on Cousins in Arms

The poem is a meditation on two soldiers killed in WW1 and how they are remembered over time. It also deliberates on the forgetfulness of future generations and contrasts it with the loquacious commemoration of the poet Edward Thomas. Deft and ironic!  A fluent, articulate poem about laconic commemoration.

Dutifully, the poem questions the value of the sacrifice the soldiers made, hinting that they might have been shot as cowards.  There are points in the poem when we share vivid moments; the way the soldiers’ bodies fell, the spring offensive, the lines that ‘ try to place him’. It’s quite a technical achievements to bring that off, I think.

One very interesting theme is language, it’s potential and limitations, from ‘stories’ that are confirmed or denied, ‘bare facts’ , ‘ranked’ and ‘proof’, ‘mark you down’  represent the laconic ways in which the two soldiers are remembered. I think the treatment of language in this way is a strong idea running through the piece, perhaps much more so than the way it draws on celebrated work of Owen, Brooke and Co.

It is interesting to see the technical effect of the change of tense, from past to present, in lines such as,

‘We cannot know they way their bodies fell’

‘He vanishes at Arras’

‘He is not found’

These examples contrast with the past tense ‘what ends he served’. The time shifts don’t sound forced, either. The effect is to thrown details into relief so they take place now, in our time, where they ‘lie in wait’, as does Charlie Vince.

A fine poem, John. I especially like the way the poem explores language, it’s riches and impoverishments. This contrast is especially rich in such a ceremonious and articulate piece of work.

John Williams
19th September 2014

on Poland Train

There is a gradual emergence of verbs describing mental processes in ‘Poland Train’. Towards the middle we find the train is a ‘comet’ with a black tail; near the end we encounter the engine-driver’s glib comments on his own conclusions with words like ‘thought’, ‘what I cannot understand’, and ‘knew’, so very different from the opening stanzas with their physical emphasis (‘The stench’, on the train’s movement and on the striking contrasts;’needles’ of the dials, ‘fire,’shake’ and ‘shiver’. Also the worn out valves and poor coal reflect the moral debasement of the society in allowing such horrors. The development provides the poem with its ironic bite, its vatic stance about the difficult topic of the transportation. I think abstractions need to be prepared before the reader encounters them and you achieve it here. Contrasts of the physical and mental kind help a great deal, lending a control, so keenly required, in a poem about the Holocaust.

Notice, too, the juxtaposititions of huge and tiny- the tidy footplates and the fire; the tear of condensation and the huge train; the universe of the night and a man’s spit into the firebox. Along with sudden patterns of language like the repeated ls in ‘ the load, the line’s end or how long…’ they alert the reader to the unexpected, man;s insignificant place in the scheme of it all and in the end, to the ‘ramp beyond the arch’ which means death.

The poem conveys throughout the easy glibness in the engine-driver; the age-old attribution of guilt to the execution of Christ ‘Jews! I hear my father’s voice again…’ and with references like , ‘sinless son’ and ironic twist of ‘his Lord’. Also, the appalling ‘give more speed and help them on their way’. (I thought the Nazies made use to Luther’s Satanic preachings about the Jews, too. Could this have been touched on?)

that time and debt had lent a false respect’- a fine iambic beat to support the abstractions ‘ time’, false respect’.

A well-wrought poem, John, and on such a tricky subject. It deserves a wider audience.

Posted by John Williams on 12 May 2011


I love the poem ‘Doctor’s Notes’. It shows wonderful control of a difficult theme.

I especially like ‘ tongue tattooe…beasts’; ‘mark them down for cocktails in the club’; and the superbly wrought short sentences at the end which carry a punch ‘ The notes/ are thrown away…; ‘ Each scalpel, saw and knife their only epitaph.’

Brill! Clearand principled – not often we find both in a poem.

I have difficulty with only one line, I feel: ‘evident brutality becomes a fact’. I think it’s a bit heavy, committed you might say. Perhaps a lighter expression might carry the reader along more effectively, though i can’t at the moment suggest what might work.

