Every now and then I receive a truly lovely piece of correspondence. This is one of them. John Davies is a former Bishop of Shrewsbury and the former, founding President of the Wilfred Owen Association. He got in touch to share the following review of Fierce Imaginings. At this time of Remembrance it struck me as worth sharing, not least because the review is beautifully written. It won a prize for its writing, organised by the Wilfred Owen Association.
Bishop John D. Davies
Review for Wilfred Owen Association Journal July 2017-07-22
Rachel Mann Fierce Imaginings: The Great War, Ritual, Memory and God (London, Darton, Longman and Todd, 2017) ISBN 978-0-232-53278-4.
177 pages. £12.99
With a Foreword by Rowan Williams
Out of the many books published concerning the Great War of 1914 – 1918, this is the one that I shall keep and return to.
It is almost impossible to classify - a real puzzle for librarians. Is it history? Yes, certainly, but of a very selective kind. Is it a guide to the literature and symbolism of the War? Yes, but, again, it is the specific insight of a unique individual. Is it spirituality? Yes, again, but a shared awareness of myths, of public, social, cultural spirituality, not just personal introspection. Is it theology? Yes; but it is about the loss of a theology, the loss of God as purveyed in the dominant theological markets of the day. Is it a meditation, yes, but meditation that is based on hard and grinding experience. Is it, at heart, autobiography, centred in the impact on the author of the war-narrative of her grandfathers, Sam and Bert? Yes, it is that; but it is a story from which I, and, I would think, many others, can read our own story. In that sense, it is a classic. It is about the past, but the ambiguities of our Brexit age are constantly whispering between the lines.
Granddad Sam and Granddad Bert were ‘ordinary’ soldiers, from working- class communities, not given to intense speaking or writing about their experiences, both deeply wounded survivors. They serve as examples of one of the primary features of the Great War; as Rachel Mann says, ‘this war - above all other wars - was a war in which men were done to rather than doing.’ It was the genius of Wilfred Owen to realise this and to express it. It was this that caught my own interest when, as an Army cadet, I was introduced to Owen, by a teacher who was himself almost a stereotype of a military officer. At that time, and then later, when I was a technical tradesman in the RAF, Owen gave me permission to question the ‘dulce et decorum’ convention which was assumed in my school, and in church parades, and on Remembrance Sunday - observances which alienated Sam and Bert and many others of us.. (This was
long before Owen became part of the syllabus, the ‘outstanding war poet’, in danger of being co-opted, along with cenotaphs and poppies, into the project of making war manageable.). Rachel Mann, now a practising poet, testifies to the impact made on her, at the age of fourteen, by Owen’s energy and immediacy, compared to the poets like Arnold and Browning whom she was required to study.. ‘ Owen’ she says, ‘is the reason that I study and try to write poetry today.’ So this was not just an adolescent fascination. Now, as an adult, she identifies even more with David Jones, whose place in the class hierarchy and whose war experience were nearer to those of Sam and Bert. Justifiably she sees In Parenthesis as a fuller and more multi-faceted account - but then, Jones did have about twenty years longer than Owen in which to assemble and articulate his cosmos!
War is deliberate destruction, systematic de-creation, organised causing of loss. . Mann explores many forms of this loss, loss not only of life but also of masculinity, with examples ranging from the clinical handling of post-traumatic stress disorder to characters drawn by Dorothy L Sayers. She recalls the profound loss experienced by the two million or so women who outnumbered men by the end of the Great War. Again, she exemplifies this from within her own family story. It is part of the War. I suggest that there is another side to this which, for many families, was also part of the War. Among young women also there was huge loss of life at the end of the War, caused not by enemy action but by the ‘Spanish flu’. In 1919, my father returned, unwounded, from service in the army in France , to find that his wife and his baby son had both been swept away, leaving him to care for a four-year-old daughter. That , also, is part of the mostly unspoken memory of the War.. It may claim a place in the total account.
Rachel Mann is not only a poet but also a Christian priest. Professionally, therefore, she is a specialist in the business of remembering . In addition to that, she has her own unique experience of the re-configuration of her
personal memory, which she generously shares. She offers tools of critique of our enterprises of remembering, both those which just happen as part of our humanity and those which are orchestrated by the powers which claim the authority to manage our remembering. . She has explored the different modes of remembering that are found not only among the tribes of the UK but also among French and German communities. She recognises the ardour which animates remembrance when the landmarks of conflict are on one’s own territory; further, there are those local rhythms which are stirred when those landmarks identify a conflict in which one’s own tribe was defeated - an experience which is outside the range of most English, but is close to home for the Afrikaners, for the Welsh, and for the heirs of the Confederacy of the South. (For several years, I was in charge of a small college which often included German and Japanese students, along with members from Africa and Asia. Every year, we had somehow to explain what on earth the British thought that they were up in the first fortnight of November . It was the most difficult phase of the year).
As a minister of the eucharist, Mann presides over a tradition of remembering which is essentially fragile, not cast in bronze or carved in stone, but conveyed in organic substances that are subject to decay. In contrast to the permanent structures which are commanded by those who are used to being obeyed, and which instruct the viewer on how to respond, she commends the kind of remembering which has to be rediscovered time and again, .whose meaning is revealed in new commitment and service. So she describes and values a particular memorial which is designed to disappear (Again, I find myself resonating. When my mother, in Cheshire, was organising a grave for her mother and for my father and eventually for herself, she defied the assumptions of monumental masons who were addicted to glossy inscriptions on alien granite; she insisted, with considerable difficulty, on a small kerb of local friable sandstone, in the sure and certain hope that the inscription would be weathered into illegibility over fifty years - a plan which has succeeded. Also, in stating
the date of death, she eschewed the loss-word ‘departed’ and appropriated the alleluia-word ‘arrived’. I think that our author would approve.)
So, after all, how do we classify such a book? I think that it is, essentially, a book of poetry. It is not structured as poetry, but it does what poetry does. It takes a whole lot of disparate images and bangs them up against each other - a cenotaph, a chapel, a street memorial, a wallet, a photograph, a church cross, wounds, a battlefield - these are Mann’s chapter-headings. She takes these images and rearranges them into coherence. That is a poetic enterprise. Her book is a simultaneous presentation of opposites - the commitment of disillusion along with a commitment of faithfulness to the real persons in her narrative ; that is a tension which is at the heart of the poet’s endeavour. Although, as I say, the book is not cast in a poetic structure, it exemplifies the struggle between form and content which is the poet’s stock-in-trade. And, time and again, it makes the familiar unfamiliar, connecting to what we know and leading round a corner to a new view. All poetry involves a defiance of the inadequacy of words to convey meaning. Mann’s defiance is to take her overall subject-matter of loss and turn it into a currency of gain.
Unlike so much memorialising of conflict, this book does not operate from an established power-base where the identities of winners and losers, of suppliers and recipients, are taken for granted; as is obvious from this short review, it invites the reader into its enquiry. As with true poetry, it is incomplete without the reader. As a reader, I extend that invitation in my own name, conscious that in doing so I have not fully represented the full range of the book but have assumed permission to witness to my own connexions. How could a valid reading be otherwise? That is what a book of this kind does to you.
JOHN D DAVIES July 2017