the first world war
This Excellent Machine GO
Here War Is Simple GO
the second world war
crimes against humanity
the nuclear age
Port Bou by Stephen Spender
As a child holds a pet,
Arms clutching but with hands that do not join,
And the coiled animal watches the gap
To outer freedom in animal air,
So the earth-and-rock flesh arms of this harbour
Embrace but do not enclose the sea
Which, through a gap, vibrates to the open sea
Where ships and dolphins swim and above is the sun.
In the bright winter sunlight I sit on the stone parapet
Of a bridge; my circling arms rest on a newspaper
Empty in my mind as the glittering stone
Because I search for an image
And seeing an image I count out the coined words
To remember the childish headlands of Port Bou.
A lorry halts beside me with creaking brakes
And I look up at warm waving flag-like faces
Of militia men staring down at my French newspaper.
'How do they write of our struggle, over the frontier?'
I hold out the paper, but they refuse,
They did not ask for anything so precious
But only for friendly words and to offer me cigarettes.
In their smiling faces the war finds peace, the famished mouths
Of the rusty carbines brush against their trousers
Almost as fragilely as reeds;
And wrapped in a cloth - old mother in a shawl -
The terrible machine-gun rests.
They shout, salute back as the truck jerks forward
Over the vigorous hill, beyond the headland.
An old man passes, his running mouth,
With three teeth like bullets, spits out 'pom-pom-pom'.
The children run after; and, more slowly, the women,
Clutching their clothes, follow over the hill,
Till the village is empty, for the firing practice,
And I am left alone on the bridge at the exact centre
Where the cleaving river trickles like saliva.
At the exact centre, solitary as a target,
Where nothing moves against a background of cardboard houses
Except the disgraceful skirring dogs; and the firing begins,
Across the harbour mouth from headland to headland.
White flecks of foam gashed by lead in the sea;
And the echo trails over its iron lash
Whipping the flanks of the surrounding hills.
My circling arms rest on the newspaper,
My mind seems paper where dust and ink fall,
I tell myself the shooting is only for practice,
And my body seems a cloth which the machine-gun stitches
Like a sewing machine, neatly, with cotton from a reel,
And the solitary, irregular, thin 'paffs' from the carbines
Draw on long needles white threads through my navel.
In 1931 Spain became a republic. Supporters of the Republicans included left-wing Liberals, Socialists or Communists, and some people (such as Basques) who wanted independence for their own part of Spain. Opponents of the republic were 'Nationalists': right-wing people who wanted Spain to be ruled by a king, members of the Spanish Catholic Church, and fascists. (The Nationalist leader was the fascist General Franco, an efficient organiser.) Civil war was made possible by the involvement of the army (which was divided between the two sides) and by foreign aid. Republicans were backed by the communist Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, Nationalists by fascist Italy and Nazi Germany. Western democratic countries, however, refused to intervene on the Republican (government) side. The struggle attracted the support of foreign volunteer fighters, who formed International Brigades. They included writers and artists, most of them supporting the Republican side. Many were killed.
In July 1936 the Nationalist forces took much of north-west Spain and some of the south-west, but the city of Madrid held out. In 1937 the Nationalists captured Malaga and later the north coast. In 1938 they moved south, effectively cutting the Republican area into two parts; Madrid and the south-east were captured in 1939, and the civil war ended. General Franco became dictator of Spain until he died in 1975. Spain did not fight in the Second World War.
In the 1920s and 1930s poets were experimenting with new kinds of writing in English. They developed 'free verse': poems that did not rely on rhymes or regular rhythms. This poem is an example of free verse. It also makes use of another 20th century novelty in literature: the 'stream of consciousness', thoughts and feelings 'as they happen' - letting the reader climb inside the poet's head, so to speak. (That is one reason why this poem is quite rambling and long.) But of course, though Stephen Spender may have made notes at or soon after the time of this incident, the poem couldn't be written until it was over (and indeed he made later revisions to the first published version).
Perhaps what is most significant about 'Port Bou' is that it does not commit itself to making a comment on war. It simply tries to suggest what being on the edge of this particular war feels like. What the reader is likely to notice particularly is the poet's fear: he 'feels' the bullets, the distant thread-like trails of smoke they leave behind, as though his stomach is being stitched tight by needles and thread. Ouch. The reader has to decide whether this poem describes something too personal to enter into, or makes it possible to share the experience and even learn something from it.