I remember reading Phil Vernon’s micro-collection, entitled This Quieter Shore, back in 2018 and thinking what a talented writer he is. Therefore, I looked forward to delving into Poetry after Auschwitz (SPM Publications, 2020) when it arrived and wow, what a collection it is!
Vernon’s principal concern in Poetry after Auschwitz is the way history affects us. He gives a voice to historical figures (such as Judas, Stalin’s daughter, and a liberator of Belsen) to articulate the transformative effect of past events upon the present: he portrays their influence as a constant presence in our lives. In El Tres de Mayo he writes: ‘What’s past is present: faded cryptogram of sound – no matter we try to prise/ a meaning out of or ignore it – fills/ our ears with its abiding , quiet refrain.’ How the past affects the present is complex: the effects differ but are always significant, life-changing. For example, catastrophic events, such as the dropping of the atom bomb, live vividly in the memory for survivors so that ‘it feels like yesterday’ (Shiva); descendants of perpetrators of atrocities are left with a legacy of guilt and a sense of obligation to make recompense (‘Is there a penance I can pay/ so I can know my children’s lives?’ Solidarity); a suicidal foreign correspondent is consumed by his memories of genocide long after the time he reported on it (‘he closed/ his ears but year on year the song joined whispers from elsewhere to drown/ the voice insisting we prolong our lives’); and a demobbed Wren finds it difficult to return to the normality of civilian life after the war’s victorious end (‘the clouds of peace hung heavy on our home’).
Though the influence of historical events endures in Vernon’s poems, the lessons of history are not learned so life remains constantly turbulent and unpredictable. He shows there are no certainties either in domestic life or in national life that we might take comfort from. In The small things goddesses do he writes: ‘I do and see that neither what/ nor how we pray, makes any odds/ at all to goddesses who change/ the views they look down on, at whim,/ between this arid lowland, and/ a valley blessed by rain.’ That’s not to say life is unrelentingly hard. He shows that we are capable of love and kindness with his accounts of the women who save the man collapsed through ‘drink and stress’ in the park and who offer the rough sleepers in the Athens park sustenance. However, he suggests it would be foolish to interpret such acts as evidence of some overwhelmingly benevolent, or even benign, force at work in the world. No such force exists and this makes it impossible to predict how our lives will turn out. Any attempts at predicting the future are shown to end in failure, symbolised in the anxiety of Vernon’s ‘weather girl’: ‘You spoke with all the confidence instilled/ by science and facts – but I could see/ anxiety alive behind your eyes’. She might try to find evidence for her prediction, but she intuitively knows she can neither accurately forecast the weather, nor predict her husband’s erratic moods. Consequently her ‘stomach seeps with acid fear, / uncertain if the threatening clouds will burst/upon the night ahead.’ The only thing we can be certain of seems to be life’s uncertainty.
Vernon goes on to show that there is no benefit to be had from denying this reality; all we can do is find the strength within us to cope and see us through times of turmoil, for as he writes in What we are afraid to tell our children: the fact is that the ‘arguments for quitting life/ are barely weaker, more remote –/ once you weight happiness and strife -/ than reasons why we mostly don’t’. In such a context, life is little more than a battle for survival. In Wedding day a couple look back on their marriage. On the day of the ceremony they are full of optimism; they believe they have the power to steer their desired course together: ‘Look at us then: my buttonhole, your pearls, / your hand in mine, our smiles with energy/ enough to make the harbour flags unfurl -/ and we placed our hands upon the wheel/we chose our course, and when to put to sea.’ The reality of their lives proves very different from their naive hopes for it. They become ‘lost in violence’ and experience ‘torment and ordeal’, realising that they cannot shape their fate but are the victims of life’s chaos. They survive only through their determination, or ‘senseless will’, to endure the storms’. Others characters in Vernon’s poems find this strength to survive through their sense of solidarity with others. In The pallbearer the character reflects on life and death. The poem concludes: ‘we shoulder her again/ I’d swear she’s lighter now than when we came not by the weight of her departed flame -/ but since to pray together strengthen us within.’ It is the community that enables him to find renewed strength to face the future. Characters, who do not have such a community to draw upon, find strength though acceptance. The mother in The Bridge is able to visit the bridge, where her son’s sacrifice is commemorated, and is able to spend her evenings ‘contentedly’. She is not at all wracked by guilt that she gave him ‘a mother’s leave to die’. She has accepted the fact of his death and is at peace, being able to comfort herself with the thought that war has spared him ‘all the ills of longer life’ and by imagining that he is still ‘near’ to him.
There can be little doubt that Phil Vernon is a seriously talented poet with profound insights to share with his readers. He is a master of language and form and as I read his poems he frequently leaves me in awe of his talent. His verse is so beautifully crafted and never forced, with rhythms that drive his poems satisfyingly towards their conclusions. This is a collection that deserves to be read, preferably aloud to be full appreciated, as I’m sure it will be by readers who know their poetry! I’m off to read it yet again!
Phil lives with his wife Tebo in Kent in the UK, where he returned in 2004 after spending two decades in different parts of Africa. He works as an independent advisor in the international development, humanitarian and peacebuilding fields. His poems have appeared in magazines and websites. His version of Stabat Mater with music by Nicola Burnett Smith was performed at St Paul’s Covent Garden in 2019. This Quieter Shore, a micro-collection, was published by Hedgehog Poetry Press in 2018, and a full collection Poetry After Auschwitz was published by Sentinel in 2020. Another collection, Watching the Moon Landing, is due from Hedgehog in 2021. Phil is also one of three poets featured in Tree Poets: Rivers of Stone (hedgehog Poetry Press, 2021). To find out more about Phil and to purchase his book click here.