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Words ‘dreadful as the abortions of an angel’.

War in Literature: the work of Walter Owen, Edward Field and Kerry-Lee Powell.


You know, we French stormed Ratisbon :
______A mile or so away
On a little mound, Napoleon
______Stood on our storming-day;
With neck out-thrust, you fancy how,
______Legs wide, arms locked behind,
As if to balance the prone brow
______Oppressive with its mind.

Just as perhaps he mused “My plans
______That soar, to earth may fall,
Let once my army-leader Lannes
______Waver at yonder wall,”—
Out ‘twixt the battery-smokes there flew
______A rider, bound on bound
Full-galloping; nor bridle drew
______Until he reached the mound.

Then off there flung in smiling joy,
______And held himself erect
By just his horse’s mane, a boy:
______You hardly could suspect—
(So tight he kept his lips compressed,
______Scarce any blood came through)
You looked twice ere you saw his breast
______Was all but shot in two.

“Well,” cried he, “Emperor, by God’s grace
______We’ve got you Ratisbon!
The Marshal’s in the market-place,
______And you’ll be there anon
To see your flag-bird flap his vans
______Where I, to heart’s desire,
Perched him!” The chief’s eye flashed; his plans
______Soared up again like fire.

The chief’s eye flashed ; but presently
______Softened itself, as sheathes
A film the mother-eagle’s eye
______When her bruised eaglet breathes:
“You’re wounded!” ” Nay,” the soldier’s pride
______Touched to the quick, he said:
“I’m killed, Sire!” And his chief beside,
______Smiling the boy fell dead.

— “Incident of the French Camp”, Robert Browning (1812 – 1889)

Wilfred_Owen_plate_from_Poems_(1920)BROWNING EXPRESSES EVERYTHING here that the modernists tried to disown — or does he? For after all, the promotion of glory (abetted by “stirring” narrative) is undermined by the irony of that metaphor: the membrane in the eye of a bird of prey. Browning recognised that power uses war to its will’s ends. Abstraction came massively into favour after the Great War. Artists and authors saw fiction and narrative as aiding the persuasive pathos of heroism. Yeats, editing the first Faber anthology of Modern Verse, refused to include Wilfred Owen, for whom realism was a mainspring, for whom the poetry was “in the pity.” Still, for the Irish modernist, “Passive suffering (was) not a theme for poetry.” The adjective is incomprehensible, since Owen was on active service when he died. But for Yeats, pathos gave poetry too much of a job to do, though he was not above it himself in “The Irish Airman Foresees his Death”.

What follows is my attempt to write an appreciation of several neglected writers who have dealt with war, as well as of one writing now for whom an aspect of war has been a reality despite having been born well after the end of World War II. My first author is Walter Owen — as unsung as Wilfred is famous. Andrew Graham-Yooll, for many years editor of Argentina’s English language newspaper, The Buenos Aires Herald, has a page about his fellow countryman.

walterowenWALTER OWEN WAS an Argentine of Scots extraction, and he translated many works of Argentine and Spanish literature, including the gaucho epic Martin Fierro by José Hernández. He visited England several times, sometimes in secret, according to Graham-Yooll, and volunteered to fight in both world wars, but was rejected, being blind in one eye. The Cross of Carl is perhaps his greatest work. He considered it “An Allegory – The story of one who went down into the depths and was buried; who doubting much, yet at the last lifted up his eyes unto the hills and rose again and was transfigured.”

The book was his first foray into fiction and is in essence a novella of 120 pages, published by Grant Richards (Fronto Ltd) in 1931, but “written at one sitting in an evening in 1917 — this after his first extended hospitalization for a painful abdominal complaint.  It was accepted for publication in Britain the following year, but was stopped by the censor. It was seen as brutal, surrealistic and bleakly anti-war, too harsh for the immediate period following the Great War.” (Andrew Graham-Yooll)

