Jenny Hockey Poetry
The poems below can be read in parallel with the memoir, Family Life, Trauma and Loss in the Twentieth Century. The Legacy of War, that I co-authored with Carol Komaromy. They describe my responses to the deaths in war of my paternal grandfather and his elder son. Often I use the documents, letters and other paraphernalia I inherited when his younger son, my father, died - and the first two poems describe my attempts to find out more about my family. These are followed by work addressed to my grandfather and grandmother and then to my home life as a child with my father, mother and maternal grandfather during the post-war years.
All My Dead and Never Once Encountered
Up to a high shelf above my office door,
to a legacy of albums and attaché cases
I take my ignorance of where they lived and died,
of whether they were radiant in their later years
and what sound their voices had. I ask what they did
of a Sunday and what their neighbours thought of it,
how they felt when their sons and husbands were
conscripted. After the War Office Telegram,
what happened to their grief, what became of their love?
Climbing down I scrub dust from my finger tips,
dream vengeance for their bloody loss.
Your Diaries Entered
Thieves slashed open the soft bindings of your life,
found nothing there they thought of worth -
stopped at the padlocked year you found a wife,
the long moment of my birth.
After you died I trawled those ruptured years,
pages of work and weather writ small.
You were done. But I was hunting lusts and fears
that shaped your days when love was all.
Should I prise your young life apart,
have a locksmith let me see
into the room where you caused my start?
What have you done with the key?
Younger than I am now by thirty years,
among your pals, your cap pushed back.
Not as I thought, away on the Western Front,
just camped in a Devon field, toying with guns.
Three tents pitched behind six uniformed lads,
another four in watch chains and waistcoats,
some old chap with a pickaxe, one small boy —
all stuck on my album’s opening page
under another photo of you, the one
where you’ve set your buttons to rights, laid
a five-pocket bandolier cross-wise on your chest.
Over your cheekbones, flawless skin.
Is it that history’s tipped me off, shown me
your Villers-Bretonneux grave? Or had sadness
already weighed on your glorious moustache,
caused it to weep on stopped-up lips?
Could dread so infect your eyes?
I would ease the serge from your back,
lay leather and Enfield aside — ask in a voice
I once had if you’ll play a game for a while.
The Draper’s Wife
We were married eight years
when he gave me this ring — a primrose
with petals of pearl, diamond stamens
sparkling it up —
then he checked our accounts,
put baccy, notepad and knife
in his pack, stood it erect
by the door, a soldier on watch
with only his number
inked into hemp.
I know we made love
as best we could, slept
on and off.
Leftovers grandma put out
made a breakfast of sorts for us
on guard for the cabman’s early knock.
Then up into the trap,
him, me and the pack.
Down at the Aldershot train,
more men than before,
kitted in khaki. Older ones now,
like him. The young fellows
all gone ahead.
He kissed me once
and then twice for the boys
while the cabman sat waiting,
his loaf and his two hard-boiled eggs.
Cycle Route South
Easter gone and snow to come
they say. The trees at the back
all mustard green, the sky
a footloose blue. Slip out
while you can. Now I’m heady
with air, hot on the pedals
up Clough Lane and a stream
hurtling to my side like a puppy
tied up too long. Slip the leash
to find a route back
to ten years old and Easter
on Dartmoor, at Yellowmead
where a chute delivers a stream
to the farm — water they said
I could drink all day, freed
from winter’s classroom,
released among cowslips
yellowing high-banked lanes.
Find a route to my daddy,
sent from these moors, for the best.
Off to school for months at a time
after his own daddy was lost
to the guns. I’m telling you this —
that my daddy held faith,
where uncles fed lambs
when snow was in the wind
and trees were mustard green.
Meredith Charles Watling
was an acknowledged East Anglian
painter, I read in the 1955 obituary
that fluttered from the unlocked leaves
of my mother’s diary. He filled our house
with the scent of linseed and St Bruno
pinched from a flat Bakelite pouch
with a screw-off inset lid; pared his nails
with a knife, stropped a cut-throat razor.
When I grew longer than the alcove
in my parents’ room, they moved me
downstairs by Grandad’s easel and paint
— until Addenbrookes took him one night
and I came into possession of his bed,
his sunlit room and something up there,
laid out above his wardrobe,
under the pall of a dustsheet’s folds.
