Notes of Solidarity is a new daily series of mini-essays, poems, and reflections on the Russian war on Ukraine by some of Wales’s leading literary figures. Here, award-winning poet John Freeman shares his poem ‘Storm in a Pocket On the Eve of War’.
Storm in a Pocket On the Eve of War
It was a note I’d not heard since we came here
when the wind in the blue spruce was at its height:
a scream, the essence of the old Sublime,
‘inspiring awe and terror’, and perhaps
implicitly, though this was never mentioned,
thrilling. Or so I found it yesterday,
wondering at each excess if this was yet
the high watermark, the ne plus ultra
of Storm Eunice as lived through in our village,
our hamlet in a valley in the Vale,
which a local called, with a hiatus
between the first syllable and the second
in the second word, and a lilt: God’s pock:et.
So, in her sleep, when she was learning words
and had a new toy animal, my daughter
said as she shifted, eyes closed, without waking,
pig:gy. Though we’re relatively sheltered
the wind was fierce enough to make me think
of Yeats hearing the sea-wind scream,
he says in his ‘A Prayer for My Daughter’,
upon the tower, and scream in the elms –
a wind, as he writes, bred on the Atlantic,
with his household exposed to its full force
there in Thoor Ballylee in County Galway.
‘Once more the storm is howling,’ he begins,
and it howled yesterday as I walked round
our garden, watching the bird-feeders dance
wildly but stay hooked on to the branches
of the tree a man would have been pruning
if this storm hadn’t blown in on the day.
I was checking for what objects might have flown,
shifted, buckled, or smashed, despite my efforts
the day before to pack away and buttress
safely everything I could see or think of.
A panel on the garden gate had loosened.
The heavy reinforced glass oval top
of a table had slid sideways to the fence.
Later, when the wind subsided, we started
on a walk, but turned back when the hail,
instead of passing over as we’d hoped,
intensified. I held up a hand to shield
my nose, which was being shot at sideways,
as if by some malicious airgun user.
Last thing at night, after the power cuts
and improvised scratch supper as if camping,
the sky was half clear and half filled with cloud,
looking massy, magnanimous, its edges
lit up by the moon, only just past the full,
a puny streetlamp not interfering,
not adulterating the purity
of that grand mooniness of brilliance.
To cap the spectacle, on the far side
of the cloud, Orion with his belt and sword
stood sharply in the sky like allegory.
In time of civil war Yeats met a soldier
and felt absurd, talking to him about
a pear tree broken by the storm. He wrote:
‘I count the feathered balls of soot
The moorhen guides upon the stream
To silence the envy in my thought.’
I don’t envy the Ukrainian soldiers
and civilians with sons and daughters,
fearful for their sake of the coming storm,
with Russian troops ‘on exercises’ – that’s what
some of them have been led to think they’re there for –
already starting to engage with shells,
armed preparations, and increasing tension.
Their terror too may have sublimity,
but not the kind that anyone would wish for.
It puts my screaming, banshee wind, my moon,
the cloud it lights, and all bright constellations
into perspective, and it leaves me thoughtful.
No use being paralysed by horror.
My attention to what’s here around me
is a condition of solidarity,
keeping me centred, human, and responsive.
For more information on the Russia-Ukraine war, including ways you can help, please click here.
You can follow all contributions to Notes of Solidarity from Wales Arts Review here.
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Sixth-form students Jessica Austin, Cameron Bird, Emily Jarvis, Erin McInnes Willard and Helena Peacock caught up with John Freeman ahead of a celebratory reading of his work in Brecon in February.