There’s a preface by General Sir Ian Hamilton, notable for commanding the Mediterranean Expeditionary Force during the Battle of Gallipoli in 1915 – which was a debacle. There is also a prefatory “Note” by the author. In this note, it is explained that the pain the author was in induced him to take quantities of opium as a sedative. The General reckons that the “cross” Carl seeks to win is the “Eiserne Kreutz, Erste Klasse”, and compares the writing to Blake, to de Quincy, and even to Jean Paul Richter, but he reckons that none of them can “hold a candle to this hapless, ill-starred wight named Carl . . . Carl is more intense . . . dying, he is more there — more alive — even if he never was alive and never was really there!”

totersappenpostengdnIt’s unusual for a work of fiction to strike a professional soldier as having more “reality” than documents written by those who underwent the experience. Indeed the General seems convinced that “a phantasmal projection from the mind or body of an Englishman (or German) in the Argentine did go over the top and actually attack Hill 50.” The author notes that in the first half of 1917, severely ill and doped up to his eyeballs, his mind became “increasingly preoccupied with the moral and spiritual issues of the conflict.” He suffered bouts of mental unrest which exhibited a specific pattern: he was beset by melancholia, then by hysteria, and finally he experienced a third stage, of great calm, where the mind was exceptionally lucid and alert. It was during one of these bouts, in its third stage, that he “experienced a vivid bilocation of consciousness.” Convinced that he was in two places at once, he immediately wrote down the record of his “alter-ego”- as the last stages of his “life” unfolded — a soldier in the trenches, who was about to take part in a dawn attack: this attack is described in the first section of the book — “Gethsemane”:

So at intervals picked snipers peered, here and there a periscope poked its in­quiring nose, and the trench was like a queer beast that felt the air with horns. And Carl kept his nose low, like the rabbit that the good soldier knows so wholly how to be; while overhead death zipped and sang, and the rifle-shots of the snipers pin-pricked here and there the thunder of the guns, like an impish tickle on a mammoth’s flank or the puny staccato of crews of foundering barques over whom the ocean rolls.

The guns were terrible that morning, dreadful like the voice of some Behemoth of man’s making, whose works indeed when he strays from God are more terrible than God’s, not greater, but grotesque and unholily deformed, dreadful as the abortions of an angel.

woundedmandix2moI would identify this as “illuminated writing”. Readers may find it “over the top” (but that is what is being described). It’s as if Dylan Thomas were to find himself storming Hill 50. This might be thought an unfashionable, adjective-laden style these days, when writing such as Edith Sitwell’s is so often vilified (at least in “aware” poetry circles). But no one can take away from her poem “Still Falls the Rain” its right to be considered one of the great expressions about the suffering brought about by war (specifically the air raids of 1940). The current taste is stereotypically “classical” — unity achieved through economy, with understatement the guide and “suggestion” the mantric word on creative writing courses. Urged forward by revolvers in the hands of sergeants and officers, Carl must storm the hill (before it is blown sky high by the mines of the sappers) and there is nothing understated about his fearful stampede:

Carl is now mounting the ridge where the wire was, packed tight among a hustle of figures that bear him onward in their rush. He is treading on bodies on which his feet slip and blunder. It is like walking on bolsters full of stones. Bones pop under­foot. He looks down and sees a face give under his boot,- then slides and comes down. A gnashing mouth closes on his leg; he frees himself and is up again. A lane crashes through the crowd, missing him narrowly, and a welter of fragments whirls round him. A man in front goes down on his knees and, shrieking, grabbles blindly at a stringy mass that pours down­ward from the lower part of his body, trying madly to mend that cruel hurt that is past all mending. Carl leaps over the man and goes on. He is nearing that dreadful edge where the crowd frays into a fringe of death. Hill 50, slavering at him with flaming breath, looms above.

Walter Owen’s excessive diction achieves something other than what might be expected from a tight-arsed approach to horror. The writing becomes symphonic, and the General compares it to passages in Parsifal. In Section 2 — “Golgotha” — horrifically wounded now, Carl finds himself bound tightly together with wire to three corpses in a bale which is being sent in a covered truck to the Utilisation Factory of the Tenth Army Section. Here the dead “as bodies, cease . . . The exports of the Factory are pig-food, fats, glycerine and manure, brewed and distilled and strained from the mush that once was bodies of men.”

skullfromwarmoIn his description of this stomach-turning industrial institution, Owen rivals Kafka and his story In the Penal Colony. It is easy to spoil the reading of a book by picking out the most striking passages, so I’ll refrain from further quotes. Owen’s first statement in The Cross of Carl is that “Everything in this story is symbolical.” The Utilisation Factory seems to me to symbolise the profit to be made out of carnage. In Iraq it would have been run by Halliburton. It’s damn hard to find a copy of The Cross of Carl these days, but it’s well worth the effort, and the expense of finding it.

