I remember Arras – Adrian Grafe
I Remember Arras
‘I Remember Arras’, a sequence in four parts corresponding numerically to the four stanzas of ‘Adlestrop’, imagines Edward Thomas as having survived the war and looking back on his experience in France. The sequence plays fast and loose with some bits and pieces drawn from Thomas’s writings, including his 1917 diary.
I remember Arras, more than the name; yes-
terday here, too, was chilly and raw, no thaw yet
why are we forgotten? Why do we forget?
Place Victor Hugo. Shutters blown out.
Rimbaud and Verlaine stopped there, claimed to be murderous
criminals, just for the fun of getting arrested.
Amid the gunfire (courage tested) I made out the sound of a wren
chuckling as she soared out of her nest of prose.
Fine modern house in Boulevard Vauban —
good for billeting, living or dying in.
The broken glass of the damaged cathedral,
sparkling and spangling. I remember Arras,
those that perished there, the hottest place this side of hell,
if it was this side. I, too, could have died.
A savage child, I consorted with vagabonds.
So with soldiers, I felt at home:
I ain’t proud. Just likes to be comfortable.
I made a speech telling the men not to be shy
about writing intimate letters home.
Were my own letters home ever really intimate?
Helen’s letters: my lifeline.
One letter makes all the difference.
Poetry and poverty. Copse and corpse.
Where did daddy go when he left home? To Agny or to Achicourt?
One of the vagabonds had a son. Once he came:
I’ve brought you a present, like. He held it out to me:
a dirty old razor-blade he had found on the ground.
He might have slit my throat with it — or I his.
One summer in Swansea, a schoolboy,
I followed two girls along a road, after one had given me a look.
As they walked they smiled — only at each other.
Often lost in endless dark. The compass never gave the same results.
Drove from Arras to Avenes-le-comte and back,
by star-shell light. Both ways came under mortar attack.
Mortal attack. Spotted a skull perched on a tree-branch,
Could have been British or German — who knows? — or French.
I packed it in my rucksack, brought it back to de la Mare.
I heard a snake hiss — or a bullet. Something grazed my neck.
Through Alaincourt to Fosseux by lorry.
Nearly froze to death, almost frostbitten.
Still I loved even those roads. Weary, wary, full of worry,
I had miles to go; but then I slept.
They were shelling Arras; we were shelling them.
About men, I discovered things Frost never knew.
One morning I awoke; turned to the man in the bed next to mine.
His face was a living scar. I tried to turn away.
I could have cried; and didn’t. Dangerous.
I remember Berneville. Magasin pillé.
I thought I would enjoy map-reading when all that was over.
I walked back to Arras, calling Friend! when challenged.
I would go up to the edge of whatever lay before me.
Whatever it was, it would always disappear.
We don’t forget. I was reading sonnets after dinner.
I began to talk. The captain cleared his throat: Corporal Thomas,
you best get on with your sonnet. All fell silent.