A Time of War by Sally Roberts Jones

We sit and talk, over coffee in the open-plan lounge.
Admire the stones in that hearth –
Pebbles from Morfa Beach gathered out of ship-wreck and
On a family outing.
Imperceptibly stories move round to the ancient subject.
‘When I had my third…’
‘I told them the pains had started…’
‘I was left by myself in the ward with the visitors coming
And there was the baby, popped out in a sea of flowers,
Launched on an ocean of chocolates.

Our membership’s fully paid up, our initiation
Long past in that sisterhood
Of undignified sweat. Now we pattern our legend,
The folklore of generations renews on our tongues.
‘They decided to break my waters…’
‘I couldn’t sit down except on a pillow…’
What echo?
What voice can I hear behind us,
We four placid matrons
Who speak in such measured remembrance
Of passion and blood?
‘We heaped up the bodies to burn them…
I gave them whiskey, they laughed as they did it.’
‘The Sergeant
Was a bastard.’
‘We painted the coal for their visit – painted it black!’

That too I remember.
Dark hours of smoke and hard bar stools,
And the long-gone soldiers
Rehearsing their stories of pain, of ridiculous order,
The names like a litany:
St. Nazaire, Salerno, Nicosia
Abu Dhabi, Seoul, Londonderry.

Civilian veterans, brought face to face
With possible death, with fear, with absurdity rampant –
We will never swap tales, exchange a still-birth for an ambush
Our weird sisters for wartime’s fell serjeant.
But the echo is there –
We are all of us conscripts
In this campaign that is staying alive.

By Sally Roberts Jones

Additional information: The book I referenced referred to the poem both as ‘A Time of War’, on the contents and acknowledgement pages but as ‘A time at war’ where the poem itself is shown. I assume ‘A Time of War’ is the correct title but will mention the other in case anyone knows it by the alternative.

Sally Roberts Jones (born 30 November 1935) is an English-born Welsh poet, publisher and critic. She is a founding member of the English Language Section of Yr Academi Gymreig, she was its Secretary / Treasurer from 1968 to 1975 and its Chair from 1993 to 1997.

She founded the Alun Books imprint and is on the editorial board of the poetry journal Roundyhouse. She has also written and lectured on the cultural and industrial history of Wales and contributed to the Oxford Companion to the Literature of Wales, the Dictionary of Welsh Biography and the New Dictionary of National Biography.

Two particular field of interest she has are the development of the Arthurian legend and research into the field of Welsh Writing in English, though she has also written about Essex, where she was initially raised. In 2019 she was elected a Fellow of the Learned Society of Wales.

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Morfa beach is known locally as “The Morfa” (in Welsh as Y Morfa meaning ‘the sea marsh’), it shapes the south side of the estuary of the River Conwy. Today it is a large sandy bay, which at low tide forms part of the extensive sandy beaches and mussel banks of Conwy Bay, Morfa Conwy has many developments on its land including a beach, gold club, marina and an industrial estate.

St Nazaire is a commune in the Loire-Atlantique department in western France, in traditional Brittany. The poem refers to the St Nazaire Raid or Operation Chariot was a British amphibious attack on the heavily defended Normandie dry dock at St Nazaire in German-occupied France during the Second World War.

Salerno is is an ancient city and commune in Campania (southwestern Italy) and is the capital of the namesake province. It is located on the Gulf of Salerno on the Tyrrhenian Sea. The city hosted Victor Emmanuel III, the King of Italy, who moved from Rome in 1943 after Italy negotiated a peace with the Allies in World War II, making Salerno the capital of the “Government of the South” (Regno del Sud) and therefore provisional government seat for six months. Some of the Allied landings during Operation Avalanche (the invasion of Italy) occurred near Salerno.

Nicosia is the largest city, capital, and seat of government of Cyprus. It is located near the centre of the Mesaoria plain, on the banks of the River Pedieos. I am assuming the poem is referring to the armed struggle, in 1955, against British rule which aimed to unite the island with Greece, Enosis. The struggle was led by EOKA, a Greek Cypriot nationalist military resistance organisation, and supported by the vast majority of Greek Cypriots. The unification with Greece failed and instead the independence of Cyprus was declared in 1960. During the period of the struggle, Nicosia was the scene of violent protests against British rule.