MY SECOND AUTHOR is Edward Field. He served in World War II in the 8th Air Force as a navigator in heavy bombers, and flew 25 missions over Germany. His style is far removed from the fluorescence of Walter Owen. This is a poetry generated out of prosody: “the rhythm, stress, and intonation of speech”. An intimate friend of Frank O’Hara’s in the fifties, he shares with O’Hara a sense, in his poems, that he is simply talking. If for Wilfred Owen, “The poetry is in the pity,” for Field, the poetry is in the experience. Here is one of his poems, which calmly, but with accuracy, describes being shot down while on a mission.


It was over Target Berlin the flak shot up our plane
just as we were dumping bombs on the already smoking city
on signal from the lead bomber in the squadron.
The plane jumped again and again as the shells burst under us,
sending jagged pieces of steel rattling through our fuselage.
It was pure chance
that none of us got ripped by those fragments.

Then, being hit, we had to drop out of formation right away,
losing speed and altitude,
and when I figured out our course with trembling hands on the instruments
(I was navigator)
we set out on the long trip home to England
alone, with two of our four engines gone
and gas streaming out of holes in the wing tanks.
That morning at briefing
we had been warned not to go to nearby Poland,
partly liberated then by the Russians,
although later we learned that another crew in trouble
had landed there anyway,
and patching up their plane somehow,
returned gradually to England
roundabout by way of Turkey and North Africa.
But we chose England, and luckily
the Germans had no fighters to send up after us then,
for this was just before they developed their jet.
To lighten our load we threw out
guns and ammunition, my navigation books, all the junk,
and made it over Holland
with a few good-bye fireworks from the shore guns.

Over the North Sea the third engine gave out
And we dropped low over the water.
The gas gauge read empty, but by keeping the nose down
a little gas at the bottom of the tank sloshed forward
and kept our single engine going.
High overhead, the squadrons were flying home in formation
– the raids had gone on for hours after us.
Did they see us down there in our trouble?
We radioed our final position for help to come
but had no idea if anyone
happened to be tuned in and heard us,
and we crouched together on the floor,
knees drawn up and head down
in regulation position for ditching,
listened as the engine stopped, a terrible silence,
and we went down into the sea with a crash,
just like hitting a brick wall,
jarring bones, teeth, eyeballs panicky.
Who would ever think water could be so hard?
You black out, and then come to
with water rushing in like a sinking-ship movie.

All ten of us started getting out of there fast:
there was a convenient door in the roof to climb out by,
one at a time. We stood in line,
water up to our thighs and rising.
The plane was supposed to float for twenty minutes,
but with all those flak holes
who could say how long it really would?
The two life rafts popped out of the sides into the water,
but one of them only half inflated,
and the other couldn’t hold everyone,
although they all piled into it, except the pilot,
who got into the limp raft that just floated.
The radio operator and I, out last,
(Did that mean we were least aggressive, least likely to survive?)
we stood on the wing watching the two rafts
being swept off by waves in different directions.
We had to swim for it.
Later they said the cords holding rafts to plane
broke by themselves, but I wouldn’t have blamed them
for cutting them loose, for fear
that by waiting the plane would go down
and drag them with it.

I headed for the overcrowded good raft
and after a clumsy swim in soaked heavy flying clothes
got there and hung onto the side.
The radio operator went for the half-inflated raft
where the pilot lay with water sloshing over him,
but he couldn’t swim, even with his life vest on.
Being from the Great Plains,
his strong farmer’s body didn’t know
how to wallow through the water properly,
and a wild current seemed to sweep him farther off.
One minute we saw him on top of a swell
and perhaps we glanced away for a minute
but when we looked again he was gone
just as the plane went down sometime around then
when nobody was looking.

