Shoestring Press , 2007 - £4.50 www.shoestring-press.com
The 20th century was a century of war, but also a time when almost as many poets marched cheek to jowl as did soldiers. Robert Graves once noted that the difficulties of communicating the impact of the war might have been linked to the difficulties of communicating noise, but what if the noise never stops? The poems in Vernon Scannell’s Last Post show us that clear vision coupled with a music that echoes the human heart can lead us past such implacable noise.
Born into the shattered landscape remaining after WWI, Scannell later fought on the battlefields of North Africa, stormed the beach at Normandy, and then left those battlefields convinced that there should be no more wars. But that war never really left him. It is not surprising, then, that this fine chapbook, published only months before his death, should include as many lucid poems about how war startles and scars as about love and the joy (and necessity) of writing.
He writes through an abiding consciousness that these poems may be his last, but where such awareness might leave a lesser poet self-consciously determined to write ‘meaningful’ verse, Scannell offers us instead quiet observations of the real and the remembered, cradled by gentle harmonies developed through a careful attention to form. There is, however, no war between form and function in these poems; Scannell has had enough of war. Form is function, and the function of these poems is to remind us of our human hearts and of our capacity for connection that might permit ‘a flowering of immeasurable tenderness.’
Instead of drawing war in all its naked bloody horror or turning aside to write only of the banal, Scannell positions spare snapshots of battle as leaning into a graceful song of life and living. Remembered war in “the mind’s dark dug-out” is full of noise but also crowded with words that “tread the air”, and the anxiety of pre-bomb black-out is recalled not through fear but within the scent of the beloved, a “fragrance” that “claims the air”. His poems suggest that the best way to speak against war is to speak for peace, for joy, for life.
In ‘The Need’ he writes
I need to make a shape of words,
a singing picture or a prayer,
a declaration of deep love,
of affirmation or despair
and in his poems, that shape, that singing, is most pleasurable. A poet who loves so completely a world overrun with violence and war is a poet worth reading.