‘Poppies’ is a 21st century poem by the Anglo-Italian poet Jane Weir. Weir was born in Italy in 1963 and grew up in Italy and Manchester. She moved to Northern Ireland during ‘the Troubles’ in the 1980s and so has experienced conflict in a close and personal way.
‘Poppies’ was her response to a commission for war poems by the Poet Laureate, Carol Ann Duffy. This, and nine other poems, appeared in The Guardian newspaper in 2009. Her poem was a response to the losses already suffered during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. She felt, as the mother of two teenage boys, that speaking from a mother’s perspective about loss would be powerful. She was right – her poem struck a nerve with many mothers who had lost their children during the conflict. Many people from across Europe contacted her to tell her about how the poem had struck them. She has since said that she was thinking specifically of Susan Owen (mother of the World War I poet, Wilfred Owen) when writing this piece.
Jane Weir is a textile artist and designer as well as writing poetry and prose. Weir has said that she likes the ‘cross-dressing’ in her writing, borrowing words and phrases from other genres. She often uses the language of textiles and sewing in her poetry in the form of metaphor.
The title of the poem, ‘Poppies’, is simple. It reflects both the feminine voice of the poem (being named for flowers) and the fact that Armistice Day is specifically referenced in it. Armistice Day began in 1918 to commemorate the end of World War I. An ‘Armistice’ is the agreement to cease fighting. The day is now better known as Remembrance Sunday and is used to commemorate all those lost in conflicts throughout the world. Poppies have been a symbol of the loss of human life in battle since 1921. It became a symbol of the losses of World War I after the poem ‘In Flanders Fields’ was published which mentioned the poppies growing around the graves of young soldiers. Weir uses the poppy in the first stanza to represent what going into the army can mean. After the son’s departure, the mother walks to the war memorial, another reminder of remembrance and the dead.
‘Poppies’ is a free verse poem, free from the constraints of a regular rhyme or rhythm. This, and the first-person narration, make the reader feel a part of the mother’s own memories and emotions. Long sentences and enjambment are used to reflect the rather rambling nature of memory. The woman is absorbed in her thoughts about her son. Caesura is also used, this time to show the woman’s attempts to hold in her emotions in front of her son, most memorably at ‘steeled the softening of my face’.
The poem relates the experience of her son leaving in a chronological fashion. She is shown pinning a poppy to his blazer and smoothing down his collar before he leaves the house. Later she walks to the war memorial, thinking of him. The poem is placed in the past tense and so we are not certain what has happened to the son. Perhaps the mother is remembering this moment because she has heard of her son’s death or injury. The memories of his leaving for the army are intermingled with other memories of earlier childhood, ‘Eskimo’ kisses and hearing his ‘playground voice’. This intermingling sometimes obscures the chronological story of her son’s departure for the army, just as memories are always obscured by other things.
Ideas and Language
The poem opens with memories of three days before Armistice Day. The mother, preparing her child for the army, pins a poppy to his blazer while she thinks of ‘individual war graves’ (the personal losses of other mothers). The poppy is ‘spasms of paper red’, making the reader, even in the first stanza, think of an injured body racked with pain and the red of splashed blood rather than dyed red paper.
While Armistice Day is mentioned, it is the simple domestic scene that pulls at the heart strings here. Language of war such as ‘a blockade’ of bias binding, ‘reinforcements’ of winter clothing and the sellotape being ‘bandaged’ around her hand seem to bring the conflict directly between the mother and son. The mother struggles to let her child go to this dangerous environment, while the boy is ‘intoxicated’ by the future and sees the world ‘overflowing like a treasure chest’. There is a reminder here of school days as she reminisces about touching noses like ‘Eskimos’ and his ‘playground voice’, and the scene becomes a reflection of that earlier letting go, preparing a child for their first days of school.
The mother’s closeness to her child is shown in the number of times she touches him or references wanting to touch him. She smooths down his collar, picks off cat hairs and considers running her fingers through his hair. This may also reference her longing to touch him now that he has gone. Weir has said herself that she was considering women who had lost their sons when writing this poem and her mention of the gelled ‘blackthorns’ of the son’s hair seem to be a reference to Jesus and his crown of thorns, an indication that the son has made the ultimate sacrifice.
The mother is nervous and full of anxiety for her son and this is reflected in the sewing imagery used to describe the butterfly sensation in her stomach. She speaks of her stomach making ‘tucks, darts and pleats’, again bringing the semantic field of sewing and womanly domestic pursuits into this poem about war. This use of sewing metaphors is repeated with her words ‘turning into felt’ having been flattened and rolled, while the dove (symbolically her son) is described as ‘an ornamental stitch’, something small but beautiful in the vast sky.
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