‘War is like love,” wrote Brecht in Mother Courage, “it always finds a way.”
In the context of the endless, partial, dirty imperial wars of the 21st century, it is worth remembering that love, like war, will always find a way to say what must be said.
These days we are used to the televised grief of combatants, civilians and refugees. But the experiences of the families left behind are rarely heard.
Home Front (Bloodaxe Books, £12) is an inspired idea and an important book, written by four women.
Isabel Palmer and Bryony Doran are mothers of British soldiers who served in Afghanistan. Jehanne Dubrow and Elyze Fenton are the wives of US servicemen who served in Iraq.
It’s four books in one, a collection of painful farewells, phone-calls and photographs, letters and longing, despair, denial and desperation.
Each follows the chronology of loss while their loved ones were away, as they tried to carry on normal lives in an abnormal situation.
Isabel Palmer is good on the chilling absurdities of the situation, suddenly distracted at traffic lights or while shopping by the “shifting sand” beneath her feet, unable to comprehend the horror of what might happen to her son: “Why / do they have to iron uniforms / to go out on patrol? // As if smoothness could keep you safer / than all the browns and yellows in the world, / or heat could stroke the breath / into a tunic’s body / to keep the bullets out.”
For Bryony Doran, war turns her son into “a stranger who swore like a trooper in front of his mother.” She is just “another dazed parent” trying to see “the boy behind the man,” wanting him to come home with “two legs and the rest of his life.” Elyze Fenton wrote a poem every week while her husband, a US army doctor, was in Iraq.
In these poems the Tigris becomes the River Acheron — the river of the dead.
There are some great poems here, notably The War Bride Waits and Your Plane Arrives from Iraq for the Last Time and the beautiful For L., In Baghdad — “Do me a favour, L. Stay put./ Stay close / To earth.”
Best of the four is Jehanne Dubrow, who imagines herself as Homer’s Penelope: “almost a widow in the Trojan War,” still waiting, like every soldier’s wife since, for the return of her Odysseus.
Some of these poems should be included in any good anthology of war-poetry, like Sea Change, O’ Dark Hundred, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, At the Mall with Telemachus, Against War Movies and Situational Awareness: “Who said that war is hell? / Well, waiting can be worse. Show me a guy / shipped overseas, and I’ll show you a wife / who sees disaster dropping from the sky. / The ambush always comes, her husband’s life / a road of booby traps and blind spots made / to hide the rock, the shell, the thrown grenade.”
Marilyn Longstaff writes about a different kind of conflict in her new collection, Articles of War (Smokestack Books, £7.99).
Her parents were Salvation Army officers who dedicated her to God, promising to keep her from harmful reading, jewellery and other worldly pleasures: “No Joy of Sex in my childhood, / just Friday night Joy Hour at the Citadel – / Jesus first, Yourself last and, in-between, / the Others – the unruly and unwashed, / offspring from neighbouring terraces, singing / salvation choruses and watching flickering silent films.”
It’s a book about a jealous God, about belief and freedom — “What did I learn? / don’t bother knocking / find another way in / power shifts / there are no rules worth keeping.”
Liberties (Smokestack Books, £7.99) is Victoria Bean’s second collection.
It is a study in trouble — those who cause it, those who are looking for it, and those who have found it.
Drawing on the found poetry of graffiti, tattoos and court statements, it’s a book about needs and wants, desperate truths and unbelievable lies, about liberties taken and liberties lost, the nameless and the blameless, like the ex-squaddie in court in There’s a War on Somewhere: “He punch punishes the soldier he once was / let hooks his left cheek / splits an already fine line / from a shaving nick this morning / jabs a finger at his temple: / I’m not thick you know but the shadows of his old sergeant / father, teacher still tell him that he is.”
In 2011 Nancy Charley spent six weeks in a little blue beach hut on Tankerton Slopes, near Whitstable on the Kent coast, recording the changing tides and shifting moods of the shingle beach.
Little Blue Hut (Smokestack Books, £7.99) is a book about weather and water, swimmers, dog-walkers and sea-anglers, cormorants and blackheaded gulls, resident birds and transient people, a book about the sea and the sky, time and tide: “Two swimmers appear / as aberrant white horses / foaming the water. / Retired jacketed greyhounds / jog with jacketed owners. / A breeze thieves the time, / three aging dandelions loosen their fleeces. / Single file, synchronised flap / towards sunset, geese fly past.”