Column 32

On the 100th anniversary of the end of World War One, this poem illustrates how the effects of that conflict have lived on through time and generations. It’s a poem where the narrative is sometimes hard to follow, with the past and the present seemingly mixing, linked by grief from both periods. The poem is by Lucy Newlyn and was published in in Poems for the NHS (The Onslaught Press). Lucy’s latest collection is Earth’s Almanac published by Enitharmon.


When I saw you lying there,
your oxygen-mask slipping,

you were not yourself, but your father –
dead on the Somme.
I was not myself, but a witness to World War One,
and another war impending.
There weren’t enough nurses for the wounded and dying.
The trench was deep, the duck-boards strained
under thick-piled bodies.
Your death-to-come was a tiny pin-point
on a lengthening graph;
your father’s name picked out among the un-numbered.
and I, with my survivor’s guilt, remained by your side
the whole night through to watch it happening.
Then I became a prophet-healer,
chosen as the Special One to save the world –
and I was shouting, shouting.
Then I was imprisoned in a ward,
watched by an eye in the door, to stop me escaping.
When I had slept, they let me out to see you.
My kind gaoler, Norah, came with me
to read from The Guardian,
let you know what was happening.
Later, they let me see you alone.
Morning after morning I sat beside you
in your lonely ward.
The nurse squeezed your hand;
a Jamaican said ‘bless’, with a voice
that rose and fell like music.
I read you poems – the ones I loved.
I was sure, once and once only, that you heard me.
Whose death was I mourning, before and after?
Whose story is this anyway –
Yours, or your generation’s passed down to me?
Day after day, outside your window,
a blackbird sang in the tree.


Used with kind permission of Lucy Newlyn.