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Poetry review Echoes of Spain

HARRY GALLACHER recommends a powerful reminder of what happens whenever ordinary people are starved into allowing fascism to raise its head

Romanceros
Bob Beagrie, Drunk Muse Press, £10

A FRACTURED Europe, a global financial crash with the working classes hit hardest, populists offering easy answers to complex problems and the resultant fascism off on its jackbooted march. I sometimes — no, make that often — shake my head and wonder if we’ll ever learn from history. We are of course on territory here that’s more than familiar to anyone on the left with even a passing regard for our shared heritage.

Bob Beagrie’s new collection is the latest work on the brutal Spanish civil war, a theatre effectively used by Hitler to test out troops and tactics for the coming much larger conflict. But the scale of any war can surely mean little when you’re the person trying to stay away from the bombs and bullets on the front line — just ask one Eric Arthur Blair, or indeed any of the British volunteers who made up the 16th Battalion of the XV International Brigade — many paying the ultimate price of bravely, but eventually fruitlessly, fighting the fascists.

This book comes on the heels of The Balled Of Johnny Longstaff, a much heralded album by Beagrie’s excellent Teesside folk contemporaries The Young Uns. Indeed the same man helped with research for both projects — step forward Tony Fox, a devoted local historian with a huge amount of knowledge and interest in the conflict.

So what about the poems themselves? I often think that my favourite thing about poetry is the ability of the poet to poke a light in between the cracks to illuminate something — some detail — which had hitherto escaped our notice, and bring it into the sunlight for all to see. Or, as I once read another fellow poet described thus: “He pinpoints a deep point of tender pain that you never knew you had until now.”

Beagrie does similar things in this collection. Witness these lines from the opening poem, The Face Of War, Dali: “there’s nothing else to eat/ but the eyes in their sockets/ and the silent mouth”.

The imagery throughout is stark and often ugly, or brutal, but the writer manages to turn some pieces around to catch the reader off guard, as in this from Madrid, 7-23 November 1936. It begins tenderly with: “Poems fall like snowflakes,/ or the last of Autumn’s leaves...”

But we are barely into the poem when he moves to: “and vacant classrooms/ bullet holes, black marks, soot stains...”

The pace of this change feels almost indecent, but surely it’s one of the jobs of poetry to highlight beauty with sometimes heightened language and then also expose us to some of life’s harshest realities. 

And make no mistake, the Spanish civil war was harsh. This, from Black Sheep, one of the stronger poems in the collection: “Grown among grim streets of mangled men/ limbless, disfigured, shattered inside and out/ like caricatures scribbled by children in crayon,/ and the rooms of empty chairs after Armistice”.

Elsewhere, the title poem offers: “Holed up on the crest of Suicide Hill/ they sip dust and gorge on shrapnel”.

Not the lightest of collections, then, but I’d argue it’s a powerful reminder of what happens whenever ordinary people are effectively starved into allowing fascism to raise its awful, pockmarked head. 

The final piece, a rueful look back after all the pictures of the terrible realities, When It’s Uncouth To Ask, posits ironically: “The blame lies with the population/ for remembering the feeling of happiness”, before concluding by addressing the very being of war as an active entity: “like an old friend/ who has done too well for himself./ His message is ‘Get used to it’, because/ he reckons he’s a permanent”.

Given the current political situation when viewed from my window, let’s hope that he’s wrong, but I’m not placing any bets on it.

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