After War, N. S. Thompson
New Walk Editions, 2020 £5.00
Form and time
This pamphlet is a pleasing whole, with a consistency of form and theme throughout. Every poem is regularly metrical and uses regular rhyme. Almost all the first half, indeed, is made up of poems in ABAB quatrains. All the poems are set in the aftermath of the Second World War, some more explicitly than others, but they provide a pleasing variety of viewpoints within that consistent setting, often linked through imagery around music and building sites.
For example, ‘Speechless’ shows us what seems a very British scene: afternoon tea, followed by listening to a piano concert on the radio, at the shared home of Miss Moore and Miss Sachs, ending with tears (implicitly for all that has been lost):
Austria was framed inside the dark brown prints
Along the walls where glass reflections shone
Some light on them from cabinets with glints
Of Meissen, Royal Vienna, crystal, bone
All of this and a ‘grand piano bought / From what was left of Miss Sachs’ family’s wealth’.
By contrast, we’re in America at a similar time in ‘…With Strings’, observing musicians ‘Lou Kieveman, Victor Slatkin, Felix Katz’ making a new life for themselves in ‘hired tuxedo suits / Beneath the snazzy hatbands of the year’ in ‘the summer of a New York spring’. The tone is joyful to start with, but the rumble of the streetcar they catch brings back memories of ‘camp details’ and ‘cattle trucks’, and they’re subject to ‘sideways looks’.
I found the poems throughout completely believable, and more effective in their simple and realistic portrayal of detail than many showier, more didactic works about war. In choosing to focus on the aftermath, at a human and often domestic level, this pamphlet provides a refreshingly unself-important portrayal, almost like a time capsule.
Rhyme and resonance
After War is a deeply considered and regular sequence of poetry: the poet’s use of form, rhyme and rhythm is exact and precise throughout. This is ironic given that the world described is one that is fractured, the poems a sequence of juxtaposed fragments and recollections.
The use of rhyme scheme in After War is particularly powerful. Steady quatrains of abab focus us upon the line endings and specifically the impact of the final word, as here, in the title poem:
Slit trenches, dug in by skeletal frames,
Hold nothing but the memories retained
By varnished pokerwork to post the names.
In addition, the regularity of a regular rhyme pattern relaxes the reader into its bounce, so we’re caught out when the poetry itself doesn’t adhere to this idea of neatness and conformity. For instance, in ‘Ubi Solitudinem’:
Between his teeth, a small boy pulls the string
That drags his toy tank over shifting sands
Beyond the walls: the only solid thing
After the mine that blew away both hands.
The neatness and regularity of ‘string’ / ’thing’ and ‘sands’ / ‘hands’ lulls us into a false sense of security, when what awaits — as that final word resonates — is a nasty shock. The brutality of the image is at odds with the elegance of the poem’s craft — which makes it all the more impactful.
There's a similar contrast in ‘Messaien: Quartet for the End of Time’:
Wind soughs; rain soaks the ill-constructed camp
Whose wooden stamp
Is rigid with the staves and barbs of wire
On which his semi-quavers dance.
Here the first three lines end with words heavy in association: ‘camp’, ‘stamp’ and ‘wire’. The final word of the rhyme scheme (aabc) is ‘dance’ — accentuated by its difference. The juxtaposition enhances the power of this incredibly striking image.