It was midwinter and the waves were mountains
and the water ice water.
You could live in it twenty-five minutes,
the Ditching Survival Manual said.
Since most of the crew were squeezed on my raft
I had to stay in the water hanging on.
My raft? It was their raft—they got there first so they would live.
Twenty-five minutes I had.
Live, live, I said to myself.
You’ve got to live.
There looked like plenty of room on the raft
from where I was and I said so,
but they said no.

When I figured the twenty-five minutes were about up
and I was getting numb,
I said I couldn’t hold on anymore,
and a little rat-faced boy from Alabama, one of the gunners,
got into the icy water in my place,
and I got on the raft in his.
He insisted on taking off his flying clothes,
which was a fatal mistake because even wet clothes are protection,
and then worked hard, kicking with his legs, and we all paddled,
to get to the other raft,
and we tied them together.
The gunner got in the raft with the pilot
and lay in the wet.
Shortly after, the pilot started gurgling green foam from his mouth-
maybe he was injured in the crash against the instruments—
and by the time we were rescued,
he and the little gunner were both dead.

That boy who took my place in the water,
who died instead of me,
I don’t remember his name even.
It was like those who survived the death camps
by letting others go into the ovens in their place.
It was him or me, and I made up my mind to live.
I’m a good swimmer,
but I didn’t swim off in that scary sea
looking for the radio operator when he was washed away.
I suppose, then, once and for all,
I chose to live rather than be a hero, as I still do today,
although at that time I believed in being heroic, in saving the world,
even if, when opportunity knocked,
I instinctively chose survival.

As evening fell the waves calmed down
and we spotted a boat, far off, and signaled with a flare gun,
hoping it was English not German.
The only two who cried on being found
were me and a gunner, the other gay member of the crew.
The rest kept straight faces.

It was a British air-sea rescue boat:
they hoisted us up on deck,
dried off the living and gave us whiskey and put us to bed,
and rolled the dead up in blankets,
arid delivered us all to a hospital on shore
for treatment or disposal.

This was a minor accident of war:
two weeks in a rest camp at Southport on the Irish Sea
and we were back at Grafton-Underwood, our base,
ready for combat again,
the dead crewmen replaced by living ones,
and went on hauling bombs over the continent of Europe,
destroying the Germans and their cities.

Edward Field, from After The Fall, Poems Old and New, University of Pittsburgh Press, 2007

The “quietness” of Field’s way of writing is deliberate and controlled. Roland Barthes refers to “writing degree zero” — an absolute of neutrality – where metaphor is eschewed, to allow “a colourless writing, freed from all bondage to a pre-ordained state of language” — which Barthes sees as having been pioneered by Camus. The signifier is entirely at the service of what is signified.

wfield_amaHERE THE UNDERSTATEMENT I spoke of so disparagingly earlier in this essay is nevertheless developed into a formidable style because it is carried to such an extreme. Taking any aesthetic “as far as it can go” tends to generate an art practice of integrity and originality, and the work of Edward Field mightily exhibits these qualities. He makes use of detailed description rather than suggestion, and it could be said that he has invented a form that hovers somewhere between poem and story, as can also be sensed when reading his poem, “The Life of Joan Crawford”. It’s a style he puts to good use when writing about war or catastrophe (see his poem “After the Fall” — which refers to 9/11). To modernists wary of La Gloire, the danger attached to an “illuminated” way of writing about grim events is that the writing may seek to move, persuade –though Owen’s novella seeks to bring home not the heroism but the utter horror of man’s inhumanity (as does his namesake’s poetry — “the old lie” etc); perhaps even, some may feel, to convince us that pacifism is our only viable position. Even so, it is still persuasion.

A highly “wrought” style may also draw attention to itself, and possibly detract from what is signified. I don’t think this is the case with Walter Owen’s writing, which seems more as if he is “possessed” by the spirit of ghastliness, and indeed it can be seen that both his fictions are concerned with possession (and perhaps this is also the case with the translations he referred to as “transvernacularisations”).  In a sense my two authors are diametrically opposed, yet they both offer us insights into the calamitous nature of their subject.

