Alan Ross, Murmansk and ‘Leaves in the Storm’

Murmansk and Leaves in the Storm

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Will start this entry with another poem by Alan Ross about the Allied  Arctic Convoys to the USSR in World War 2.

HMS York on Arctic Convoy escort duty March 1942- acknowledgement due to Wikipedia Commons


” The snow whisper of bows through water
Asking and answer in their lift
And screw, ceremonials
Of salt and savagery
Burial of man and mermaid

On those last ski slopes
Voices still murmur
Ciels de Murmansk, ceilings, sea-eels,
Water-skiers with lovely backs
Arched before breaking.

I remember the thirst of Murmansk
The great eyelids of water.
Can one ever see through them ? ”

” Ciels de Murmansk  ‘(skies of Murmansk’ in French), ceilings, sea-eels, ” suggests the poet is using impressions and associations, could be an ironic song lyric.

But the first verse is far more striking, The Sea is an unbridled chaotic element swamping ‘man and mermaid’, overwhelming the sailors and their feeble mythical totems, like the sheer force of industrial warfare itself.

A difference between war poetry of World War 1 and World War 2 is that there is less comparison with a rural idyll in the latter. Men were fighting in the deserts of North Africa and on the Arctic coasts. There was a need to move fast , Nature was not represented by an idyllic passive countryside falling victim to War,  but as another foe that was trying to stop progress.  To be static meant becoming a target.  In Ross’ case, the longer the convoys were afloat, the more likelihood of being bombed from the air, menaced by mines, torpedoes or  having to face enemy warships. There is no room to idealise the Sea that hampers a chance of reaching an environment that is less hostile such as the port of Murmansk,

Leaves in  the Storm

Alan Ross wrote the following passage in prose form. Reminiscent of David Jones’  epic ‘In Parenthesis’ (1937 ) that evokes the writer’s service at Mametz Wood, on the Somme in 1916. Here Ross draws on his Arctic Convoy experience :

” The destroyers attack, drawing the enemy fire. Four swords of flame flick into the greyness like a fencer’s blows. World is a small narrowing circle, squeezed smaller and smaller, time has been interrupted, the clock smashed. Red-flecked, world is reduced to the gunsight’s orb, its still centre, a focal  grey in a tilted world of sea and sky. It is too late to put the pieces together.

We are going in. Across our bows, suddenly, a welter of light, and expanding cone of sluiced sounds. Again and a shiver of steel. A moment of time displaced, the revolving bands interrupted. You didn’t put the pieces together quickly enough. A storm of unleashed sound, shaken in a bowl of electric enclosure, a rainbow of light rocketing through the wrecked space, waves of explosion dancing in narrowing circles, within the eyes; and like a long snake unwinding, steam hissing out in a stream over everything.”

Quote from page 179 of  ‘Leaves in the Storm’-a book of diaries edited with a running commentary by Stefan Schminski and Henry Treece  : 1947 anthology featuring Alan Lewis, Gertrude Stein, Stephen Spender,Henry Miller, amongst others. )

The way that both natural forces  such as ‘a storm’ , ‘a rainbow’ , ‘waves’ are integrated into an account of mechanised warfare at sea is most impressive. Even the rainbow, usually counted as representing natural beauty, becomes part of this battle narrative. Warfare and Nature are not separate but co-conspirators in causing mayhem.

The modernist idea of reporting , by writing in the present tense, draws the reader in an immediate fashion. A superb piece of war writing indeed.

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