We move, ignorant, through sunlit spaces, gardens, cafés, bright places – here in the present, never caught in shadows of a torn-apart past. That sachet of sucre we spill into a café crème in Normandy today calls back nothing – no echo of louse powder spilled onto uniforms in the years before. We sip cidre oblivious. Those brioches we relish remind no-one of Ration Pack D, so disliked by the dead and now dispatched to the nearly-forgotten halls of memory.
Then intrudes only indistinctly into now. Distance is separate from proximity. History is not something we can easily see.
Which is where Juliette Hart comes in.
Travelling to France as poet-in-residence with the Jersey Normandy Veterans Association, Juliette’s great achievement is to step into the gap between then and now, showing us how the two connect, picking out moments in time to show how distance is so much closer than we could have imagined. In poem ‘LST 322’, the blunt facts of a war-time timeline are brought back into a sleepy May afternoon of the present. “Harry looks up from his moules-frites: There was a horse in a field, grazing, as if nothing had happened”.
The hour-long talk in the Opera House is ostensibly a simple reading of the poems in Juliette’s new collection Reflections of D-Day. In reality though, this is so much more. The clear historical context provided by Ian Ronayne, the inclusion of a poem by Simon Crowcroft (read with empathetic force by Richard Pedley) and, most of all, the presence of several veterans elevated this hour to something else entirely. It feels wrong to call it a ‘show’ or a ‘talk’. Those words do not do this justice.
Juliette’s words and reflections, however, do dignify the subject, the history and the men both living and dead. As stated above, what is so remarkable is how her poems step across time to show us how locations where nothing seems to happen could have been the sites for so much happening – today’s tranquility as yesterday’s scene of slaughter “where the bodies of troops had stumbled”.
Her words honour the veterans she spent time with, celebrating their heroic efforts whilst simultaneously showing them as real men of flesh and blood, finding humour and truth in the coach trips she spent with them around the battlefields and cemeteries of Normandy where the opportunity for a bière (“or three”) was not to be passed up – survival being, after all, “a spirited banquet”.
Finally, her words are beautiful simply of and for themselves. Phrases and images such as the “overture of droning Dakotas”, the men “hugging the hedges like lovers” and dozens of others spill out across the hour. I could talk about them for hours more, but I suggest you just go out and get this book for yourself. A powerful collection.