Abu Dhabi is the capital and the second-most populous city of the United Arab Emirates (after Dubai), it is also the capital of the Emirate of Abu Dhabi. The city of Abu Dhabi is located on an island in the Persian Gulf, off the Central West Coast. Most of the city and the Emirate reside on the mainland connected to the rest of the country.

Seoul, officially the Seoul Special City, is the capital and largest metropolis of South Korea. In 1945, the city was officially named Seoul, and was designated as a special city in 1949. During the Korean War, Seoul changed hands between the Soviet/Chinese-backed North Korean forces and the American-backed South Korean forces several times, leaving the city heavily damaged after the war. The capital was temporarily relocated to Busan. One estimate of the extensive damage states that after the war, at least 191,000 buildings, 55,000 houses, and 1,000 factories lay in ruins. In addition, a flood of refugees had entered Seoul during the war, swelling the population of the city and its metropolitan area to an estimated 1.5 million by 1955. Following the war, Seoul began to focus on reconstruction and modernization.

Derry, officially Londonderry, is the second-largest city in Northern Ireland and the fifth-largest city on the island of Ireland.[8] The name Derry is an anglicisation of the Old Irish name Daire (in modern Irish ‘Doire’) meaning “oak grove”. The old walled city lies on the west bank of the River Foyle, which is spanned by two road bridges and one footbridge. The city now covers both banks (Cityside on the west and Waterside on the east). During the Irish War of Independence, the area was rocked by sectarian violence, partly prompted by the guerilla war raging between the Irish Republican Army and British forces, but also influenced by economic and social pressures. The conflict which became known as the Troubles is widely regarded as having started in Derry with the Battle of the Bogside. The Civil Rights Movement had also been very active in the city. In the early 1970s the city was heavily militarised and there was widespread civil unrest. Several districts in the city constructed barricades to control access and prevent the forces of the state from entering.

Hallowe’en by R.S. Thomas

Outside a surfeit of planes.

Inside the hunger of the departed

to come back. ‘Ah, erstwhile humans,

would you make your mistakes

over again? In life, as in love,

the second time around is

no better.’

I confront their expressions

in the embers, on grey walls:

faces among the stones watching

me to see if this night

of all nights I will make sacrifice

to the spirits of hearth and of

roof-tree, pouring a libation.

 

‘Stay where you are,’ I implore.

‘This is no world for escaped beings

to make their way back into.

The well that you took your pails

to is polluted. At the centre

of the mind’s labyrinth to machine howls

for the sacrifice of the affections;

vocabulary has on a soft collar

but the tamed words are not to be trusted.

As long as the flames hum, making

their honey, better to look in

upon truth’s comb than to

take off as we do on fixed wings

for depollinated horizons.’

 

by R. S Thomas

from No Truce with the Furies (1995)

Hireling by R. S. Thomas

Cars pass him by; he’ll never own one.

Men won’t believe in him for this.

Let them come into the hills

And meet him wandering a road,

Fenced with rain, as I have now;

The wind feathering his hair;

The sky’s ruins, gutted with fire

Of the late sun, smouldering still.

 

Nothing is his, neither the land

Nor the land’s flocks. Hired to live

On hills too lonely, sharing his hearth

With cats and hens, he has lost all

Property but the grey ice

Of a face splintered by life’s stone.

 

by R. S. Thomas

from Tares (1961)

March Saw Winter Gain In Strength by Maria Petrovykh

March saw winter gain in strength –

bitter cold and unrelenting storms.

In reckless fury, blinding spite,

the wind blew only from the north.

 

No hint of spring. Gripped by inertia,

the heart slips all too close to places

of no return: no self, no words,

mere apathy and voicelessness.

 

Who can bring back our sight, our hearing?

Who can retrace the way to hearth

and home now that all trace of home

is gone, wiped from the earth?

 

by Мария Сергеевна Петровых (Maria Sergeyevna Petrovykh)

(1955)

translated by Robert Chandler and Irina Mashinski


 

the final line could be considered a sceptical response to Khrushchev’s Thaw during the, relatively, liberal period after Stalin’s death.

Also it is quite timely considering the current UK weather where ‘the Beast for the East’ and Storm Emma are double teaming the British Isles.