Flarestack Publishing, 2004 - £3.00
The face staring straight from the blue cover is Nurse Edith Cavell, familiar from history and recognisable to Londoners from Frampton’s monument near the National Portrait Gallery. In these twenty-four poems, K.V.Skene explores the life of her grandfather’s cousin. She breathes life into the marble statue, and reveals the desires, hopes and dreams flickering behind the bare facts of biography. Threading the lines “Someday, somehow/ I am going to do something useful” through five poems (spanning childhood in East Anglia, teaching, nursing, and finally execution in Brussels in 1915), Skene explores the continuing strength of Edith Cavell’s motivation.
“A shilling life will give you all the facts,” wrote Auden. Skene’s poems give the inner woman, and are hauntingly convincing. In ‘One of Miss Gibson’s girls’, Cavell learns French:
A language to lighten the tongue,
sweeten the mouth, taste
of new-ripe womenhood, its accent
curls a soft knot around vague
There is love that doesn’t take off, and a dawning recognition that other women’s children are all Cavell will have; there is war and its rumoured horrors moving closer to Brussels; and the painful chill, despite her nursing colleagues, of being alone. Then court-martial for helping fugitives escape, and five days to prepare for her execution – “Betrayed by the love// that did happen”. The economy of Skene’s language, each poem pared back so that every word has impact and is essential, suggests not only the purity of Cavell’s love for humanity but also the inner personal discipline.
These are moving poems, gaining immeasurably from their concentration in one pamphlet. It’s a collection that has grown slowly—the acknowledgements go back to 1996 and, as well as the UK, include publications in Canada and Australia. All of which suggests that the sequence has been many years in the planning, and only published when this accomplished poet has brought it to perfection— which she has. These are intense, beautiful poems that mirror a noble life.