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A Quarterly Journal
Jeffrey Woodward, Founder & General Editor
Volume 7, Number 4, December 2013

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Claire Everett
Northallerton, North Yorkshire, UK


Celandine

And you, Helen, what should I give you? . . .
I would give you back yourself . . .
And myself, too, if I could find
Where it lay hidden and it proved kind.


          —Edward Thomas

She did not have those eyes, that smile; if she was an English rose, it was the ragged one, wild and fragrant on the briar. She and Edward were happy for too short, too sweet a time, before the children came.

such were his gifts
when love found wings:
a heron’s egg
like blue sky about to break,
the finches’ forsaken nest

Then their life together became an endless round of make do and mend, ends that wouldn’t meet, helpless babes that needed to be fed and clothed. He began to sell his beloved books to pay the doctor’s bills. He wrote, and hated every word. In time, they mostly lived apart, until guilt brought him home. Always gaunt, his face took on a haunted look, as if the Edward she loved had vanished and the husk that remained was seeking his shape on the horizon of long-lost days. The children hated his jacket’s wet dog smell and Helen came to know when depression was once more upon him, when his faithful companion was tugging at his sleeve, demanding to be walked. How she wanted to hurl a stick into oblivion and send that black hound running. Instead, she watched it slumbering at his feet, begging at the table, whining outside in the yard over and above the clamour of their children. Edward said she should leave him. Better that, he said, than to stand before him like a waif, hungry for the love he could not give.

his finger
fluttering on the trigger—
a rusted barrel
and a whitethroat’s wing-beat
short of deliverance

None that loved him called him back. Not his daughter’s cries, nor Helen’s shadow on the path, not the birdsong, nor even the blossoms. It was that distant figure, calling a name he could not hear, that made him flinch from the cold steel at his temple, made him open his eyes and live. When he came back, Helen was there to greet him, asked if he would like some tea. “Yes,” he said. And they never spoke of it, not then, not ever.

no joy in that bed
if he couldn’t turn over,
pull death’s blanket
over his head and know
that it was done

In the morning and evening twilight, what moves the blackbird to his song? It is written, as it always was and ever will be, each drop of ink, freighted with sadness. What the blackbird hears, Edward heard too; in the murmur of voices from the other rooms of the boarding house; in his walks on the hills; in the calls of the stone curlew; in the hiss of flames in the grate. Then the poems came flooding in. The children and Helen made a life around his comings and goings. When he was home, she learned to fill the silences with idle chatter, to blink away the hot sting of every rebuke. But the love poems were harder to bear. Like the touch of rain she was, until her “Go now” marked the closing of the door. Never once had Helen dismissed him so. His verse was not for her.

stuck fast
the door between worlds . . .
no way out
of that windowless shack,
never again the sweet rain

Edward was quick to reassure her: how could she doubt his loyalty? Hadn’t he told her that lately he had begun to question his capacity for love? There were women who loved him; of that Helen was certain. Were these poems encrypted declarations, unmistakable as the scent of wild garlic to the one for whom they were intended?

clay?
he was never clay to her
she left her imprint
and the poems bore
their maker’s mark

Who was it who knew him through and through? None other than his dear mother, he said. Then why did he write: my eyes scarce dare meet you lest they should prove I but respond to you and do not love? Edward asked his wife why she worried so when it was clear his very nature was not compatible with love.

a lifetime
in pursuit of spring,
racing
through dappled light—
first one to find a celandine!

little kisses
hair, eyelids, lips . . .
perhaps that was love
running in the rain
at lilac time

the snow-laden pine
unstirred by the coos
of its roosting dove . . .
love, the illusion,
the forgotten dream

For whom does the blackbird sing? for himself? for his mate? or for some universal sympathetic ear? Each song a short-lived star that silvers the air while the mystery, ever attentive, deepens.

She is to be kissed
Only perhaps by me;
She may be seeking
Me and no other: she
May not exist.

Why did Helen fret, when, in the end, it was Edward’s love for England that took him from her? They kissed one last time (in her heart, she knew it was the last) as the evening mist crept over the snow, wrapped him in its pall, spirited him away, into the unknown.

Only he could write such letters home: how, in the earth-shattered silence when the heavy guns of the Siege Battery drew breath, he’d heard two hedge sparrows making love, but he’d yet to hear a song thrush in that godforsaken place.

And when his time came, he fell without a mark on his body.

awakened
from this dream called life—
news came
like the blast of air
from the shell that stopped his heart

Helen wondered if, for a hair’s breadth of time, he knew that it was done; if he sounded the words out in his fast-fading mind as surely as he’d said them to her through the years; as surely as he would if he was there beside her once more: “Remember, Helen, whatever happens, all is well between us forever”.


Author’s Notes:

The title and italicised excerpts are taken from Collected Poems by Edward Thomas (1878-1917), Thomas, R, George, Ed., Faber, London, 2004.

The italicised ‘tanka’ is excerpted from “The Unknown,” first published in Last Poems, Selwyn and Blount, London, 1918.

“Celandine” was first published in Presence #48, June 2013.

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