The Anzac Sonata

Jon Stallworthy

For Ramsay Howie

in memory of Bill Howie, 1892-1915 and Peggy Howie. 1908-1980

Another time,
  another place.
Glossy as a conker
  in its cushioned case.

Lift and tighten
  the horsehair bow,
shuttle rosin
  to and fro.

Hold the note
  there, that first note
jubilant from
  the fiddle’s throat.

I

She remembered the singing. No voice
that she knew and no words, but a cadence,
the speech of a heart with cause to rejoice.

But tell me, now sitting in silence,
with never more cause for grief,
never such darkness, such distance

between us, whether beyond belief
that speech is your speech and yours
that cause for rejoicing. And if,

beyond time, that cadence continues,
send me the jubilant echo
that came to you sixty-five years

ago. Your pen in my hand will know
the note. Its slender antenna inclines
and straightens, leans to the wall, the window.

Another time. I must learn the lines
of a window growing in a dark wall
and listen, as she, to the sibilant pines

and beyond, the approach, lapse, and withdrawal
of surf, off the Bluff, at the world’s end.
Then nearer, clearer, the call
of a vibrant string. Turning as she listened,

one cheek on the pillow
brushed a cooler cheek
of fragrant calico.
Could no more – staring – speak
than that dumb angel now
descended here – but how –
from the toyshop window.

Hearing the string once more
sing out, carried my doll
to Ramsay’s room. The door
was open. Dawnlight fell
on calico and fiddle.
Where did they come from? Bill.
Bill going to the War.

She remembered the drumming, a pulse in the ear
as of pounding blood, a fever shaking
schoolroom windows. She could not hear

the teacher, though her mouth was making
shapes. The drumming coming. The bell
breaking in, and as suddenly dumb.

Asphalt underfoot. Calico Nell
in one hand; in the other, the cold
blade of a railing. The drumswell

swept past her leopardskin and gold,
pistons pumping thunder, and Bill
on his bay under a flag enscrolled

OTAGO MOUNTED RIFLES. Then the bell
told the playground that the show
was over but, shoulder high, Nell
was still waving white calico.

Five railings down
  watching the bay
glossy as a conker
  saunter away,

groomed tail swaying
  to and fro.
Lift and tighten
  the horsehair bow.

Hold the note,
  the band’s grand tune.
Hands must cup head
  all afternoon,

that not a dwindling
  chord be spilled
until the fiddle
  can be filled.

II

Good news from Gallipoli: bought
my ticket home with a piece of lead
no bigger than a shilling ... doctor thought
a bargain ... Put the best sheets on his bed.

Lift and tighten
  the horsehair bow,
shuttle rosin
  to and fro.

Hum and rehearse
  each afternoon
the band’s grand
  jubilant tune.

Black news from Gibraltar: died
at sea, of fever ... towards 5 o’clock,
pulse slackening, he went out with the tide.,
We laid him to rest in the shade of the Rock.

A grave should be in the shade
of a tree. If we scissored
a plot in the orchard,
cut blossom, and made
a wreath, if you played
the march and I beat the drum,
would his spirit not come?

Another time,
  a brother’s face.
Glossy as a conker
  in its cushioned case.

Lift and tighten
  the horsehair bow.
Fingers begin,
  horse and hearse follow

under the bridge
  and varnished arch,
moving in time
  to the Dead March.

Never such darkness, such distance
between them: the one heart stilled
in its case, the other struggling for utterance.

Never such nights and such days filled
with absence – his bed, his chair – the ache
pervasive as water, and not to be spilled

in words. But stumbling fingers
take comfort from strings that sing
of another time, another place,

of hurts beyond healing, and bring
all into harmony. Music knows
what happens. The hand, bowing,

instructs the heart, as the fiddle grows
with the arm. Fernlike, its coils extend.
Hips widen. The varnish glows

with handling. They speak to each other; friend
confiding in friend, humouring, healing
the hurts. With a horsehair brush in his hand
he paints the air with the colours of feeling.

Another time,
  a sister’s face,
a candle shining
  through Brussels lace.

Lift and tighten
  the horsehair bow.
Let petals fly
  and the bells blow

under the bridge
  and varnished arch,
dancing to
  the Wedding March.

She remembered the singing, the silence, the face
on the pillow. She heard the jubilant note
another time, another place.

But the angel opened its throat
and mewed for her breast. The sky she saw
reflected in its eyes seems less remote

but bluer, more miraculous than before.
The hands smell sweeter than calico,
and when the feet take to the floor

the first ant drags its shadow
into a garden where the first birds waken.
The beasts are named, and the trees also.

She saw the apple, in its season, taken
and knowing what would follow, drew
an arm through her daughter’s when the road was shaken.

She knew the way. The darkness grew
transparent as they walked together.
And, when the dawn came up, she knew
her daughter older than her oldest brother.

III

‘What did the doctor say?’ She, on her bed,
could hear her heart drumming. ‘He said
“We’ve a bit of a battle ahead.” ’

Not the least cloud troubled the sky.
Heavily burdened, looking ahead,
they moved up the line to die.

Another time,
  another place.
Pack the fiddle
  in its cushioned case.

Lock the door,
  take to the air.
Fiddle and fiddler
  must be there –

picking out
  the band’s grand tune
fiery night
  by fiery noon.

A cross-fire nailed them to the cliff
and each dug in, clawing a cave
shaped to the body that rose stiff

at first light, resurrected from its grave.
Trapped in their trenches, shelled and sniped,
with never more cause to grieve

and curse their luck, they grinned, and wiped
back bloody sweat. The steel bees
stung, but only their wounds wept.

Below them, oleanders bloomed in the gullies,
but all who dreamt of gardens woke
to harsher scents than these.

Between barbed wire and prickly oak
they held the line on the place of the skull.
Another morning broke.

In single file, they were moving downhill
and someone was singing. The sky lightened.
She – and an angel – were following Bill
to the beach – and the boat – at the world’s end.

*

Another time,
  another place.
Incline the bow
  above the face

now putting out
  in a cushioned boat,
and paint a garland
  that will float

on the silence
  after her.
At the last stroke
  of the coda,

hold the note
  there, that first note
jubilant from
  the fiddle’s throat.