Troopers dead in a trench and a river of rats
Topers dead in a bar and a flood of reflections
Lovers dead in a bed and a shift of maggots
Snipers dead in the trees and a cowl of crows
Travellers dead on the bridge and a gaggle of gawpers
Oldsters dead on a porch and downpour of flies
Deserters dead in a pitch and a raft of chiggers
Foragers dead in a field and a jostle of foxes
Children dead at their desks and a month of Sundays
By David Harsent
(from his 2005 Forward prize-winning collection, Legion)
David Harsent, the British poet who’d won last year’s Forward award for the best poetry collection, based his collection Legion on some unspecified war zone. But as he’s translated Goran Simic, a Bosnian poet, and he was one of the editors of an anthology of British and Irish poems commissioned by the Sarajevo Writers' Union, one can conjecture, even if he never admits this outright, he probably would have had the Bosnian conflict in mind when he wrote those poems.
Snapshots (I) is made up, deceptively simply, of just phrases, each its own line and its own stanza. Basically the lines are a listing of images, or snapshots, as the title tells you. The numeral in the brackets also indicates this poem is the first of a series, actually a pair, the second one being II.
The overall composition is very tight, with no loose ends; every thing and every word is accounted for. The syntactical construction is constant: noun group with adjectival modifier and prepositional modifier; a conjunction; and a noun phrase with a similar prepositional modifier. There is not a single punctuation to set the phrases apart. This is done by line spacings instead. There is not a single run-on or enjambment, just very strong end-stops. There is also not a single verb; rightly so, as the words in each line are a linguistic translation of a captured – stilled - instance in a photograph.
Of images the poem is, no doubt, about, and because of the graphic quality of each image, it can lean some ways towards imagist poetry. Another image evoked from the line arrangements is rows of headstones or graves, and the consistency of construction is so very precise and regular, it has an almost, dare I say, a military precision. Interesting that Harsent named this piece Snapshots, as if the images have been shot by casual photographers or amateurs – does this tell you anything?
Another constant here is the word “dead”. It is repeated at every line, and as it is read with a stress or a beat, it almost seems like someone reading out from a list of people who’d been killed – which it is, here. Also, the heavy beat upon the repetitions gives a sensation of some death knell. And a slow and resounding one at that. The separating of the lines into one-line stanzas make you pause at their endings for a space longer, the strong end-stops helping in this, as well.
The division of the two noun groups in a line by a conjunction is important here. The objects – the troopers, lovers, snipers, children – on the left of “and” are all dead – nothing moving. On the right of “and”, though, you have movement. But the actual objects moving are not at the head of the noun group: river of rats; shift of maggots; downpour of flies; jostle of foxes. The movements themselves are taking precedence over the objects which are moving.
This is significant when you read up to end of the last line, the last stanza. In “the month of Sundays”, Harsent means for us to feel that with the death of the children, everything is stilled – nothing is moving. For some people Sunday is a day of rest, a day in which you don’t do any work, or anything for that matter. God created the world and rested on one day, Sunday.
What would anybody’s life be like if he is living day to day as if “everyday is like Sunday.” I’m actually quoting this phrase from the lyrics of Morrissey’s Everyday is like Sunday. He says “Everyday is like Sunday/ Everyday is silent and grey”. And, like Harsent writing about war, destruction and death here, Morrissey, later in the song, sings about grey ash falling on one’s hands and face after a nuclear bomb explosion.
Can you imagine every day of the month a “silent and grey” Sunday, with no sound, no activity, at least, not from living beings?