The Grail Roads, Rob Hindle, Longbarrow Press, 2018, £12.99.
‘This writing has to do with some things I saw, felt & was part of.’
So begins the preface to David Jones’ WW1 masterpiece, In Parenthesis, a book-length poem that recounts Jones’ experiences in the trenches as refracted through a prism of the Matter of Britain, mainly via the writings of the 15th century British author Thomas Malory, and the text of the early Welsh heroic poem Y Gododdin. The book is a document of experience transformed by the power of imagination, ‘the living Power and prime Agent of all human Perception’, to quote Coleridge, a poet Jones admired greatly. The Arthurian materials connect the poet’s experiences to a reality outside of time, the perpetual human project of rendering the unimaginable understandable. It’s not that his infantry are identified with Arthurian knights so much as that they are seen to inhabit the same psychic territory.
In his most recent book, The Grail Roads, Rob Hindle has mapped a similar trajectory but his writing is documentary in a different sense, drawing as it does on the words of soldiers who fought in the same, or similar, trenches as those Jones served in. The book is both a tribute to and an act of recovery of Hindle’s great-grandfather Albert Brown, who died in the north of France in February 1917. Hindle draws on Mallory in quite a different way, explicitly identifying the main figures that move through his book with named Grail questors, Launcelot, Gawain, Bors and Galahad. In some instances, phrases from Malory are folded in to more matter-of-fact passages, as in these stanzas from ‘The Heroism of Galahad’:
Single-handedly seyth the tale
he stormed a machine-gun post
and rescued Percivale
bringing him back to the lines
under constant fire
And he dud many journeyes
and founde many adventures
which he brought all to an ende
It’s interesting to compare a passage from Hindle with one from Jones where the direct subject matter, the infantryman’s relationship with his rifle, overlaps closely:
This is your life you cling to, its oak breech
warmer than any bit of your body.
You hold it two-handed as the soldiery
at Agincourt their swords; and if you fall
you’ll hold still to this familiar
lie a baby gripping the thumb of his mother
It’s difficult with the weight of the rifle.
Leave it–under the oak.
Leave it for a salvage-bloke
let it lie bruised for a monument
dispense the authenticated fragments to the faithful.
It’s the thunder-besom for us
it’s the bright bough borne
it’s the tensioned yew for a Genoese jammed arbalest and a
scarlet square for a mounted mareschal, it’s that county-mob
back to back
Both poets evoke a tradition of soldier/weapon dependency, but Jones opens out to the wider world of myth, the rifle is both beloved and dangerous, it is the golden bough that marks its bearer out as a target, it is to be abandoned when necessary, respectfully abandoned, but dumped nonetheless.
Despite his acknowledged debt to Jones, Hindle is technically if not temperamentally closer to another poet he cites, Edward Thomas. A couple of the pieces in the book are essentially rewrites of Thomas poems; these both nod to the poet’s importance to Hindle and criticise his individualistic, romanticised view of the war.
Compare Thomas’ poem Rain with Hindle’s reworking:
Rain, midnight rain, nothing but the wild rain
On this bleak hut, and solitude, and me
Remembering again that I shall die
And neither hear the rain nor give it thanks
For washing me cleaner than I have been
Since I was born into solitude.
Blessed are the dead that the rain rains upon:
But here I pray that none whom once I loved
Is dying tonight or lying still awake
Solitary, listening to the rain,
Either in pain or thus in sympathy
Helpless among the living and the dead,
Like a cold water among broken reeds,
Myriads of broken reeds all still and stiff,
Like me who have no love which this wild rain
Has not dissolved except the love of death,
If love it be towards what is perfect and
Cannot, the tempest tells me, disappoint.
after Edward Thomas
The poet writes about rain
how it falls upon the dead
and cleans them.
He should have said
it seeps into their skin
and slowly rots them instead.
Hindles’ rejection of the older poet’s fetishization of death via saturation in the pathetic fallacy is of a piece with his similar avoidance of the more exuberantly Arthurian aspects of In Parenthesis and is of a piece with his documentary approach.
Which leaves us with a question; if the lanes and trenches of Northern France are grail roads, what is the grail they lead to? What could it be, given the contrast between trench warfare and the world of Arthurian chivalry?
There is no single answer to this: for some of Hindle’s questors, it seems that the goal is to survive, for others to die a ‘good’ death, still others seem to be in quest of self-knowledge. Towards the end of the book, we discover that Percival is dead, Galahad disappeared, Launcelot retired injured and Bors is back on the front, a landscape transfigured, its wasting needing time to heal:
according to the ma
but on the road in
no town – no ruins even:
just a carcass, collapsed,
picked clean and abandoned
on its fallow plain
to frost and sun.
Hindle’s own grail is, I think, an understanding of history, of a shared past, through the facts of his own family history. On one level, this understanding is the realisation that there is no grail, that the warrior’s role is not to heal the waste land but to lay it to waste in the first instance. In the end, it is the farmer who still now ploughs up an ‘iron harvest’ of WWI detritus every year who has to guide the land back to fertility after the literal and figurative waste of war.