|Posted by email@example.com on February 28, 2021 at 5:45 AM|
REVIEW: The Unreturning by Martin Malone, Shoestring Press, 2019; paperback £10.00
by Phil Carradice
Any attempt to produce creative literature from a distance, to write imaginatively about the past - in retrospect and with a degree of hindsight - is never an easy task. Keeping the correct balance between literary statement and the history of the event you are writing about is something that requires skill, sensitivity and judgement. But when that goal is achieved it is invariably a marvellous, even magnificent, achievement.
It’s probably wrong to start a review with the judgement which should come, like the fate of the Whore of Babylon, at the very end, but in the case of Martin Malone’s The Unreturning I can do nothing else than offer my opinion here, at the start, and frame my comments around it. This book is exactly the type of wonderful achievement we should all celebrate and enjoy. It is deliberately uneven in style, the words reflecting the unevenness of mankind’s experience in times of war, but in terms of overall effect the collection is solid, steady and direct in its responses to the experiences of the time.
The Unreturning is a collection of spectacular poems and prose poems that takes on the voices of the dead - the “unreturning” - from the First World War and attempts to put them into some type of modern context. To that end there is considerable use of modern idioms and references to modern technology but at no time does Malone lose sight of his aim - to use the words and the vocabulary of the men in the trenches to tell their story.
Telling that story is not an easy task. Malone, like his readers, is grasping for an understanding of a country and a people who have ‘many memorials but no memory.’ Our knowledge of the First World War has been moulded and developed by the writers who attempted to capture their experience at first hand, men like Wilfred Owen, Edward Thomas and Siegfried Sassoon. In their descriptions and judgements, they have become both the bards and the chroniclers of the time. Arguably it is their poems, their words, that have formed our concept of the bloodiest war in history.
Either that or, as Malone declares in his prose poem “Blackadder”, ‘the national ghost goes primetime.’ Television and mass media, it seems, have replaced or at the very least come alongside literature in the ability to influence thought and opinion. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter where the knowledge or the inspiration comes from, as long as it’s there.
Malone’s use of the ‘ghost image,’ as in the “Blackadder” piece, pervades the collection, adding to the elegiac nature of individual poems and, arguably, the book as a whole. The “unreturning” of these pieces are ghosts that lie in our memory, haunting us, no matter how often we try to exclude them. You do not have to have seen a ghost to know that it is there!
Malone has a sure grasp of the writers’ world, using their lines and their visions as jumping off points or conclusions to his own verses. So, images like ‘small wonder/the shires were sad’ and ‘the pallor of your last strange meeting’ owe their genesis to Owen. Similarly, ‘now all roads lead to France’ is a direct lift from Edward Thomas. But the integration of these and other lines into Malone’s own poems gives them an added impetus and power.
Occasionally the references are a little clouded or unclear, at least at first glance. And to aid the reader Malone has provided a glossary or explanation of the more obscure references. As a general rule I would see such an addendum as unnecessary or even demeaning but here it works. A poem like “Phoebus Apollo” becomes even more powerful when you learn that those were the last words of Julian Grenfell. Having been given that sliver of information - no connection to the sliver of shrapnel that pierced Grenfell’s brain - your second reading of the poem becomes far more meaningful, far more powerful.
Malone is a master of the direct image and metaphor, that swift all-encapsulating phrase that stays with you long after the book is put down. Lines such as ‘mind yet cobbled with skulls of the lads you left behind’ have a power to shock and mould your response. When imagining a deadbadger Malone begins by describing its ‘pikelhaube snout’ and goes on to unravel the metaphor - ‘this is the boy from your home village, that snotty kid with a terrier whose dad liked a drink; the one who pissed himself when Miss Manning caught him with a rat in his desk.’ The opening description is not, effectively, about a badger but, by throwing at you those common-enough images, the poet immediately transports you to a world outside the war, to a place where the dead boy will ‘walk no more on Cotswold’ - Ivor Gurney, this time.
If Malone’s understanding and knowledge of the “war poets” is exemplary, so too is his grasp of the conflict and its history. He tackles everything with the panache of a people’s historian, everything from the soldier’s songs and vocabulary to the battles and the terrible losses. As a Pembroke Dock boy, I never thought I’d see the day when the cruiser Amphion, built in the dockyard there and sunk the day after war was declared, would feature in a poem! Power to your elbow, Martin.
There is pathos and suffering here but there is also humour. Admittedly it is black humour but you would surely expect nothing else - ‘Your “Like the bloody Somme” is nothing of the sort and it’s not us you mean. That’s Third Ypres.’ Sometimes the lines leave you unsure whether to laugh or curse - ‘And each night beside the po, I am cured by persuasion from a ghost-racked wife.’ The myths of the war - the German corpse factory, the Russian soldiers with snow on their boots - Malone is not afraid to use them in order to make his points. But he never loses sight of the fact that first and foremost he is a poet. The sheer power of poems such as “Mallory” and prose poems like “Permadead”, leave you wondering why you hadn’t written them - and as a poet and writer I can offer no greater praise than that.
The Unreturning is a powerful, stunning piece of work. It has to be essential reading for anyone interested either in the writing of the First World War or in its history. But more than that, this is the work of a master craftsman, someone who is sure of his aim and sure of his talent. A poet of rare distinction, a book of rare skill; that encapsulates The Unreturning .