Tuesday, 01 November 2016 15:28

Poets Exploding Like Bombs: poems from the Spanish Civil War

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Poets Exploding Like Bombs: poems from the Spanish Civil War

To mark the 80th anniversary of the start of the Spanish Civil War, and in memory of the British and Irish International Brigaders who wrote poems and who died in that war, Mike Quille introduces a few poems taken from Poems from Spain, edited by Jim Jump.

The war against Franco's fascist rebellion saw 'poets exploding like bombs' as Auden said in his famous poem 'Spain', published in 1937. And the war has sometimes been called 'the poets' war', probably because more progressive political poetry was written about it, from combatants and others on active service, than any other war in the twentieth century, even though it was considerably smaller and shorter than other wars. However, as in every other war in modern times, 80% of the fighters were men from manual trades. None of the poems below were written by professional poets. They were, though, exceptional individuals, activists from the Communist Party, the Labour Party, the trade unions and some of the allied cultural and educational institutions.

Alex McDade was a labourer from Glasgow who fought and was wounded at the battle of Jarama in 1937. He became a company political commissar for the British Battalion and was killed on 6 July 1937. His poem 'Valley of Jarama' was the basis for the song by Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger and Lee Hays, but it's shorter, bleaker, and more soldierly.

Valley of Jarama
by Alex McDade

There's a valley in Spain called Jarama,
That's a place that we all know so well,
For 'tis there that we wasted our manhood,
And most of our old age as well.

From this valley they tell us we're leaving
But don't hasten to bid us adieu,
For e'en though we make our departure,
We'll be back in an hour or two.

Oh we're proud of our British Battalion,
And the marathon record it's made.
Please do us this little favour,
And take this last word to Brigade:

'You will never be happy with strangers,
They would not understand you as we.
So remember the Jarama Valley
And the old men who wait patiently.'


Charles Donnelly was an Irish Republican, Communist and trade union activist, who was also killed at Jarama. Like a number of war poems, his modernist poetry is formally innovative, finding bluntly effective ways to express the horror, cruelty and inhumanity of war.

The Tolerance of Crows
by Charles Donnelly

Death comes in quantity from solved
Problems on maps, well-ordered dispositions,
Angles of elevation and direction;

Comes innocent from tools children might
Love, retaining under pillows
Innocently impales on any flesh.

And with flesh falls apart the mind
That trails thought from the mind that cuts
Thought clearly for a waiting purpose.

Progress of poison in the nerves and
Discipline’s collapse is halted.
Body awaits the tolerance of crows.

Heroic Heart
by Charles Donnelly

Ice of heroic heart seals plasmic soil
Where things ludicrously take root
To show in leaf kindnesses time had buried
And cry music under a storm of 'planes,
Making thrust head to slacken, muscles waver
And intent mouth recall old tender tricks.
Ice of heroic heart seals steel-bound brain.

There newer organs built for friendship's grappling
Waste down like wax. There only leafless plants
And earth retain disinterestedness.
Though magnetised to lie of the land, moves
Heartily over the map wrapped in its iron
Storm. Battering the toads, armoured columns
Break walls of stone or bone without receipt.
Jawbones find new ways with meats, loins
Raking and blind, new way with women.

Norman Brookfield worked in a library in Essex and died in September 1938 at the Sierra de Caballs in the battalion's last day in action. His style is much more traditional than Donnelly's, almost hymn-like, but equally anguished.

'Rest, I will know your all-pervading calm'
by Norman Brookfield

Rest, I will know your all-pervading calm
Relax my limbs, and feel your sooting balm;
Beneath light's tranquil stars I'll sleep at ease
When dawn's well past, to rise, and day-time fill
With pleasant strolls and food and talk at will.
Shaping vague thoughts beneath the olive trees;
Watching tobacco wreathe its lazy fumes
Quintessence rare, O rest of your perfumes.
And yet this is a respite that must end
An interval between the course of war
Which all too soon will raise its dreadful roar,
Bidding my laggard pace once more to mend;
But 'tis the thoughts of past and future strife
That make you sweet, O rest, and with you – life.

George Green was an ambulance driver, dispatch rider and hospital orderly in Spain, and was killed on the same day and at the same battle. He wrote in a very modern, prosepoetical way, vividly evoking the battlefront in an almost cinematic way. 