Posted by John Williams on 16 December 2011

It’s a brilliant poem – the selection of personal and historical detail; the, at times appropriately violent, economy of language; the suppressed anger; the elegiac cadences; the pathos.

Posted by DAVID SELZER on 01 December 2010


How good this piece is! Evocative, wry and a little nostalgic. And how right, ironically, are the echoes of Larkin’s ‘Whitsun Weddings’as the train approaches the city.

Posted by David Selzer on 21 August 2009


Angio – great little poem, John. It’s intriguing how you use the physiology of the heart to record the impact of experience.

‘In there are muscles which on Impulse send us on our way’ seems especially potent, returning us to our day.

Have you sent it away to a magazine? You might try Envoi and its new lively editor.

Posted by John Williams on 25 June 2009

One thought on “COMMENTS

  1. ‘That’s Poetry for You’
    On first reading, a delightful impressionistic poem. The poet is responding deeply to music which delights. He feels ‘overcome’, a case of Stendhal Syndrome – except it’s music. The poem begins with tunes and ends with the player’s lips ready for a drink, and to utter speech.

    The Irish songs evoke a Romantic conceit; flowers still grow today from the seeds that children planted, though the children have grown up and long-singed died. The moment draws on Wordsworth’s famous line, ‘The child is father of the man’ (‘My heart leaps up’ known also as ‘The Rainbow’).

    The poet returns us to Maloney’s bar and describes the setting, the applause, players and their instruments. I wonder if the insight about the flowers and children might come later in the poem so the piece builds up to some spiritual insight, which, after all, is where the Celtic twilight pointed (Yeats’ ‘ He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven’) Could we have the setting, the players and their instruments described the first few lines? As it reads, the poem leaves behind the BIG QUESTION of ‘Life/Over Death’ and builds up merely to the revelation that this music is repetitive, leaving the reader with the limp three cliched similes at the end, and the player’s lips.

    After the insight about the perpetuity of the flowers, we hear how ‘notes are summoned /from the air’, perhaps the players are tuning up, or practising for a moment or two before starting the next tune. As the music starts up once again, the musicians ‘gather each/other’s strength’, suggesting community, creativity and solidarity. It is significant how the poet becomes aware how repetitive the music sounds, ‘’Tunes repeat themselves…’, a repetitive quality represents a real opportunity for profound insight, I think. Perhaps the water simile doesn’t serve the poem too well – excuse the pun. Repetition suggests ritual, participation in an action or drama that invokes. What could such repetition invoke here, I wonder? What would Yeats do here?

    On re-reading, I sensed this lovely poem was a homage to Patrick Kavanagh, the great poet of County Monaghan, rather than to Yeats. Lines such as,

    ’tongues of music/
    that call across the road from Shortt’s.’

    and ‘control their owners hearts and fingers.’ and especially ‘ glasses raised to lips for speech.’ strongly evoke the moods of Kavanagh.

    After I enjoyed the poem a number of times, I sense that the juxtaposition of Nature and Education is out of place in such an impressionistic piece. And I’m unsure why the poet steps in and gives us a lesson, ‘Life/Over Death’ a bit de-haut-en-bas, comme on dit. Also, I sense an English nineteenth century sensibility in some expressions: we encounter Tennyson’s broken wall (St. Simeon Stylites),

    “Tunes repeat themselves like water
    tumbling, like morning mountain winds,
    like flowers found beneath a broken

    The three similes tumbling one after another, ‘ like water…like morning mountain winds…like flowers’ are not too strong. They weaken the poem when it should be growing more potent in the finale. I wonder, does the weak ending suggest an ironic take on Irish Romantic sensibility? Maybe that’s it! YES! The poet shows its spiritual emptiness, underscoring the message with three worn out Romantic similes from an age long gone. The poem ends with a return to speech. What can lips utter after we hear that flowers outlast us all?

    A fine little poem, John, despite my reservations. Please ignore them – except you might well cut the lines Life/Over Death’. Put the flower planting towards the end, or something stronger.


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