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Making poems out of war memories

The publisher’s website describes this pamphlet as

Poems by one old enough to remember

In an introductory note, Hill, aged 87, says, ‘I remembered not just events, but increasingly how I had felt about them, and allowed each memory to determine how it wanted to be written’.

The opening poems, recalling the ‘Phoney War’ and the first air-raids, are chocka with anecdote and remembered detail. They sound to my mind like prose with line breaks. Does this matter? Perhaps it depends whether you're reading for the memory, or for the memory as poem.

Besides, there are some lively moments:

Those three-point-sevens in Poppet Lane
and the four-point-fives up the main road
had been firing all night.
He could tell them apart.
The three-sevens sounded like
the slamming of double doors —
An echo from the woods his Dad said.
     [‘Little Pink Clouds’]

The ending of ‘The Balloon’ (about the destruction of a barrage balloon) adds emotional impact to the excitement that Hill’s six-year-old self experienced:

He’d never seen his mother crying before,
Nor his father so gentle and so softly spoken.

That second ‘so’ is doing, as today’s phrase goes, a lot of heavy lifting.

‘Evacuee’ details the pain and oddness of the child's experience of being sent away:

mostly it seemed he had chips and cocoa
when he went home they said he’d turned yellow

Arguably the strongest of the twenty-seven poems — as poems as opposed to memories — are sonnets in which Hill has worked harder to shape his priceless material into poetic form:

He thrilled to watch their yelling bayonet practice,
the good old-fashioned way to beat the Axis.
     [‘Blackpool Sands’]

And Oh the brown jelly that was under the fat!
It just didn’t get any better than that.
     [‘Dripping on Toast’]

Sometimes I remember that little wood
where four bombs fell and blew out craters like
great pudding-basins in the black leaf-mould.
     [‘Troy’]

Some of the poems seem to me to carry a historical overload of explanation, no doubt because they have been written, above all, for the poet’s family. However, despite the seriousness and horror of their backdrop, they contain much for general readers to enjoy.

Matthew Paul