Dressing Station
by George Green

Casa de Campo, Madrid, March 1937

Here the surgeon, unsterile, probes by candlelight the embedded bullet.
Here the ambulance-driver waits the next journey; hand tremulous
on the wheel, eye refusing to acknowledge fear of the bridge, of
the barrage at the bad crossing.
Here the stretcher-bearer walks dead on his feet, too tired to
wince at the whistle of death in the black air over the shallow
trench; to tired now to calculate with each journey the
the diminishing chances of any return to his children, to meals at a
table, to music and the sound of feet in the jota.
Here are ears tuned to the wail of shells: lips that say, this one gets the
whole bloody station: the reflex action that flings us into the safer
corners, to cower from the falling masonry and the hot
tearing splinters at our guts.
Here the sweet smell of blood, shit, iodine, the smoke-embittered air,
the furtive odour of the dead.
Here also the dead.
Here also the dead.
This afternoon five.
Then eight.
Then two neat rows.
And now.......this was the courtyard of the road-house, filling-station
for the Hispano-Suizas and the young grandees' bellies. The sign
American Bar still hangs unshattered.
….I cannot count. Three deep: monstrous sprawling: slid from
dripping stretchers for more importunate tenants: bearded
plough-boys' faces: ownerless hand: shatterd pelvis: boots laced
for the last time: eyes moon-cold, moon-bright, defying the moon:
smashed mouth scaring away thought of the peasant breasts that so
recently suckled it....
I cannot count.

But poet, this is old stuff.
This we too have seen.
This is Flanders 1917. sassoon and Wilfred Owen did this so much better.
Is this all?
Do twenty years count for nothing?
Have you no more to show?

Yes, we have more to show.
Yes, though we grant you the two-dimensional similarity, even (to
complete the picture) allowing you the occasional brass-hat and
the self-inflicted wound.
Yet there is another dimension. Look closely. Listen carefully.

Privilege here battles with no real privilege.
The dupe there, machine-gunning us from the trenched hillside,
fights still to preserve a master's title-deeds, but we....we battle
for life.
This....we speak a little proudly, who so recently threw off the slave
shackles to do a man's work.....
This is our war.

These wounds have the red flag in them.
This salute carries respect.
Here the young soldier says 'camarada' to his general.
Here we give heed to no promise of a land fit for heroes to live in, but
take for ourselves the world to mould in our hands.
These ranks can never be broken by four years of mud and bitter
metal, into sporadic and betrayed rebellion.
Here the consciousness of a thousand years' oppression binds us as
brothers....We have learnt our lesson.
Look. Over the bridge (it is not yet dawn) comes a Russian lorry,
ammunition-laden.
Forty-three years gone, unarmed St. Petersburg's blood paid a heavy
duty on those shells.
And I? The Chartists commandeered this ambulance from a Portland
Street shop-window.
I drove: and dead Communards raised living fists as far south as
Perpignan. I saw the perils of the Pyrenees spurned by feet that
once had scaled a Bastille, by the fair-haired boys who graduated in
the streets of Charlottenburg, by those who paid a steerage
passage, to tell us how their fathers fell at Valley Forge.
For this is not 1917.
This is the struggle that justifies the try-outs of history.
This is the light that illuminates, the link that unites Wat Tyler and
the Boxer rebellion.
This is our difference, our strength, this is our manifesto, this
our song that cannot be silenced by bullets.

And finally, to Rupert John Cornford, a Cambridge Communist who was the first Englishman to enlist. He travelled twice to Spain to fight for the POUM and the International Brigades against Franco's rebels, and died in December 1936 at Lopera, near Cordoba.

'These are poems of the will, and the will bangs a drum' wrote Stephen Spender of Cornford's poems, which like some of the poems above combine a modernist sensibility with a direct, blunt and unflowery descriptions, images and diction. Here he is, banging the drum from Aragon.


A Letter From Aragon
by John Cornford

This is a quiet sector of a quiet front.

We buried Ruiz in a new pine coffin,
But the shroud was too small and his washed feet stuck out.
The stink of his corpse came through the clean pine boards
And some of the bearers wrapped handkerchiefs round their faces.
Death was not dignified.
We hacked a ragged grave in the unfriendly earth
And fired a ragged volley over the grave.

You could tell from our listlessness, no one much missed him.

This is a quiet sector of a quiet front.
There is no poison gas and no H. E.

But when they shelled the other end of the village
And the streets were choked with dust
Women came screaming out of the crumbling houses,
Clutched under one arm the naked rump of an infant.
I thought: how ugly fear is.

This is a quiet sector of a quiet front.
Our nerves are steady; we all sleep soundly.

In the clean hospital bed, my eyes were so heavy
Sleep easily blotted out one ugly picture,
A wounded militiaman moaning on a stretcher,
Now out of danger, but still crying for water,
Strong against death, but unprepared for such pain.

This on a quiet front.

But when I shook hands to leave, an Anarchist worker
Said: 'Tell the workers of England
This was a war not of our own making
We did not seek it.
But if ever the Fascists again rule Barcelona
It will be as a heap of ruins with us workers beneath it.'

Acknowledgements and grateful thanks are due to Jim Jump. The poems are all taken from a highly recommended book called Poems from Spain, edited by Jim, and published by Lawrence and Wishart, 2006. The book contains a foreword by Jack Jones; an excellent, clear introduction to the poems; notes on the poets and poems; and a brief history of the British and Irish Brigades' involvement in the war.

Read 5090 times Last modified on Tuesday, 15 November 2016 20:37