Grieving and tender and heavy laden, the trains
with their hasty refrains rush the wounded through fields.
Each one clatters flat out through stations and sways
as it flashes past hedgerows, crossing the Sussex Weald.
Sheep look up and quiver: it’s only a train
not a fighter plane; they put their panic on hold,
but when a Hornet screams down they’ll think again:
Stampede! huge fleeces wagging; Scatter! Scatter!
tripping and rolling, collective terror unchained.
On his wooden shelf, the radio operator,
his head in bandages, props himself up to look out.
He’s glad to get home but worries about his transmitter
abandoned back down the road—smashed no doubt
when the Germans strafed the column and left them for dead.
He really should think about Jaimie and Sergeant Allnutt,
not some machine he used in a stinking cowshed
to tell H.Q. every day there was nothing new…
But England’s out there; soon there will be a bed
with sheets and a cup of tea—and sweet nurses too!
The radio’s dead; he must put it out of his brain—
think of the blokes who’re gone—all those blokes he knew.
From Juno beach by way of the gooseberry dock,
the wounded ship across the channel to Dover
where not a single bed is left in the clinic
and so they are sent along to the receiving center
at Botley’s Park where pink-cheeked student nurses
bandage, inject, comb hair, mop floors and cater
to British soldiers as well as German prisoners
lined up in rows of beds, face to face—
tommies along one wall, on the other, Hitler’s
boys, together in pungent hospital space.
Bedpans pass back and forth from us to them
and doctors dole out drugs to the burned and legless,
their even-handed gifts hinting at wisdom
beyond the warrior minds that planned the carnage
from which were spewed these tattered shreds of men.
And so one day, as they struggle with meat and two veg,
the tommies pick up their crutches, shoulder and point
them at half-dead foes across the aisle, mock rage
turning to helpless laughter as they squint
along their wooden make-believe gun barrels
croaking out pht pht pht, like a gang of demented
children until the Germans throw down their utensils,
shout out Freund! and surrender, raising their arms—
those who have arms—while nurses turn away tearful.
Seven o’clock in the morning, the seventh day
of the seventh month: I slip out and take my first breath.
It’s Friday. American soldiers will batter La Haye
while 400 heavy bombers clear a path
for the troops who are stuck, desperate to make a breakthrough.
Then Caen will fall, ruined and reeking of death.
Hitler’s men are murdering thousands of Jews
as I open my startled eyes to a dusty sunbeam
and fall in love with a voice—a sound that’s brand new.
Peace fills the nursing-home room where I dream.
After the night’s exertions, my mother sleeps too
till a nurse comes to wake her. The teacup steams.
At the end of the street the sea is restless and blue
but the beach is off limits: barbed wire and signs—Beware.
“We’ll go home tomorrow,” says mother, “that’s what we’ll do.”
Meanwhile, what to breathe in? What’s in this air
besides the smell of scrag-end stewing downstairs?
Outside the window everything’s dense with fear,
murderous rage seething alongside despair.
Something awful is howling behind the sky
and I am just one more baby arriving in war.
“Grieving and tender and heavy laden” Diary of Virginia Woolf, 1940.
Hornet: British fighter plane.
The author is grateful to the editors of Poetry London, who first published “What does it mean to be born in war.” “From Juno beach” was a prizewinner in the Bridport International Poetry Competition.
Many thanks for a grant from the Oregon Institute of Literary Arts and for residencies at Cottages at Hedgebrook, Washington, USA, and The Tyrone Guthrie Centre, Ireland, which assisted in the writing of this poem. Thanks to the staff at Multnomah County Library for help with research, for the use of the writers’ room at that library, and to the staff at the Imperial War Museum, London, who answered many questions at the museum and on board H.M.S. Belfast.
Judith Barrington had the following to say about “After D-Day”:
“I was born on the south coast of England, July 7, 1944—thirty-one days after the D-Day invasion of Europe. I was still in the womb when the allied force, consisting of British, Canadian, U.S., Polish, and French troops, entered occupied France by way of the beaches and skies of Normandy. But by the time of my birth, the allies had not advanced as far as they had hoped; they were still bogged down in skirmishes along the Normandy countryside, trying to take the cities of Caen and Cherbourg.
“In Britain, where I spent my childhood, this piece of history was discussed as a story of British heroism. Here in the U.S., where I became a citizen in my middle years, it is often remembered as an American war. The truth, though, is that it was a war—sometimes called the “just war”—undertaken by an alliance.
