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Century of poetry and war

PART 8: women's voices


The Enemies by Elizabeth Jennings

Last night they came across the river and
Entered the city. Women were awake
With lights and food. They entertained the band,
Not asking what the men had come to take
Or what strange tongue they spoke
Or why they came so suddenly through the land.

Now in the morning all the town is filled
With stories of the swift and dark invasion;
The women say that not one stranger told
A reason for his coming. The intrusion
Was not for devastation:
Peace is apparent still on hearth and field.

Yet all the city is a haunted place.
Man meeting man speaks cautiously. Old friends
Close up the candid looks upon their face.
There is no warmth in hands accepting hands;
Each ponders, 'Better hide myself in case
Those strangers have set up their homes in minds
I used to walk in. Better draw the blinds
Even if the strangers haunt in my own house'.


  the first world war
  the 1930s
  the second world war
  crimes against humanity
  the nuclear age
  other wars
  women's voice
Come on, come back GO
The Enemies GO
A Wartime Education GO
Tortures GO


This poem was written in the 1950s
'band': the group of invaders
'hands accepting hands': handshakes
'set up their homes in minds/I used to walk in': influenced the minds of people I used to know very well


The poem is about the way fear of strangers - 'the other' - erodes trust. One of the ways in which the poem conveys this so effectively is the use of time in the story-telling: the events cover only a night and a morning, and the poem ends in the uncertainty that is its subject. What could happen next? What should happen next? People who understand and practise the skills of conflict resolution would have good suggestions to make. One of the first things to attempt would be to contain the spread of the virus of fear.

The poem also draws attention to the role of women in conflict. These women (the suggestion is that these events are happening in a place and time in the past) fulfil the traditional role of serving. They provide a welcome for the 'swift', 'dark' invaders : is this the ancient law of hospitality, or the product of fear, or a practical response to defuse tension? The women don't ask their uninvited guests to explain themselves - but they do create a situation in which the strangers could, if they chose, tell the women why they have come. (The women imply that the difference in language could have been overcome.) The invaders are all men; and it's the men who have been invaded who put up the shutters and retreat into silence, no longer at ease with each other. The women, one feels, continue to communicate, even without words. Despite - or because of - their supporting role, the women are in a good position to start resisting the virus of fear. Again, what could, what should happen next?


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