Silent Voices – Found poetry of lost women

I’m delighted to have had three poems accepted for publication as part of the Silent Voices – Found poetry of lost women project. The first poem is here, the second is here and the third is here.

The project aims to give a voice to the ordinary women of history who, for so long, have been assumed, as if by default, to have nothing interesting to say. It does so by using their own documents, whether that be public records or private writings, such as letters and diaries, and using them to make poetry. It’s a wonderful idea and the more you look at these apparently unassuming primary sources, the more apparent it is that some of the best poetry hides in the everyday and the ordinary.

The woman behind my poems is my great grandmother, Dorothy. Separated from her husband for almost four years when he was sent to fight in the Mesopotamian campaign in WWI, the pair of them wrote hundreds of letters to each other. Most of his survive; very much fewer of hers do, perhaps because of the difficulty he faced in keeping and transporting large volumes of papers.

Dorothy died relatively young, when still in her fifties, and in notes written by her son, David, the Sonny of the poems, was described as a mild-mannered woman who had a great deal to put up with.

I first “met” Dorothy through the prism of her brother-in-law, William Faulkner Taylor (see here, here, here and here). She corresponded with him for more than a year until he was killed at Passchendaele and, judging by his letters to her (to my knowledge, none of hers to him survive), was variously helpful (she had his watch fixed for him and sent him tobacco and cakes), supportive (obvious by the way he thanks her for her advice and counsel) and, purely platonically, indulgent of his need to use her as proxy girlfriend when he despaired of ever finding a real one (“Say, I hope you’re right and there is someone waiting for me and that she’s just like you.”) Nowhere, though, had I seen her voice tell her own story until I chanced on these letters.

Dorothy: it’s over to you.

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William Faulkner Taylor – part 4

“I haven’t heard from Maud lately, she doesn’t write to me half as often as you do. Say I believe if you had your own way you would be quite a matchmaker, go ahead, hop to it……”

This is a quotation from one of William’s earlier letters. And, until recently, I thought that was where William’s friendship with Maud had ended.

But no. As this letter hints at, there was more to come.

France,

June 8th ’17

“Dear Dorothy,

I received your letter a few days ago with the badges in. Thanks very much, they were alright.

I am back with the Battalion again. I got back last Friday, the Battn was in the line when we got back so we were sent up to them & we stayed in the line for three days. We just arrived in time for quite a lively time, perhaps you read about it in the papers. We took a trench from Fritz but he came back at us pretty strong & we were short of men so couldn’t hold it & had to withdraw to our old position but we gave him quite a wallop for we hear now that the Germans have retired from the position altogether.

We took quite a few prisoners, some of them were just boys, I felt sorry for some of the poor little beggars. We had them carrying out wounded & they were just all in. You could see the tears in their eyes as they worked.

Well I had quite a good time at the Corps school, I did pretty well. There was sixty of us in the sniper class & I was seventh from the top in shooting & ninth in general knowledge, map reading & such like so I think that’s pretty good for me.

I have got two stripes now, so when you write to me please address my mail Cpl Taylor [indecipherable]. If this war keeps on another fifteen or twenty years I’ll be a Colonel or something like that.

I got a letter from Maud two or three days ago, & what do you think she sent me a photo. That’s going some, eh. I am going to write to her just as soon as I finish this. I have your photo & Maud’s tucked away in my pay book  together.

I got a letter the other day from Laura, with the usual amount of snapshots, of things around home in it. This time it’s the new colts & all the school kids. She sends me some photos of something or other nearly every week so that I can see for myself how things are coming along. In her last letter she said that Dad had just arrived home with a motor car. He has been talking of buying one for a long time & at last he has done gone & did it. He got half way home & got stuck in a mud hole on the trail & had to walk home & get a team to go & pull it out so he made a bad start. The lord only knows what the finish will be. I am expecting daily to hear that some of them have got a Blighty or something like that.

Well they are sending some of our boys away on leave. I don’t know when I shall get mine now. That three weeks at the school will put me back some & taking stripes will too. If I had still been a private I should have been about first but NCOs will go in seniority. Some of the fellows are also being sent to a rest camp on the coast for about three weeks rest. We were talking about leave this evening & I asked the Sg major whereabouts I stood on the list & he said oh you had better go with the next bunch to the rest camp & I said to hell with that stuff I want to go to England. So I don’t know what will happen but there’s going to be a row if I don’t get my Blighty leave. I think I can get it alright when my turn comes for I have a pretty good stand in with the powers that be, so if I don’t stop a whizz bang before long you may see me around Leicester soon.

Say what do you know about Marian Beaumont, anyway. She is only a school kid or at least she was when I saw her last. I seem to have got you & the folks at home guessing now. Laura wanted to know the other day what that ring was on my finger. She seems to think some French girl gave me that. “Nothing doing”.

Well I think this is all this time so good by, give my love to Harold when you write. With love

Bill

P.S. I don’t know about addressing letters to Mesop[otamia] but I fancy it should be addressed to Army P.O. London and not to Mesop. I think that is the trouble.

Did I tell you some of my letters came back marked “contrary to W.O orders. I asked Bill if he knew how the letters to Meso were usually addressed.”

 

So, a letter from Maud and her picture in his paybook…..  He’s been dead almost one hundred years but I am quite ridiculously pleased for him. And, thanks to the recent discovery of two enormous and fascinating packets of letters between Dorothy and her husband Harold (William’s brother) while Harold was posted in Mesopotamia and Persia, I also know the story was not yet finished.

