Last year Antony was shortlisted for the Ted Hughes award for his highly acclaimed collection, The Nagasaki Elders. I’m a great admirer of his work, and also his work ethic. His work is unflinching, hard, emotionally charged and unsentimental. Where so many get swept up in the grief of war, often becoming part of the glamorisation of such wars, he stands rooted, immobile, refusing to tell anything but the truth. I admire this kind of honesty greatly and was so pleased to see his work recognised last year.
I will refer to Antony’s own words, taken from his website, copied below, where he talks about why war, and in particular the atomic bombing of Hiroshima are such a focus and drive for his work:
The first poem I ever wrote on conflict was when I was 12 years old at the height of the cold war in 1985 after watching nuclear documentary Threads which was the seed of me as a writer. Of all the testimonies I have heard or researched many stand out but two of them always reduce me tears because of the sheer tenderness born from the brutality suffered. Soon it will be 100 years until the end of World War One and I want to look at what we have learnt and in terms of remembrance, what now? Where does remembrance go from here. Before World War One let us look at the Napoleonic war where many of the fallen were put in communal pits and buried with a focus more on preventing pestilence than remembering them as predominantly poor people including slaves and immigrants dying for the great thief called Empire.
Once upon a time in Afghanistan there was a village and some soldiers shared their candy with them. There accents made the children laugh and they were welcomed, a connection was made away from the conflict. One day when the soldiers went a sweet wrapper got stuck against a plant and flapped against some thorns alerting someone who laid waste to the village for accepting candy from the enemy. That sweet wrapper in the thorns eventually was freed by the wind and like so many crimes it would get trapped in another bush, and another, and another. This is why remembrance can never and should never be branded. This is a place of opium, of poppies but to remember, to share the way a life was lived and the way a life was taken is to clear the path of thorns?
Here are two of my thorns of hearing of war
Thorn 1 – Hiroshima
One memory I cannot shake is a story of a mother who went to search for her daughters remains in the days following the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. Unknowingly the mother suffered primary radiation poisoning as she walked through the two-kilometre atomic flats yelling for her daughter. Littered all across the land were lamps of organs spilling out of human shapes, some trod in rib-cages and had to dislodge their feet and the smell was described as metallic and fishy. Eventually she saw a single clogg swaying from a shard of wood. All the clocks were frozen at 8.15am the time of the bomb blast yet this clog swayed like a pendulum for ghosts chiming like glockenspiel against twisted metal pipes. The mother noticed that the knotted fabric and the pattern of the fabric on the clog was that of her kimono. At this point she knew her daughter had no remains, that she was carbonised by the 5000 degree Celsius of heat near ground zero. The clog found her. I think of this account often.
Thorn 2 – To save a body
I can’t talk about this easily it rakes up a deep grave but sometimes soldiers do not save lives, they save bodies so parents can bury their children with dignity. I will say this only, if a mother and father can see the face of their son and kiss it then it is worth risking a life for. Those who do this are heroic but that is a jail of PTSD with no keeper. Soldiers are civilians so help them, give them a job and if they drop the F-bomb in front of a posh customer do not tell them off, protect them like the sharpest most broken pieces of glass that they are. Remember if you touch glass and bleed on it then it becomes stained yet also it is cleaner because you touched it and knew if would hurt you for doing so.
Where do we go from here? I think reconciliation, forgiveness, acceptance and acknowledgement. The folded flags are those who bend over graves mourning their loved ones lost to conflict, refugees, soldiers, the husband of Jo Cox to all the those battles we do not know of and should listen without prejudice to. I will not mention fascists because what is human is all that matters and we are the humans so let us remember and connect regardless of our race, culture and beliefs.
We live in an age where we become saturated with the truth of war, exposed to so many stories, images, campaigns and information that we become desensitised to it. I strongly believe that this is one of the reasons why we are seeing such a rise in right-wing and fascist extremism. We are also in a time when the people who actually remember some of the atrocities of war first hand are dying, and taking that first hand knowledge with them. Which is why it is so important to have people like Antony, who pass that truth on.
Below is one of Antony’s poems, do check out his other work. He has a new collection coming out next year, The Unknown Civilian with
and it will be one to watch out for. In the mean time, here is one of Antony’s poems, it has a beautiful, tender honesty to it.
Those who know the fall of maple
After the Canadian soldiers who fell at Passchendaele
I know where to find the codes of your passing,
in the self portrait of a dying leaf is the sprawling tree it was.
For me you were the maple fighting the elements until they plucked you
I picture you spinning like feathers of Icarus further from skies poisoned berry.
Last Sunday after dinner you melted into my arms like Nanna May’s Yorkshires,
you showed me a photograph creased like maple when we were blossoms
“Look how free we were”you said, the raggedy sun on manicured grass
you saw all the colours through mono but I was lost in the now.
In the salvaging of you we stripped the wardrobe like a harsh wind claiming you,
a painting we made where we pressed our hands in to paint, your lifelines.
You coloured your hands in greens and reds so yes you were maple,
I know where to find the codes of your passing, but not grief.
Last Friday we let you go over the rosebuds sprayed by our bay,
the wind farms wound back the sea, we heard you in the gull,
we saw you in the black locket clams revealing the innards,
we felt you in the battered lighthouse, its stretching light.