“Brighton, where I was born, was directly in the path of the German bombers that conducted nightly raids and destroyed large parts of London, as well as cities in many other parts of England. You have only to read Virginia Woolf’s diary to get a sense of how the Sussex countryside surrounding my birthplace was the scene of air battles with planes on both sides being shot down on to the downs and farmland. As I came into the world, an air raid was in full swing. Windows were blown out; houses reduced to rubble. But it wasn’t until many years later that I began to consider what that moment meant—not to the world in general, since a great deal had been written about that, but to me personally.
“I realized that I had my own particular relationship to this enormous historic event and that the relationship had changed many times throughout my life. As a child, I heard stories that celebrated and romanticized the airmen who defended Britain from early defeat. I’d read paperbacks which told of daring escapes from Prisoner-of-War camps; I’d seen movies about heroes such as pilot, Douglas Bader, who lost both his legs in one of those air fights, and the exploits of the “dam busters.” Even the relatively unglamorous world of the codebreakers, whose brilliant maneuvers allowed D-Day to remain undetected, held an aura of heroism that matched the physical daring of the men and women on the front lines.
“These stories sank into my subconscious. Perhaps if I had grown up in the American West, I might have absorbed cowboy tales in a similar way. But it was WW2 that fed my imagination with stories that I didn’t know until later painted only a very partial picture. There were no stories about Jews. No stories about concentration camps.
“As a young adult, I became political. In addition to feminism, I embraced pacifism as an ideal. Living among activists, I came to know many Jewish, often American, people who had lost parents and grandparents in the Holocaust, friends and acquaintances who led me to histories I hadn’t read. I discovered that Britain and America had known what the nazis were doing, but had chosen not to bomb the railroad tracks to Auschwitz—had made no plans to rescue the Jews from annihilation. When I found my life partner—a Jew whose grandmother, Elsa Pollak, had died at Auschwitz—my thoughts about pacifism became more complicated. This sequence of poems is my beginning effort to unravel the threads.
“It was difficult to embark on this project for a number of reasons. I am not a historian although I did much research. I am not someone who lost close family members, though my parents and older siblings suffered the great fear and hardship of nightly air raids, evacuated schools, and shortages of food. Above all, I am a woman. In her poem about a woman who is a military historian, Margaret Atwood wrote:
In general I might agree with you:
women should not contemplate war.
This was, perhaps, the voice that was hardest to quell, the voice that echoed my own inhibitions and sometimes came perilously close to convincing me that I should not, indeed, contemplate war. But of course I knew better. Women need not only to contemplate war, but also to communicate our reflections about it in whatever form we can.
“My own choice of form is terza rima. If I risk being considered presumptuous for speaking of war, then I might as well be hanged for a sheep as for a lamb and try to step into the rhythm of Dante’s marvelous tercets. I believe that women can and should speak about anything we like in any verse form that seduces us with its grace and utility. This one has helped me find my way through a tangle of memories, reflections, and discoveries, and has guided me as steadily and steadfastly as Virgil himself led Dante through the underworld.”
Judith Barrington was born in Brighton, England in 1944 and moved to the United States in 1976. Although she has made her home in Portland, Oregon since then, she now spends time each year in Europe doing readings and workshops. Judith is the author of three poetry collections, a prizewinning memoir, and a text on writing literary memoir. Recent titles include the collection, Horses and the Human Soul, and two chapbooks, Postcard from the Bottom of the Sea, and Lost Lands (winner of the Robin Becker Chapbook Award). Her work has been included in many anthologies, including The Long Journey: Pacific Northwest Poets, The Stories That Shape Us: Twenty Women Write About the West, A Formal Feeling Comes, From Here We Speak: An Anthology of Oregon Poetry, The House on Via Gombito, and Hers 3. Her poems and memoirs have been published in many literary journals, including Creative Nonfiction, Prairie Schooner, Americas Review, Kenyon Review, ZYZZVA, The American Voice, Poetry London, 13th Moon, The GSU Review, Sonora Review, Left Bank, and The Chattahoochee Review. She also regularly reviews books for newspapers and literary magazines. Her awards include the Andrés Berger Award for Creative Nonfiction, the Dulwich Festival International Poetry Contest, and the Stewart H. Holbrook Award for outstanding contributions to Oregon’s literary life. She is the co-founder of The Flight of the Mind Writing Workshops, which for seventeen years provided two week-long sessions on the McKenzie River, Oregon, bringing together outstanding teachers and participants from all over the U.S. She is one of the founders of Soapstone. Judith is on the faculty of the low residency MFA program in Creative Writing at the University of Alaska Anchorage teaching memoir. More about Judith Barrington can be found at her website.