PART 8: women's voices
|Come on, come back by Stevie Smith
(incident in a future war)
Left by the ebbing tide of battle
On the field of Austerlitz
The girl soldier Vaudevue sits
Her fingers tap the ground, she is alone
At midnight in the moonlight she is sitting alone on a round flat stone.
Graded by the Memel Conference first
Of all human exterminators
M L 5
Has left her just alive
Only her memory is dead for evermore.
She fears and cries, Ah me, why am I here?
Sitting alone on a round flat stone on a hummock there.
Rising, staggering, over the ground she goes
Over the seeming miles of rutted meadow
To the margin of a lake
The sand beneath her feet
Is cold and damp and firm to the waves' beat.
Quickly - as a child, an idiot, as one without memory -
She strips her uniform off, strips, stands and lunges
Into the icy waters of the adorable lake.
On the surface of the water lies
A ribbon of white moonlight
The waters on either side of the moony track
Are black as her mind,
Her mind is as secret from her
As the water on which she swims,
As secret as profound as ominous.
Weeping bitterly for her ominous mind, her plight,
Up the river of white moonlight she swims
Until a treacherous undercurrent
Seizing her in an icy amorous embrace
Dives with her, swiftly severing
The waters which close above her head.
An enemy sentinel
Finding the abandoned clothes
Waits for the swimmer's return
('Come on, come back')
Waiting, whiling away the hour
Whittling a shepherd's pipe from the hollow reeds.
In the chill light of dawn
Ring out the pipe's wild notes
'Come on, come back.'
In the swift and subtle current's close embrace
Sleeps on, stirs not, hears not the familiar tune
Favourite of all the troops of all the armies
Favourite of Vaudevue
For she had sung it too
Marching to Austerlitz,
'Come on, come back'.
|'Austerlitz': the poet imagines a future battle on an old battleground. Austerlitz is now in the Czech Republic, but in 1805 it was in Austria. It was here that Napoleon and his French troops defeated the armies of Russia and Austria..
'Memel': the German name for a coastal town in Lithuania. Stevie Smith imagines it as the location of a Conference assessing methods of exterminating human beings. Memel came under German rule after the Napoleonic Wars, but was reclaimed by Lithuania when the Memel Statute was signed by 4 countries, including Britain, in 1923. Nazism became popular in Memel and anti-Semitism grew; when the Nazis were elected to govern it in 1938 the Jewish population began a mass exodus. Lithuania handed Memel back to Germany without resistance.
'M L 5': a made-up name for a chemical
'hummock': little hill
'idiot': someone with a severe learning disability (a word no longer used in this sense)
'lunges': suddenly throws herself forward. One of the characteristics of Stevie Smith's poetry is an unexpected choice of words - such as 'adorable' in the next line.
Stevie Smith's war is both ancient and modern: she evokes images from the Napoleonic age, but also the modern world in which chemicals are used to harm or kill people. Her poem was written in the 1950s, and she will have known all about such things as Zyklon-B, the gas used on the Jews in Nazi death camps.