Sandham Memorial Chapel, Manchester Art Gallery

Snowdrops in Sandbags outside Manchester Art GalleryWhite the snowdrops in garden and park.
White for peace and white for hope.

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.

The Resurrection of the Soldiers by Sir Stanley Spencer, CBE,RA (Cookham 1891¿ Cliveden 1959)
‘The Resurrection of the Soldiers’ http://www.nationaltrustcollections.org.uk/object/790185

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.

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3 thoughts on “Sandham Memorial Chapel, Manchester Art Gallery

  1. An entrancing poem about a horrid horrid war. I have a book on WWI printed shortly after it ended and the photographs near the end were not edited white like they would be nowadays. Thank you for remembering those who fought for God and Country, but alas for nothing really, ending up with a blasted heath. Blessings.

  2. Charlotte hussey

    Love the repetition of white through out. It’s haunting, eerie, etherial…..Just right for you topic. Growing up in North America, I have such different, more innocent associations with snow drops. As a child I was so thrilled to find them growing out of a still slightly snow covered bank, deep in the woods, the first sign of Spring.

  3. Your choice of a very tight form for this poem effectively ‘contains’ the urgency and directs your strong feelings about Spencer’s portrayals. I remember I once quite liked the rural scenes he painted but these are, as you say, harsh by comparison. Your focus on the shift in sensibility with Christianity in the way the dead are remembered by comparison with that conveyed in poems featuring Gwyn makes an important point of interpretation. It is in such distinctions that the shaping of pagan world view can really emerge from the post-Christian world we currently inhabit.

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