REVIEW: What Passing Bells (The War Poems of Wilfred Owen) — Penny Rimbaud, Liam Noble, Kate Shortt
(The Vortex. 6 December 2017. Review by AJ Dehany)
“My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is the pity.”
11 November 2018 will mark a century since the end of the First World War—the war to end all wars. Wilfred Owen is one of the major poets of the conflagration. He was killed exactly a week—almost to the hour—before Armistice Day. His mother learned of his death just as the bells were ringing out in Shrewsbury. Owen left behind a body of poetry including unforgettable monuments to the horror of war, Dulce et Decorum est, and Anthem for Doomed Youth. These poems have become part of the language, known and recited by schoolchildren, even if not – as some have said they should be – read at the Cenotaph.
Penny Rimbaud, activist polymath and co-founder of seminal anarchist punk band Crass, last month released What Passing Bells (The War Poems of Wilfred Owen), his readings of the poems with pianist Liam Noble and cellist Kate Shortt. They have performed these on many occasions during the ongoing centenary period. It’s an important undertaking. It’s an important record. In a detailed recent interview with Patrick Clarke for The Quietus, Rimbaud explained “When the centenary of the war came round I thought ‘I’ve got to do it’. I was really worried there was going to be a horrible degree of jingoism and nationalism rising, which in a less direct way has risen. I wanted to present a counterpoint. I vowed that from 2014 to 2018 I’d perform it as often as I could, wherever I could.”
No one of the poems takes more than a few minutes to read, and Rimbaud has ordered them for thematic continuity with the sense of an overall shape, beginning with Song of Songs (“Sing me at morn but only with your laugh”) and concluding with a final reflection on memory and age, The End. The sequence is a punch to the gut for audience and performers alike. Penny Rimbaud says: “When I’m performing live, fighting back tears and fighting back explosions of real anger is unbelievably horrible. It’s not a nice piece to do.”
They used to do this as two sets but now it’s an unbroken 80 minutes, leading through the album’s programme of 27 poems with the music improvised. Penny Rimbaud says: “Every performance is completely different, it’s a golden rule in progressive jazz that you don’t repeat yourself. Just because we manage to pull something off in what we all agree works really well, that doesn’t mean we’ll ever try to replicate it. I think the three of us are just finding deeper and deeper meanings and expressions within the words.”
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The immediacy and intimacy of their presentation of the poems does justice to their stylistic and thematic range. Penny Rimbaud’s delivery has a gravitas that underlines the timeless importance of these verbal monuments, as well as expressing their Shakespearean dramatic qualities. Rimbaud crawks the broad cockney of the soldiers in Inspection, concluding The Chances with a roar: “Jimmy’s MAAAAAD!”, capturing the bleak black comedy in The Last Laugh of “‘O Jesus Christ! I’m hit,’ he said; and died” and the patrician clip of the Doc in The Dead-Beat: “That scum you sent last night soon died. Hooray!”
The sonnet On Seeing a Piece of our Heavy Artillery Brought into Action is like Shakespeare in the original Klingon: “May God curse thee, and cut thee from our soul!” He sobs, he barks. Throughout, there’s a peculiar warmth to it, the humanity of the men in the no man’s land of the machine coldness the settings often express: Liam Noble hammering on the keys and pulling at the open strings of the piano, Kate Shortt’s extended cello techniques including whistling open harmonics in a cold sonic world reminiscent of the bleak microtonality of Pēteris Vasks’ cello writing. The Send-Off stresses the administrative elements of war – roads, trains, signals, journeys, tedium – which seem well served by these kinds of atonality that were coming into being at that time not just as obscure Viennese experiments but as an expression of what was happening in the world: no melodies, just numbers, numbers.
At times Liam Noble seems to be playing a demented inversion of the jaunty piano music accompanying the silent cinema, which would have been accompanied by newsreel footage from the war. Apologia Pro Poemate Meo (“in defence of my poetry”) has a relevance that has grown as news media has permeated our lives and gone on to not just report but to foment history. The poem criticises “you” at home for whom war propaganda and images are entertainment, “These men are worth/Your tears. You are not worth their merriment.”
Wilfred Owen enlisted in 1915 and was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Manchester Regiment in 1916. He suffered significant trauma. He was blown up by a trench mortar and lay unconscious for several days on an embankment surrounded by the remains of his fellow officers. Diagnosed with shell shock he was sent to Craiglockhart War Hospital in Edinburgh, where he met fellow poet Siegfried Sassoon (as documented in Pat Barker’s novel Regeneration) under whose influence he moved away from the patriotic modes of earlier war poets like Rupert Brooke, coming to write haunting evocations of the horror of war that have echoed through history ever since.
Yet Wilfred Owen was not a pacifist. He was an officer, with a professional attitude to leading his men into battle. Initially he even wrote with contempt for the “loutish behaviour” of the troops, calling them “expressionless lumps.” After Craiglockhart, he came back to fight, and he died for it. He is sometimes viewed retrospectively as possessing a wholly negative attitude to war, but in fact he is nuanced and complex and ambivalent—to an extent that disturbs us today.
Owen’s use of mythic parallels both upholds and undermines notions of heroism. Owen reduces the opening of the Aeneid from “Arms and the man I sing” to the title Arms and the Boy. There’s no Ovidian transformation of man into a murderous minotaur, just a boy with his bayonet blade. The Parable of the Old Man and the Young is a bitter reverse parable of Abraham slaying his son “And half the seed of Europe, one by one.”
Anthem For Doomed Youth remembers the fallen as individuals rather than numbers. Dulce et Decorum est sets a detailed account of a gas attack against the abstractions of nationhood and patriotism. These are two of the most famous and important poems in the language. Rimbaud, Noble and Shortt avoid actorly chewiness in favour of simplicity, pacing and space. Strange Meeting is given a minimal treatment to foreground the slower storytelling and atmosphere of the poem. This one in particular is the key to Penny Rimbaud’s conception of the poems. “In my late teens I was introduced to the poetry of Wilfred Owen and from one line in his Strange Meeting I was awoken to an entirely new way of being – “I am the enemy you killed, my friend” – no malice, no terrible vengeance, only love; a true expression of human possibility.”
The performance of the whole sequence began with an utterance from the draft of Wilfred Owen’s Preface: “My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is the pity.” The document continues “Yet these elegies are to this generation in no sense consolatory. They may be to the next. All a poet can do today is warn. That is why the true Poets must be truthful.” Did they offer consolation to that next generation who went on to live and die in the Second World War? Did they offer consolation to those who died in Vietnam, and subsequent and current wars? They can’t console, they are current. They are not a warning from history, but a description of the present. That’s what’s so chilling. We cleave to hope, but the word ‘cleave’ means both to split and to hold dear. For Penny Rimbaud activism is a role of the avant garde (The Guardian 29 November 2017): “Essentially, the avant garde is about changing the world. It must be, otherwise it wouldn’t exist.” But how can the avant garde change the world if even the deaths of 18 million people couldn’t prevent all that has happened since?
Rather than concluding on an “expression of human possibility”, Rimbaud, Noble and Shortt close on an ambivalent note with one of Owen’s bleakest statements, The End. “Shall Life renew these bodies” he asks… but he finds no solace in religion, no hope or ardent glory in either victory or defeat: “It is death./Mine ancient scars shall not be glorified/Nor my titanic tears the seas be dried.”
A single piano note, repeating, ebbing away…
There was silence for a long time.
AJ Dehany is based in London and writes independently about music, art and stuff. ajdehany.co.uk