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William Faulkner Taylor – part 3

France, April 7th [1917]

“Dear Dorothy,

                           I received your letter a week or so ago, & intended to write to you before this, but have been busy having a good time, we have been out of the trenches for a week & are in semi-civilisation now. It feels good to be away from the trenches for a little while, old Fritz gave us quite a lively time the last time in. He messed things up pretty badly for us, but he must have been in a pickle for he got it pretty hot, & is getting it every day now.

 It was my birthday just over a week ago & mother sent me a pair of gloves & a ten dollar bill & a good big parcel so I did pretty well.

We had a sports day yesterday and a decoration, the [indecipherable] handed out quite a few medals to fellows in our brigade, of course it rained & spoiled part of the fun but we had a pretty good day.

By the tone of your letter you seem to be pretty down in the dumps now that Harold has gone away, but cheer up dear, don’t go worrying about it, I know it’s jolly hard for you women at home, it’s worse for you than for the men, I think. Mother is worrying quite a lot about us but I wish she wouldn’t, it sets me worrying when I get a letter from home and mother seems to be fretting, so don’t you go worrying yourself all away. The war will soon be over and we shall all be coming home again, so cheer up & keep smiling.

I haven’t heard from Maud for some time now but I suppose she has been busy moving back to Leicester, or else she thinks I am a very uninteresting kind of a guy to write to.

I haven’t received that photo of you yet, so I am sending you one. I had my photo taken by myself but I started to laugh just as the deed was being did & spoiled it, but I had it taken again but don’t know what the other one is like yet. The folks at home don’t seem to think much of the one I had taken just before Xmas & they have passed some rude remarks about it so I thought I would have another try.

Well I think this is all this time so I will say good night, tell granddad & aunt Laura & all the folks I am still alive & going strong & will write to them some time soon.

Good by love from

Bill”

 

The May 1917 letter below interests me for a number of reasons. First because it denotes the time William received his promotion from Private to Corporal. (He would have a second, to Sergeant, in the six months before his death, hinting at something of the soldier he was becoming but also, I suspect, at the volume of deaths necessitating the continuing promotion of men from the ranks.) Secondly because of the glimpse into his emotional state of mind, which reaches us via his concerns over his romantic life rather than his time in the trenches. I don’t know who Maud was but I can’t help hoping William got some further flicker of interest from her to hang onto through all those dark, terrifying days and nights. Thirdly because, no matter how many times I read it, I am always struck by the way he seems to be losing his grip on his grammar, syntax and punctuation – admittedly never terribly strong. Whatever the reason behind this, I’ve edited parts of the letter to make it more understandable but have tentative plans to scan all of the originals and make them available online. I do not believe William’s words are for me alone.

 

France 28.5.17

“Dear Dorothy,

                        I received a letter from you last Wednesday & one yesterday, so I think it’s up to me to write next. I am glad my letter cheered you up some, but I say you told me in one letter that you never get down in the dumps “oh no”.

Well, I am still at the Canadian Corp school & having a good time. I rather expect we shall be going back to our Btns about the end of the week. They are pushing us through just as fast as they possibly can, gee I have done more writing since I came here than I have done since I left school, we spent about half of our time taking down notes & drawing maps & such like, a scout has to do a whole lot more things than just shoot Germans & prowl around in no mans  land at night, we have to draw maps, sketch, write intelligence reports, observe, know all about rifles & telescopic sights, telescopes etc. be able to read maps, know how to use a compass & all that kind of thing & we get all that sort of work here, ours is a very interesting job it’s about the best job on the go over here I think outside of a good bomb proof say about twenty miles behind the line, but they won’t give me one. I got a letter from mother the other day & two from Laura. Laura writes & tells me all the farm news, how the colts and calves are etc. Harold must be having a gay old time, he sure is seeing the world, a trip to Canada after the war & he will have been pretty well all round the world.

We have some lively old times here the fellows are a jolly good bunch & they are all men that have been over here a long time & this is quite a holiday to all so you can bet we have some great old celebrations & some great old yarns go around of an evening.

Last Thursday being empire day we had a lot of big bugs around two generals & all their crowd, & Saturday afternoon we had sports, & yesterday after church parade we had a shooting contest eight men from each of the four Can. Divisions & our divis. Won by seven points.

I haven’t heard from Maud lately, she doesn’t write to me half as often as you do. Say I believe if you had your own way you would be quite a matchmaker, go ahead, hop to it, I’ll bet you think you are having some fun all to yourself but I believe you have struck a hard proposition in me, I am too slow they all tell me, so I guess it’s right, so Maud is going farming is she. I hope I get leave I’ll come & help her milk the cows etc. What oh “some spree”, I think according to your letter that David [Dorothy’s son] is going to make either a farmer or a gardener they are pretty much the same. You say in your letter that it is so strange that Harold is so sick all the time, is he just sea sick or was he sick before he left I had no idea he was sick. So you don’t like military letters, eh, it sure doesn’t  make a fellow feel like putting any mushy stuff in a letter for the officer to read, I think it would be rather slow work making love through the mail under the circumstances. I know it would be better for me. Well I think I had better dry up it’s getting dark so good by give my love to Maud if she is at home when you get this.

Bill

PS Give me love to [indecipherable but probably Harold] when you see him. Send me his address please I lost the other you sent me.”