Some years ago now I came across a little mystery, by accident. Reading an essay by Guy Davenport, I found a story which moved me so much I wrote my Remembrance Day post about it. It involved a young woman called Eloise Robinson – seen in the story reciting poetry to the troops during the First World War, and later revealed by the sleuthing of my friend John Clegg to be a poet in her own right.
John and I were both very intrigued by our Eloise, and somewhere in there a photograph came to light which does, from what we know and can conjecture, really appear to be plausibly of her. The researches continued. Blog posts were written and notes were made and saved, and then this summer I wrote an essay about it, called ‘The Search for Eloise Robinson’. This essay is now published, in the brand-new issue of ‘The North’ magazine, guest-edited by Naomi Jaffa and Dean Parkin. Many thanks to them for commissioning it. (N.b., it will also appear, along with the original blog post, in my forthcoming book of essays, Forgive the Language, due out with Penned in the Margins in December.)
So here’s the thing! In the magazine I talk about the poems we have unearthed by Eloise, which are of varying quality but sometimes very interesting indeed. So – because by whichever country’s laws they must be in the public domain now, and we discovered them on the internet, I am posting a few of them here so people can see what I’m referring to.
Eloise is our colleague; she disappears from the records after 1918, with a couple of minor and cloaked exceptions (such as the poem below, the only one we’ve been able to find, by ‘Eloise Robinson Muchmore’), but all her bios until this disappearance talk about her forthcoming first collection. There is no record of such a book. We poets talk about our great forbears, the sense of kinship we feel with Keats or John Donne, or Edna St Vincent Millay. I claim Eloise Robinson, forgotten poet – once as hopeful, and as hooked on her magazine credits, as we are – forgotten war poet who wrote about flowered rugs and sad trees – as a sister.
I sit beside the window sill
And watch my hands lie, palm up, on my knee
As if they had no will to stir watch them until
They are become no part of me,
Strange, alien hands I know not. On and on
The thick air beats in rhythms, measuring
One minute gone, one minute gone, one minute gone,
Of time that yet moves not, nor will,
Until its pulse is maddening
And I start up and shake the lethargy
Off of my shoulders, shrug
My weakness from me like a close, grey shawl,
Travel the floor, setting my feet mechanically
Between the round, blue roses on the rug . . .
There are blue roses, too, upon the wall
Thin, flat, blue roses . . .
My thoughts are like those roses on the wall,
They make a blue design
By any wind of speech
A bright, hard scrawl
Of dizzy leaves and dizzy flowers that twine
And writhe, sunblurred,
Repeating endlessly flat bud and vine
And twisting line
Unto that biggest, bluest splash of all
An aimless, changeless scrawl
Of thin, blue roses . . .
“Hot fighting at the front. English retreat.”
The paper lay across his knee,
The headlines blared across the sheet.
“Hot fighting at the front. English retreat.”
He looked at me
With the old grim, grey look
I thought my fears had conquered
And the room
Went suddenly most strange.
The lamplight made a sickly gloom
Over the rug’s gay garden plot.
The table and the old comradely chairs
Whose every scar and spot
I knew, mocked me with change
Like words that rearrange
Themselves in hideous new meanings.
And I went upstairs
Where, in the chest, were laid
Wee, half-sewn garments never worn,
(He for whom they were made
Coming to us still-born.)
God! if the day were not so still.
Noon lies a dead weight in the room.
The open casement sucks a dull perfume
Across the sill
As dry earth sucks the sun.
All sounds but one
Are smothered out in heat and glare,
But by the dust-brown hedge
I hear the dry grasshopper’s buzz-saw tear
The thick-knit air
Beyond the window ledge.
Blasted by too much light,
The withered garden aches along my sight
Until all forms and sounds become a pain
And drive my senses back
To weave their devious old track
Round and around those blue wall-paper roses.
A thousand faces
Blue, evil, little faces,
Smirking and sneering at me from their places
While I sit dumb,
“You lied! You lied!”
And then again,
“What do you stitch?” he said
I answered, “Nothing,” and
I made as if to hide
What my bright thread
Was fashioning underneath my hand.
But I knew he would see
The little, telltale sleeve,
Take it, man-clumsily,
Look at me
I heard the lamp purr, and a droning fly.
