Without attempting to boldly declare any kind of rules for writing poetry, deep and moving poetry is generally written through a process of raw emotion. The need to create perfect rhymes and symmetry in verses is all less important than meaning and feeling and the power that is conveyed by using just the right words, the ones that come from the heart. Jane Weir’s ‘Poppies’ is such a poem, written to convey the grief and suffering of a mother at home, who’s son has left to fight a war, and it does a great job of conveying those emotions and telling a story that is seldom told but all too often lived.
Three days before Armistice Sunday
and poppies had already been placed
spasms of paper red, disrupting a blockade
of yellow bias binding around your blazer.
‘Poppies’, which can be read in full here, begins as it will continue throughout — in an irregular fashion, with verses that are as long as they need to be to convey an idea, without adherence to syllable count or rhyme. The narrator is introduced as someone who has said good-bye to someone who has presumably left for the war. ‘Poppies’ takes place “three days before Armistice Sunday,” which is more commonly known as Remembrance Day (as an armistice is a formal agreement for a ceasefire). This is symbolic of something the narrator is dearly wishing for — an end to the hostilities that threaten those who fight in the war, including the person whose lapel they pinned a poppy to. The description of the poppy — “spasms of paper red, disrupting a blockade / of yellow” — is a powerful piece of imagery, especially considering that spasms of paper red on a blockade could just as easily be a description for a soldier killed in action. There is palpable fear in the ritualistic good-bye process of sending a token to signify remembrance to a soldier at war.
Stanzas Two and Three
Sellotape bandaged around my hand,
I rounded up as many white cat hairs
10 as I could, smoothed down your shirt’s
upturned collar, steeled the softening
Later a single dove flew from the pear tree,
and this is where it has led me,
skirting the church yard walls, my stomach busy
30 making tucks, darts, pleats, hat-less, without
a winter coat or reinforcements of scarf, gloves.
For much of these stanzas of ‘Poppies’, the narrator is simply speaking to the memory of who we learn is their son (or is probably their son, since they make reference to when “you” were little, as well as the indications of physical affection that might be less common from an older sibling). The narrator speaks to their desire to take their son in their arms, run their hands through his hair, and rub noses together (referencing the “Eskimo kiss” that doesn’t involve the lips because of the cold conditions in which they live) like she did when he was younger.
Ultimately, she resists these impulses and walks beside him to the front door, where there is no moment of good-bye, but rather the simple opening of the door, and then he was gone. The “intoxication” referenced suggests that he is eager to go out to war, that it is something he looks forward to, without thinking of or understanding its atrocities. After he leaves, she enters his room, and “[releases] a song bird from its cage.” It is unlikely that there is a literal songbird in the son’s bedroom, but as a metaphor, this signifies being forced to let go of her son, despite the joy (in the metaphorical form of a song) that he brings her.
After an undisclosed amount of time goes by, the narrator notices that there is a dove flying through the town, and, with no explanation, she follows it, even though it is cold outside (as Remembrance Day would put the timing of this poem as early November), and finds her self outside the walls of a local church. This is a moment of character development for the narrator — she follows the bird on a whim, perhaps because doves often symbolize peace, but also because there is nothing else for her to do with her son gone.
On reaching the top of the hill I traced
the inscriptions on the war memorial,
an ornamental stitch, I listened, hoping to hear
your playground voice catching on the wind.
The narrator follows the bird to the top of the hill, where a war memorial stands. The description of the dove flying away suggests that its purpose was to lead the mother to that memorial, and this suggests that the mother is reliving the memory of her son leaving because it is the last memory she will ever have with him; that he died in the war, and the inscription being traced is the name of her son. She tries to remember him as a young child, freely playing in playgrounds and all of the innocence and peace of that time, but is rewarded with only silence. It is not expressly stated that her son is dead, but the theme of the poem, and the noticeable extension of the saddened atmosphere, make it a reasonable suggestion. This is a poem about grief, then, about loss; and about a mother’s love and longing for that time gone by.
Jane Weir was born in 1963 and spent her time growing up in Italy and England. She is a mother to two sons, neither of whom have actually been to war, so it is a fair assumption that she is not the mother described in ‘Poppies’. During a time when British soldiers were fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, Carol Ann Duffy, the Poet Laureate of Britain, asked a number of writers to create works to frame the ongoing war, among them Jane Weir. ‘Poppies’ is the poem she wrote for the commemoration, and it is likely that she drew her inspiration from being a mother above all; the sense of grief held in the poem is too strong not to be born from true emotion, even if, in this case, it is thankfully a hypothetical fear. While the moment portrayed in this poem did not happen to Jane Weir, it did happen to many others — and so this poem has served its unfortunate purpose in that way for certain.