes on its second, and Raider’s Dawn is one collection I’ll re-visit again and again; an enduring testament to the astonishingly sincere and imaginative voice of Alun Lewis, whose work deserves to be treasured and admired for posterity.
Alan Morrison © 2008