‘Ceasefire’ and ‘The Cross of Carl’

Last night I watched “Ceasefire” (Cessez-le-feu) directed by Emmanuel Courcol, starring Romain Duris, Celine Sallete and Gregory Gadebois. This French film explores the lives of French soldiers traumatised by bombardment in the trenches of Verdun. Those few who returned ostensibly intact nevertheless suffered from irreparable shell shock, nightmares, the shakes. Many remained unfit for life, unable to participate in normal life. Marcel Laffont, one of these survivors is unable to speak and is being taught sign-language in order to express himself. Towards the end of the film, he manages to leave a message on the blackboard hanging in his room. There is nothing wrong with his vocal chords. It is simply that for Marcel it is “impossible” to be one who has returned alive from this tragic slaughter, a slaughter impossible to speak about, that renders Marcel himself unable to speak about anything ever again.

Watching this film, I began to understand more about the unique role of The Cross of Carl – which Grey Suit Editions UK have just published.

Walter Owen, the Argentine author of The Cross of Carl, attempted to enlist in WW1 – but was refused, being already blind in one eye. He spent much of the war in a sanatorium, traumatised by this refusal, and in a strange state of empathy with those serving at the front. As is shown in the author’s note prefacing the tale that he calls “an allegory”, opium may have contributed to a hallucinogenic episode he experienced – a vision, if you will – that caused him to feel that he was possessed by the spirit of a German soldier in the trenches who was about to participate in a dawn attack. He then wrote his account of the sufferings undergone by this soldier in one sitting, in a sort of frenzy of the imagination – and this extraordinary fiction (which he felt was more of a haunting than a fiction) is the result.

Now the reader may question the authenticity of this “vision” – but perhaps Walter Owen’s work has a validity that transcends experience – since, as Marcel Laffont testifies on his board, the actual experience is “impossible” to speak of, since it is an impossibility (spiritually speaking) to have survived the savagery of such massacres, impossible to speak, let alone speak of the horror itself. Certainly this is the view of General Sir Ian Hamilton – who introduces this allegory: ‘There is something to be explained which I at least cannot explain in the sudden appearance of a book from the Argentine by a man who, I believe, had never seen modern war with mortal eye and who yet manages to divest himself of all the paraphernalia and impedimenta of the old wars (which must have become more or less familiar to him in his youth) so as to visualize the attack on Hill 50 with a stark, concentrated realism which has been attempted, and yet not conveyed as he has conveyed it, by Tomlinson, Remarque, Barbusse and half a dozen other really first-flight authors.

With this in mind, it is interesting to compare Walter Owen with Wilfred Owen, and perhaps Walter’s star has been eclipsed by the reality described that that poet who died in the conflict. But it is not a question of asserting some value judgement, of disapproving of a work of the imagination while preferring “the real thing”. Both lived experience and the life of the imagination have a role to play in literature.

Walter Owen’s text has a visceral power, an intense texture that seems to me a precursor of the sort of dense physical language handled so brilliantly later by Norman Mailer in Why we are in Viet Nam. It is a language that draws on all sensory inputs – smell, taste, touch, as well as sight and sound. While created solely out of sight and sound, Emmanuel Courcol’s film works hard to convey the Verdun bombardment of the trenches in a way that evokes these senses unavailable to the screen, and I found watching it a powerful experience. Whether imagined or experienced, what all these works bring home is that active military service can leave the strongest spirit traumatised, unable to settle back into the humdrum wage-earning ways of ‘civvy street’. Many of those we pass in today’s streets, huddled under a flattened cardboard box, or at best lying on a damp urine-stained mattress by the underground station, are ex-service personnel: brave spirits, wrecked by some order they were obliged to obey, or some atrocious act that has to remain a secret.

The Cross of Carl


See also Dreadful as the Abortions of an Angel my essay on the literature of war published in the Fortnightly Review.

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Iliassa Sequin: Collected Complete Poems

Iliassa Sequin’s unique way of writing is at last available in a publication from Grey Suit Editions

More details about her work and her life here

Now available on Amazon and on Abebooks.

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Less than a Day from April

Winter's Not Gone


Less than a day from April,

The wax white, compact

Hyacinth is up.

And petals in a sky


Trailing a fringe of drizzle,

Cling to the gusty almond.

Daffodil clumps are swept

Like weed combed by a brook.


The loam underfoot is mish-mash

Pasted over with oakleaf.

Knocked-about drives with potholes

Go where the barns moulder.


Pert above waterlogged gravel,

Blue tits flit at table;

Woodpeckers cheerfully hammer

Cantankerous morning together.


Lichen stains the leeside

Of boles near draughty marshes

Where nothing but walkable tussocks

And adequate boots make a passage.


Anchored by only their shadows

Cast on the fields’ floor,

Armadas of cumulus-nimbus

Ride in the sun’s glare.

