With images by Charlotte Hodes
Seren, 88pp, £14.99
The concept of this beautiful book from Seren is, at first glance, one of simple inspiration: award-winning poet Deryn Rees-Jones has all but eloped with the imagination of the object of Edward Thomas’ heart-breaking poem, the poem that also forms the title of the book. Rees-Jones has written a quietly magnificent poem in the re-imagined voice of Helen, wife of the doomed poet who died from concussion in the final moments of the Battle of Arras in 1917. But the book is more than that; there is also an engrossing meditative essay in which Rees-Jones examines the allure of Thomas’ poem and that of the figure of Helen Thomas. And then there are the collages of Charlotte Hodes; dashing, aqueous images illustrating the emotional struggles of the lives of these two. The three come together with a distinct lack of pretension, no over-reach, and it is the simplicity of this concept that makes the book so rich, so pure, and so deeply moving.
The starting point is Thomas’ poem, from the pen of one of the Great War’s most distinct voices. And it is a poem that, with Rees-Jones’ guiding light, is clearly asking for this kind of response. The allure of Thomas’ poetry can be found in its bear-trap sincerity, its aching need to be written. There are few better examples of Thomas’ retching psychosis than ‘And You, Helen’. And as much as Thomas wrote out of need, so it seems has Rees-Jones responded out of a similar compulsion.
It is important to note that ‘And You, Helen’ is not simply a love poem born of amorous gratitude for the love and devotion of a wife. Thomas was a depressive, and this poem too is raked with the melancholic guilt of how the infected spreads misery to those in close emotional proximity. In 1912, Thomas told friend and poet Gordon Bottomley, ‘my habit for introspection and self-contempt has at last broken my spirit. Intense irritability made life intolerable in a cottage where I could not suffer without making four others suffer with me.’ Thomas’ ‘household’ poems should not be mistaken for ‘love’ poems or ‘domestic’ poems, then; his greatest work was concerned with human frailty, paranoia, and the psychological debts of the neurotic. To put it in the coldest terms, Thomas was a poet perfect for the bleak reality of the war he found himself in. Literarily, it gave him the unconscious opportunity to explore his most profound themes, the ones that had always been rippling within him: isolation, fear, nightmare visions of humanity, and, most importantly in this case, the love that Proust termed a ‘reciprocal torture’. This is love as care and despair, as dreadful longing necessity, the love of need – this is the place of Petrarch and Laura, of Yeats and Maude Gonne, only here we see the poet with the prize, and it is as tragic as you feel would surely have been so for those others. Rees-Jones has intervened with a deeply compassionate step.
And You, Helen is saturated in the realisation of what Thomas was, and Rees-Jones’ delving into the imagined psychosis of Helen is a delving even deeper in the shadow of the husband, the great poet. But that is not to say this is a book getting at the man through the woman behind the man. Rees-Jones is concerned with Helen first and foremost, and all women of a fascinating, complex time and situation. This is a book, at one angle, about the true intellectual experience of war when it comes up against the sagging reality of human neuroses and the frailty of the soul. It is a story speck on a vast awful canvass, but a story entirely human and relevant. It is one of the most moving stories of ‘those left behind’ likely to be found anywhere.
The poem and images are an example of artistic expression at its finest, at its most moving and far-reaching, the concept unified perfectly. It moves so quietly, gliding like a Terrence Malick scene, but it is no less sonorously resonant for it. Here we are concerned with the stains of memory, and spaces – everywhere are spaces! – unfinished sentences, thoughts, and missing words.
As this old tin bowl holds water for washing, it holds, too,
The memory of water.
As her body holds the memory of —————–, she holds, too.
As a gun holds the memory of its firing,
As the earth soaks up the water, sends it skyward;
As the skylark —- as the fieldfare, sparrow, blackcap, rook —
As her body holds his body,
As their slow, deep movements —
He holds too.
This is a book so thoughtfully coloured, so mindfully crafted, so interestingly beautiful in word and image, that it glistens on the landscape of war literature, now so immovably identified with a hellish chaotic sepia. The book is carefully given its white spaces – not something our imaginations can easily give over to the Great War. Indeed, it is not so easy to think of that crack-fire end to the old world in anything but belligerent browns and greys. And You, Helen is a significant, profound and welcome move away from so many of the clichés now so tight to our view of this war.
Few works that have come out in the last year’s geyser of Great War commemorations have gone as far as the words of Deryn Rees-Jones to present the problems of true empathy. Whereas other works have seen answers to this in the employment of clichés, here we are given light instead of dark, complexity in place of befuddlement, and generosity of spirit in place of educationalism. Poetry is supposed to give an understanding to things that are beyond words, give vision to the things out of sight. And You, Helen does exactly this. History books may pile up the statistics, television may orchestrate your tears, but it is clear that it is poetry that will be left to bring us closer to the departed. It was true at the time and it is true now.