White on the bunker in sandbags they grow
to whiten the way to Sandham Chapel.
White the walls (though the windows are dark).
White the intent to paint a memorial
of white sheets and white wash, soap and suds:
daily regimes bring us closer to God.
White the scrubbing. White the baking.
White the endless sleeping and waking.
White the buzz in the back of the head.
White the cocoons of mosquito nets.
White the devotion. White the will
to wipe the mind with the daily drill.
Not-white the wounds. Not-white the skin.
Not-white the war and the world we live in.
White the eruptions of angel wings.
White the colour of crucifixes
borne through a salient of fire and blood
and offered up to a not-white God.
White the high altar. White the bread.
White the magic of resurrection.
Not-white the pain of a broken nation.
Not-white the sigh and the scream unexpressed.
White the pardons. White the excuses.
White this March too late for white rabbits.
White my forgotten god of the dead.
White my need to honour them.
I wrote this poem after visiting Manchester for the first time in a long while and being struck by its transformation into Snowdrop City (in September 2014 snowdrops were planted across the city in commemoration of the First World War) and by the effect of visiting the ‘Stanley Spencer: Heaven in a Hell of War’ exhibition at Manchester Art Gallery.
The latter was a temporary installation from Sandham Memorial Chapel in Burghclere, Hampshire. The chapel was built to honour the forgotten dead of the First World War. The murals inside it were painted by Stanley Spencer and depict his experiences working on the Salonika Front as a medical orderly and soldier.
The murals depict scenes of everyday life; getting up, eating, washing, collecting water, the treatment of wounds, making beds. They are adorned with intriguing paradisal details; glimpses of angel’s wings, a man sprouting wings likes colinders, flowers growing from flesh. Each scene is framed within a heavenly archway. The pure horror of war is expressed only by Spencer’s strange distortions of human forms and features.
As I walked around the gallery-made-chapel a video played over and again on a loop every two minutes. Each time, a particular sentence about Spencer seeing these daily routines as bringing him closer to God kept echoing in my head. It jarred. Whilst I felt respect for Spencer’s wish to honour the forgotten people who had worked behind the scenes in the First World War, I struggled to comprehend his depictions of their work as heavenly and of soldiers offering their lives to Christ or God, leading to eventual resurrection.
As my patron god, Gwyn ap Nudd ‘White son of Mist’ is associated with the otherworld and the war-dead in ancient British mythology, I was also led to ponder when, why and how he and his mythos were replaced by the Christian paradigm and the ways our relationships with the gods and understanding of the afterlife affect our attitudes towards war and peace, life and death. This poem was written as a knee-jerk response to my thoughts and feelings.