*    *    *

From the mildewed seams of a rag-doll’s

Ill-stitched, lenient thighs,

Rotting apart since August

By the concrete military road,


Hair sprouts as the shoots do;

Minuscule ivy glides

Among the fizzy parsleys

And the embryonic grasses.


Less than a day from April,

Odd leaves are stuck

Where they first were blown

Onto the hedges: a hawk


Spies upon pasture edged

By birches lozenge-clad

In criss-cross net,

And spangled at the garter;


Lifting a sheer leg,

Stretching into the fingers

Of twigs turning red

Behind the trim estate.


Caught in the wrecked masts

Of last year’s thistles,

Aghast blown skirls

Spill from the rear trestles


In gardens back to back:

Radio 1 and a chain-saw

Attack and counter-attack

Children curdling blood;


While tendrilly vibrations

With dwarf orange balls

Offset brick walls

And camouflage the eyesore.


But garages padlock hardware;

For Primrose Way’s Elect,

City-employed and gerbilled,

Are all too easily burgled.

*    *    *

Less than a day from April,

The ‘pressure cooker’ effect

Builds in the twigs and the neighbour

Just on the brink of sobriety.


A hedgerow high society,

Less than an hour from the centre;

Saved by its Alps and Bahamas

From merely English winter.


A countrified sort of urbanity,

Seen on a dark afternoon

As the stamp of our national sanity.

Prunus blossom in porcelain


Falls on the splintering ice there

Beneath its unglazed biscuit

On the sideboard where each sits it,

Which is actually not Formica.


From a pamphlet published by John Welch’s Many Press in 1984 with a wonderful cover by Peter Tingey. I have just a few copies left.

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The Sarah Maguire Prize Announcement on Zoom

The Poetry Translation Centre invites you to attend the announcement of the winner of the Sarah Maguire Prize for Poetry in Translation.
Incomprehensible Lesson by Fawzi Karim, translated by Anthony Howell is among the five books short-listed.

Join the shortlisted poets, translators and publishers live on Zoom for conversation, readings and find out the inaugural prize winner.

 SAVE THE DATEThursday 25 March, from 5pm GMTWinner announcement at 6pm

The public can watch here: I think at 7.30 pm on Youtube.


Click here for further links to books by Fawzi Karim and essays about him 

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Grey Suit Editions – two new publications!

There are two new publications by Grey Suit Editions UK. Collected Complete Poems by Iliassa Sequin and The Cross of Carl by Walter Owen.

Thanks to Peter Jay, Ken Sequin, Peter Gizzi, Catherine Somers and everyone who has contributed expertise and time to these two projects we are very pleased to have published.

Scroll down the Grey Suit Editions Blog for details about more of our publications – including our chap-books. The stock of our chapbooks is being mailed from Canada, where they were originally printed and stored, and all will be available shortly.

More details about Iliassa Sequin here.

More details about Walter Owen here.

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Three Poems (now with recordings) at the Fortnightly

These three poems

published by The Fortnightly Review are now accompanied by very good sound recordings.

Further recordings can be found here where a link can be found to my poems on the National Poetry Archive.

A favourite recording of mine is Beverley at Iguazu from Dancers in Daylight. It can be found on my youtube channel videos.

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A Reading of Poets short-listed for the Sarah Maguire Prize

Click this link for the STANZA translation event, which is a reading open to view online on Monday eighth of March. I shall be reading at this event.



My versions of Incomprehensible Lesson by Fawzi Karim (published by Carcanet) are among the shortlisted books for this prize.

Also, The Poetry Translation Centre invites you to attend the announcement of the winner of the Sarah Maguire Prize for Poetry in Translation.
Join the shortlisted poets, translators and publishers live on Zoom for conversation, readings and find out the inaugural prize winner.
Thursday 25 March, from 5pm GMT
Winner announcement at 6pm
Zoom details:

Click here for further links to books by Fawzi Karim and essays about him 

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A Dance from the Tang Dynasty

I have just discovered the poetry of Tang Dynasty Dance

Suggests clouds to me.

Here is another extraordinary dance – if perhaps not so authentic.

The Tang dynasty: 唐朝, or Tang Empire, was an imperial dynasty of China that ruled from 618 to 907, with an interregnum between 690 and 705. It was preceded by the Sui dynasty and followed by the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms period. Historians generally regard the Tang as a high point in Chinese civilization, and a golden age of cosmopolitan culture. Tang territory, acquired through the military campaigns of its early rulers, rivalled that of the Han dynasty.


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Clouds and Cranes

Clouds and Cranes

Click the link above for this slideshow. 

Background Art? It can be watched in silence, or, if you prefer, choose your own music for it to accompany.

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New England and the Maritimes

horse in stable

Very happy with these poems now published in The High Window

Can’t resist adding a link to Woody Allen.

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