BUT WAR DOES not end with an armistice. Kerry-Lee Powell, the Anglo/Canadian poet, considers the impact her father’s war had on her in an essay entitled “Negotiating the Past in Poetry.”

As a war veteran and a longtime sufferer of post-traumatic stress disorder, my father was a tragic example of how a past event can resurface to disturb, borrowing a phrase from Eugenio Montale, ‘the usual illusion’ of one’s immediate surroundings. Living between two worlds and belonging fully to neither, the resulting liminality left him in a state of almost constant unease. His struggle against disintegration impressed upon me how much of what we perceive as being real is mediated by the potent but often irrational collection of myths, beliefs and past experiences circulating in our minds . . .

Just as his experiences of the war left him with a profoundly altered vision of the world, his illness throughout my childhood and his eventual suicide has had an enormous impact on my life . . .

As the years pass, I continue to reconsider the eleven days he spent alone in a lifeboat on the North Sea after his ship was torpedoed, and what effect that might have had on his mind as it listed between absurd hope and existential despair on the vast blank of the sea. It was an odyssey he never fully returned from . . .

The New Quarterly (Issue 123)

Her poem “The Lifeboat” very effectively captures this odyssey that continued way beyond 1945.

All night in his lifeboat my father sang
To keep the voices of the other men
Who cried in the wreckage from reaching him.

He sang what he knew of the requiem,
Of the hit parade and the bits of hymns.
He sang until he would never sing again,

Scalding his raw throat with sea-water
Until his ribs heaved, until the salt
Wept from his eyes on dry land,

Flecked at his lips in his squalling rages,
Streaked the sheets in his night sweats
As night after night the reassembled ship

Scattered its parts on the shore of his bed,
And the lifeboat eased him out again
To drown each night among singing men.

From Inheritance, Poems by Kerry-Lee Powell, Biblioasis (30 Oct 2014) 1

kleepowellThe almost compulsive repetition of “night” underscores the repetitive nature of traumatic nightmare, yet her work presents us with a third way of dealing with the pain of war, since she utilises lyricism and formal stanzas to create a poem which is a verse object of great beauty. The doubling of “again” and its rhyming with “men”, which is also repeated, as well as the use of “Requiem” and “hymns”, all contribute to turning this poem into a litany; a species of mourning, perhaps, as in a sense all poems may be, since they are addressed to an absence, for if the reader were present there would be no reason for the poem. Later in her essay she tells us of how that repercussive trauma from World War 11 came to have a bearing on her poetry:

My attempts to understand the suffering that my father underwent have had a profound impact on my artistic practice. I have chosen to write about him because I believe we all suffer to some degree from the effects of violence and its trace in our collective human story. His manner of departure has been a troubling legacy, and has caused me to engage in a kind of ongoing dialectic. If suicide can be read as an assertion of the meaninglessness of existence, my response has been to assert the world of the imagination and the ways in which poetry in particular can expand consciousness and increase our understanding of ourselves and our minds. If ghosts and angels are emanations from the cerebral cortex, it doesn’t make them any less wondrous—and fully acknowledging as much may go some way towards finding explanations for the irrational and destructive behaviours that perpetuate trauma and lead us to dehumanize ourselves and others. It is a world in which a letter placed on the grave of a poet makes absolute sense, because you are sure to get a reply.

A note on how I came across Walter Owen.

WALTER OWEN IS an author who has intrigued me for many years, ever since the days when I worked for Bernard Stone in his Kensington Church Walk bookshop — Turret Books — back in the sixties. Bernard sent books of poetry out all over the world in beautifully bound parcels which remained open to prove that they contained nothing but “printed matter”. I was meant to help him do this, but Bernard could wrap seven parcels neatly in the time that it took me to get one half way done. The shop contained a life-sized statue of Sigmund Freud and as a sixties poet with the appropriate hair and flared dungarees, I graced the shop in rather the same way, contributing as much to its efficiency as Freud, but sipping wine with aplomb with the many poets who passed by, many of whom were featured in the Turret Books chap-books edited by Edward Lucie-Smith and published by Bernard, who was the first to publish me. Brian Patten, Peter Porter, Fleur Adcock, Marvin Cohen, Christopher Logue, and Donald Gardner would all pass by, as well as Martin Bax, the editor of Ambit; Brian has written a fine reminiscence of Bernard and the Turret that can be found here among the papers published by the Fortnightly.

