Alice Allen’s first collection Daylight of Seagulls takes the occupation of Jersey during WW2 as its subject, but she weaves so much more.
In her vivid introduction she tells us that she grew up there in the 70’s and 80’s.
‘ we weren’t taught about the occupation at school, apart from perhaps a passing mention of food shortages and ingenious ways of making coffee out of parsnips. The more extreme traumas were not mentioned, the brutal treatment of the forced labourers, the fate of the Jewish population, and the islanders who defended or resisted the Nazis’
She sets out to put the record straight.
Children, mothers, fishermen, soldiers, beekeepers, divers, ordinary people. A whole island is here, and the poems swirl around the jagged coastline, haunt the lanes like sea fog.
She lays out their names for us to see. She raises them to our ears like shells that we might hear them. Like this extract from the poem Sylvie in which our narrator describes a drowned soldier. Who was he? Her lover? We never find out.
the water unwraps him
hangs up his coat
unhooks his tunic
how bright his blond skin
now his shut is undone
Allen only gives us the fragments that have been left behind, like the story of Dorothy Weber who hid a Jewish woman Hedwig Bercu in her house between 1943 and 1945 and inspired the poem Hedy and Dorothea:
a pile of Hedy’s clothes
folded neatly on the sand
to fake her suicide;
to the beach for food;
a pig slaughtered in the bathroom,
every edible piece consumed.
A typist of no nationality
stated the Wanted notice
in the evening paper
The house where the two lived returns in the next poem. 7 West Park Avenue:
The house is a bell, a shell snapped shut
Is a box with a lid and the lid locked up
Is a pocket, is a pouch with the cord pulled tight
is a well with steps treading down from the light.
She gives voice to those without names also. A German Soldier guarding the Atlantic Wall. A mother sweeping the cobbles, and this extract from Foreign Worker:
This is his cap
made from a sack.
This is his shirt
This is his belt,
clothes- hanger wire.
This is his kin,
stiff with cement
and swollen over the bones
of his tumbling face.
These are his eyes.
Words rhyme and ring against each other, with snatches and echoes of Jerriasis, a mixture of French/Norse/Breton and Medieval Latin. Like in the opening poem GERS EY:
Norse man, naming this land his own.
From L’Etacq to Le Hocq the coastline
is a fan, a flame of brandished rock
doubling at low tide. Each rock names-
etchierviethe, marmotchiethe, sablionniethe-
the language of rock prodding and poking
the coast over time- from Ick Hoc
to Hygge Hogge, to Hic Hoc, to Icho Isle
with an imprint of witch
Allen also writes exquisitely about the potency of objects. Cold potatoes, Victorian glass, shoes, wireless sets,teapots, prams, biscuit tins, soap. This is an extract from Soap Hoard:
‘from lemon, wrapped in waxy tissue paper, pleated like a pouffe,
to the cloudy lens of occupation soap’.
She conjures up the smells and sounds of this island. The scavenging of food, the delicious aroma of eel soup flavoured with marigold petals, the ‘delicate and tasty’ tang of fog and the stink of cordite.
And everywhere the flora and fauna bursts out of the pages, bright green moss, wildflowers, birds. Yet always in the shadow of war. Like in the poem Emptying the egg of its Song:
‘Curfew the word itself was like a bird
bringing the night in its beak
Sometimes we’d hear the soldiers
firing in the moonlight’
Allen leaves us with five photographs. Faded Registration Cards, giving faces to some of the poems. They look out at us hauntingly.
I am haunted still, by this remarkable and beautiful collection.