A hot, swift fear
Snatched at the minutes that were hours,
And when he answered I could hear
My youth go by
Turn from the room
And pass out through the garden, down the walks
Bordered by red begonia and pale stalks
Of touch-me-nots and gilly flowers
And white syringa bloom
So into silence.
The baby dress still clung
To his big hand. “Shall our son call
Me coward, then?” was all
He said, and I made no reply
For all words turned to sand upon my tongue.
And so I sit here with my lie
Beside me, and I watch blue roses crawl
Across a wall.
Laugh to see them pray
And think God still is in the sky.
The little Christ whose name they say
Is dead. I saw him die.
They burned his house and killed his priest,
Just as the Bible saith.
We had no milk for little Christ
And so he starved to death.
There was a Virgin Mary made
To sit in church, all whitely sweet,
And hear our prayers. She smiled and played
All day with baby Jesus’ feet.
Each day, our faces clean like snow,
Amid the candle-shine and myrrh
We children, standing in a row,
With folded hands would sing to her.
“O Mary, let thy gentle son
Come down with us today,
And be the blessed Holy One
In all our work and play.
I wish that we had prayed to her
To keep him safe instead.
She did not know about the war.
Now little Christ is dead.
The sun-waves floated past the sill
And buzzy, bumping flies.
My Mother lay all pale and still,
With eyes like Mary’s eyes.
I promised her I would be brave
And help her, and I tried;
And all the things she asked I gave,
And never cried.
But at the end all I could do
Was, stop my ears and pray,
And hide my face. I never knew
The Christ would come that way.
My Mother held me close to her;
I feel her one kiss yet.
How sweet she was, alone and dear,
I never can forget.
Her face was just like Mary’s face,
As if a light shone through.
I took the Christ Child from that place
And ran. She told me to.
There were long, dust-gray roads to run,
And sticks that hurt my feet,
And dead fields lying in the sun,
And nothing there to eat.
The Baby Jesus never cried,
But with soft little lips and weak
Wee hands kept nuzzling at my side
And tried to suck my cheek.
We slept beneath a bending tree,
The little Christ and I,
And woke up in the light to see
The sun lift up the sky.
And all the birds that ever were
Sang to the Christ Child then,—
Sweet thrush and lark and woodpecker,
Gold warbler and brown wren.
There were no bells for mass
Singing a little tune;
White faces lying in the grass
Were laughing at the moon!
They made a little, lonely bed
Where it was cold and dim.
The baby Christ was dead, quite dead.
There was no milk for him.
………..(POETRY May 1917)
TO-DAY I saw bright ships
Today I saw bright ships come swinging home
In the proud, magic beauty of their bows;
I will not say again that dust can house
You who were singing with them through the foam.
You loved them once, for blue ways they would roam,
Hazarding great wild winds upon their prows,
And rough old seas that would with them espouse—
For silks and jade, red wine and honeycomb.
I will not wrong so your adventurous soul,
Thinking you lie in dreams and do forget
White spume across the deck, wind in the spars.
Death was a harbor and a transient goal
Wherefrom you pass now, with your skysail set
For ports beyond the margin of the stars.
The Sad Trees, by Eloise Robinson Muchmore
The white oak and the ash and fir
And every tree has stood
And drooped his leaves, and did not stir
All day long in the wood,
Nor move his branches on the air
When night came up the road.
They have no way they can forget
The tall young trees of France;
There is the drip of something wet,
They do not laugh nor dance.
They keep in mind the hickory,
The hawthorne and the pine,
The hazel and the poplar tree
That go down in a line,
How they go stepping quietly
In white moonshine,
And make no murmur as they go,
The white pine and the red,
And take their footsteps small and slow
Among brown husks of dead.
They know the birch has given his white
Young body to be slain;
The golden larch, all day and night,
Upon his face has lain;
The olives cannot stand upright,
Their shoes let in the rain.
They think of how the willows have
Been beaten to their knees,
And scyamores that were so brave
Are scarred, grim ghosts of trees.
They gravely name the tamarack,
And whisper when they tell
Of aspens who brought nothing back
But bodies, out of hell.
All day the sad trees did not wink
Their shining leaves nor dance;
They were remembering, I think,
The tall young trees of France.