I created a poetry catalogue for the bookshop with my own little thumbnail “takes” on the books I listed, and this was considered so bizarre that the TLS republished an entire page of these (I think my thumbnail reviews were later taken up by Time Out).

So much for the background. After a year or two, I had read or browsed my way through most of the poetry, and one afternoon, overcome by a fit of ennui, I complained to Bernard that I “couldn’t find anything to read!”

Bernard handed me a black book without a dust-jacket, published by Andrew Dakers Ltd in 1947. This was one of Walter Owen’s only two novels: More Things in Heaven. In this, as Andrew Graham-Yooll puts it,

A narrator [Owen] and a mystic adept named Merlin Alaska investigate a case of Spontaneous Human Combustion. The trail of clues, found in ancient documents, manuscripts and travelogues, leads to the discovery of a two-thousand year old Zoroastrian curse upon the descendants of Alexander the Great.  Really very modern stuff, if you pick up Umberto Eco’s, In the Name of the Rose.

More Things in HeavenMore Things in Heaven is better than In the Name of The Rose, and better than anything by Dan Brown. It’s also their precursor, and Owen has never received the credit that is his due for practically inventing (or at least re-inventing) a genre. It’s a novel of boxes, one story leading to another, and ever since, I have searched for books that use a similar method. Known also as a narrative of frames, such novels remind us of Magritte’s dark suited man staring into a mirror which reflects the back of his own head. Merge this image with the same artist’s image of a picture within a picture, and we grasp the structure. If the head starts to smoke, that is, emit smoke from its cranium, we are reading More Things in Heaven, and checking to see if our own head isn’t doing the same thing.

The frame structure goes right back: it’s a technique that was used by The Thousand Nights and One Nights written during the Islamic Golden Age (eighth−thirteenth centuries). We come across it again in The Manuscript Found in Saragossa written in French by the Polish author Count Jan Potocki — completed in 1815. Potocki takes the notion so far that sometimes the very characters in the book express uncertainty as to which story they are in!

I discuss this technique in an essay entitled “The Picture within the Picture”, published on the blog I call my journal. The Cross of Carl is framed by the author’s prefatory note, and these two documents are framed by the General’s Preface. This struck me as so “Owenesque” that I checked to discover whether Sir Ian Hamilton had ever been a bone fide General. Apparently he had! More Things in Heaven resembles Walter Owen’s earlier novella in that it too is a fiction concerning possession — in this case demonic possession. Searching for a second copy of it to give to a friend, I came across references to this, his other work of fiction; and that is how I came upon The Cross of Carl.

Anthony Howell, a former dancer with the Royal Ballet, was founder of The Theatre of Mistakes and performed solo at the Hayward Gallery and at the Sydney Biennale. His articles on visual art, dance, performance, and poetry have appeared in many publications including Art Monthly, The London Magazine, Harpers & Queen, The Times Literary Supplement. He is a contributing editor of  The Fortnightly Review. In 2001 he received a LADA bursary to study the tango in Buenos Aires and now teaches the dance at his studio/gallery The Room in Tottenham Hale. He is the author of a seminal textbook, The Analysis of Performance Art: A Guide to Its Theory and Practice; his most recent work is Silent Highway, published by Anvil Press.

Also in The Fortnightly: Two poems by Laurence Binyon: ‘For the Fallen’ and ‘Youth’.

  1. ISBN-10: 1927428793, ISBN-13: 978-1927428795
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Vanessa Jones
Vanessa Jones
6 years ago

Walter Owen was a relation and its great to see his books being reviewed in 2014

Anthony Howell
3 months ago
Reply to  Vanessa Jones

Vanessa, if you can get in touch, Grey Suit Editions has just re-published the Cross of Carl. I would love to send you a complimentary copy.

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