‘We’re just going for a stroll’
Always it is three o’clock. My parents have woken
from their rests, leaving my granddad in peace
with his easel and paints. Me in my sandpit
from where I can almost see my father’s arm
sliding round my mother’s coat, hand on the belt
she draws round her waist, not leaning into him.
They are walking the towpath where he
first found her lips, the soft skin of her cheek.
Found out for the first time.
Now they are never alone, never yelling
or running wildly into each other’s arms
down a grand parquet-tiled hall,
never lying in bed with a bottle balanced
between them, warming the wine
from one mouth to another.
Wearing the apron she has made
from an old dress, my mother stands
at the kitchen end of our back room.
I’m full length on the studio couch,
sun, as I always recall, warm
through the metal-framed windows.
Duty before pleasure, she says,
pulling bun tins from the kitchen cabinet.
I’m seeing my satchel, sprawled
in my bedroom, sagging with books.
My mother is making jam tarts
and after that, sausage rolls.
They are all she ever makes,
after she’s dragged the cylinder vac
across the rugs, washed up breakfast
in sequence, boiled water eked out.
My mother and I both know
about the homework in my satchel.
A mangle. Clamped by her to the Belfast sink
after flannelling her body down,
with the mean curtains pulled
none of whose business it is
that she forswears the bathroom
for the deep sink. Where soaked clothing heaps
and heaps beneath her hands, flattening the pads of her thumbs
as weeks become years,
as knives grow slim as a wafer on a Sunday tongue,
as towels strung out above the stove
fray with age, as soap slivers down.
Where fen winds keen over bean fields,
she washes down her days, grows old young,
except on Tuesday, when she opens the door
to laundered sheets, ironed into whitened glass,
swaddled in brown paper, the profligate promise
of sleep, sweetened with the labour
of another pair of hands.
The Whole Meringue
would be too much for you,
they say, settling a domed half upon my plate,
tea-spooning cream in moderation
while sun drains into that post-war café
where Dad, in what he calls his business suit,
joins us whenever my mother risks
the heart thump of uptown shopping.
Across my ankle-sock afternoons
that gleaming line-up of whiteness tips
oblivious into unlit cul-de-sacs of my skull;
yet the sweetness of their slick, unbitten other halves
still hovers in the just-a-minute fastness
of my life’s long Never-Never Land
where perfect in their symmetry,
their mutual creamy commitment, their table-top
supremacy, whole meringues unite,
snubbing cupcakes, battenburg,
malt loaf and madeira
and now as I pare the flesh
of another weekend mango
of which I have offered you half,
I sneak pieces from your bowl into mine
as your tread sounds upon the stairs.
She comes to my mind
when my knife slices the herring’s belly,
my nails catch its bristle of bones,
when my hands are gloved
in the creature’s dark blood strands,
cuffed in its stamp-hinge scales.
Oily with goodness, I splice
and slice, tweaking off dinosaur crests,
patting paper towels into flaking grey flesh.
No, I can’t face the head
but I do butter the bread
before I cut it.
Feel we owe him another visit before the holiday.
Flattened throughout July. At times depressed. Hard to form
a smile. Overworked. Desperate to go away. What about
justice? Is there no end to demands too costly to meet? Is
there no-one to say when a break is due? Must take the holiday.
Late July and someone rings. Worried. About him.
His jacket is hanging off. He is confused. His neighbour
confirms it. The doctor suspects malignancy. He has broken
his appointment on June 3rd. Along with two more.
Cigarettes and gin and tonic from the bar. Quickly. Why am I
sailing so far away from someone who is likely to leave me
altogether? Watch the shoreline recede, the deepening of waters.
This holiday is madness. We do not carry a mobile phone.
Approach the Burgundy village and contact. Is he already
dead? The wrong phone number was left. But he is alive
and angry. Somebody passed on information. Someone said he was
ill. And phoned his doctor behind his back. Leave for Rully.
Fifteen weeks later and he is dressed in something blue
and frilly. Which connects directly to the coffin sides. A coverlet
posing as a garment. His hands are visible again. Now utterly
familiar. The red marks on their backs, left behind by the tubes.