Monday, August 27, 2007

Hamish Henderson - So long

To the war in Africa that's over - goodnight.
To thousands of assorted vehicles, in every stage of decomposition
littering the desert from here to Tunis - goodnight.

To thousands of guns and armoured fighting vehicles
brewed up, blackened and charred
from Alamein to here, from here to Tunis - goodnight.

To thousands of crosses of every shape and pattern,
alone or in little huddles, under which the
unlucky bastards lie - goodnight.

Horse-shoe curve of the bay
clean razor-edge of the escarpment.
Tonight it's the sunset only that's blooding you.

Halfaya and Sollum: I think that at last
we can promise you a little quiet.
So long. I hope I won't be seeing you.

To the sodding desert - you know what you can do with yourself.
To the African deadland - God help you - and goodnight.

There is a recording of Dr Fred Freeman reciting this poem on A' the bairns o Adam, a fine tribute album to Hamish Henderson.

The first time I listened to it, it almost made me cry, and I couldn't quite work out why. There was something about it which hit me, but I didn't know what. Reading Fred Freeman's comments in the accompanying booklet made it clear:

Out of this strange melange of bawdry and bloodshed [the Second World War] would emerge Hamish's irrepressible blend of folk humour: a lifeline in the midst of the inferno. He would use it to create human touches few poets ever achieve. Certainly one would have to look to Henryson and the medieval makars for such fluid movement between the commonplace and colloquial, the abstract and universal. The effects, as with the makars, is to cut everything down to human scale; to make it all, if not acceptable, at least humanly comprehensible.

And that's it entirely. This is such a warm poem, the constant 'goodnights' sounding at once honest, heartfelt and weary. The understatement of 'we can promise you a little quiet' says more than a thousand lines of florid descriptions of the hell of war.

I guess the danger is, when moving 'between the commonplace and colloquial, the abstract and universal' is that it could easily descend into bathos. This poem, so quietly restrained, with a torrent of emotion hidden beneath its charming civility, avoids that and becomes an extremely moving piece.

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