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Something Happened

by James Graham 

Posted: 09 August 2006
Word Count: 344

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Something Happened

A man took a knife
and cut me below the ribs.
I had a three-inch wound.
I've still got the scar.

I'm glad, though,
that before he sliced me
his mate had knocked me out
with a phial of good liquor.

In the hours that followed,
some realisations came.

I thought about things
I had never done,
and felt quite happy
never to have done them.

I have never, I realised,
used a gun. Never ever
taken potshots at rabbits
or my parents, or children
in a classroom, or men
in different coloured suits
under different command.

And then I realised
I'd never even touched a gun.

I thought at first
I must be self-deluded,
but it's true:

I never touched one, not even
a feather-touch with one finger
for one tenth of a second.
Old muskets in museums:
'Please do not touch'.
I never did.

Except for a toy
my mother bought me
cause I said I wanted it.

With shooter in one hand
and potato in the other,
I toted for one day,

until my pacifist father
came home from work,
gave me a quiet talk
and disarmed me for ever.

So apart from that
one single day, I've never
used or handled or touched
or been closer
than two yards to a gun.

But in those tender hours and days
after the man so kindly cut me,
another realisation came.
I understood the meaning of a wound,
a three-inch wound below the ribs,
made with a knife

or gun.

A wound. Not a gaping hole
in the abdomen, the small
intestines spilling out. Not

the tibia in smithereens,
a severed arm, a ruined hand.
Just a superficial wound.

When the enemy attacks
they don't send in detachments
of anaesthetists. They make
their three-inch, six-inch, nine-inch wounds

while you're awake; they set
you on fire with pain. I never
had any dealings with those
rough surgeons, but I thought

of all the young men who ever had;
who had even a superficial wound
to the soft flesh, while wide awake.


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Comments by other Members

MarkT at 09:13 on 09 August 2006  Report this post
Thought provoking James.

Excellently written and very easy to read.


NinaLara at 07:50 on 10 August 2006  Report this post
Hi James,

I like the coversational style of this and the autobiographical information about growing up in a society where guns aren't common place. You seem to be finding a way about 'writing about what we don't know' ... by starting with a personal sketch and extending it to the realities of war.

I found myself thinking of the experience of child soldiers, or even children who set out for work in the field carrying lethal agricultural equipment (huge knives, picks and axes). It seems a very rare moment in history that allows a child to grow up without the possibility of injury from a weapon. I like the mention of muskets in museums because the beauty of these objects somehow disguises their purpose while reminding us of the legacy of slaughter that they began.

At first I imagined that you were talking about a physical attack in the first lines - it was only on reflection that I realised you were describing an operation when I connected the works 'kindly cut me' and 'rough surgeons' with the start of the poem. I very much like the reference to the surgeon's 'mate'.

The title took me to the Buffalo Springfield song 'For What It's Worth' (which I imagine is completely intentional?)which seems to come into its own again so well today:

[quote]Nobody's right if everybody's wrong
Young people speaking their minds
Getting so much resistance from behind

Though it is not just the young in opposition today and the wars we are innvolved in seem even more catastrophic.

But this poem cuts to the bottom line of the grand decisions made by politicians: it is the suffering of solidiers and civilians that endure the pain of injury on a scale that we find difficult to imagine ... and how hospitals cope with the extent of those injuries with limited resources.

James Graham at 20:33 on 10 August 2006  Report this post
Hi Nina - Thanks for such a thoughtful comment. But you don't know how out of touch I am. Buffalo Springfield? I'm like the proverbial judge who hasn't heard of the Beatles. It wasn't intentional, but this is something that can happen between writer and reader - you find something in the poem, or it has an association for you, that the writer didn't intend. Which is fine, because it can prove the poem has a life of its own.

On the 'attack', I realise that the poem only just manages to make it clear that this is a surgical procedure! It's really just some clues near the end that might send the reader back to decode the first few lines. I hope it's not too devious in that respect.

The poem is probably influenced by Whitman, poems such as 'The Wound Dresser' which very much cut to the bottom line of war - hospital beds, dressings, amputations. In the recovery ward after my very minor day-surgery operation, I did think of Whitman nursing in the military hospital in Washington. And also of my neatly stitched-up incision, and how like (and unlike) it was to a battle wound. (I was in a better mood by the time I got home!)


Mark, thank you for your comment.

tinyclanger at 13:59 on 12 August 2006  Report this post
Hi James,

Just digesting this, the finer points, the underlying theme.
But on first few readings I'm struck by the 'voice'...so different to your usual persona, I think. I'm left wondering how you've achieved this? Conversational style, short lines, clarity, simplicity (but then your poems are always 'simple' - meant entirely as a compliment)
I'm fascinated. Its superb.
As to the subject...you illustrate your own debate about 'what should we write about' and how can we approach something 'unknowable' For me it has to be in personal reflections like this, that spread out and beyond and shed light, illuminate. I'd like to say more on this, if I can collect my thoughts.
Thanks for this. Its making me think, both on a poetry front and on a wider one - the best recommendation for a poem that I know!

James Graham at 13:23 on 13 August 2006  Report this post
Hi tc, thanks for the comment. It just seemed natural to write this in a conversational style, because it was a personal experience and the thoughts expressed are more or less the things that were going through my head afterwards. At some point it struck me that there was material for a poem here.

I think I can explain the 'voice', or at least the informal tone. Long ago in my youth I used to write very personal poems. (As one does.) I still have a few of them in a folder somewhere, and they are bad. Very self-consciously literary and insufferably self-important. For a long time I've felt that any personal poems I write should have a light touch and be self-mocking to some extent. In order to be able to write in that way, I tend to choose 'lighter' personal experiences - though there may be a serious angle to them.

I'd be really interested in any more thoughts you have on the poem, or on how to 'write about what we don't know'.


tinyclanger at 15:34 on 15 August 2006  Report this post
I’m not sure I can shed any clear light on the ‘write what you know’ debate. Thoughts as I write this seems to indicate my light is very shaky!
Obviously everything we write to a certain extent is ‘what we know’ because it springs from thoughts we have / experiences we’ve gone through / issues that have touched us enough to make us pick up the pen. It’s where we can take those things that are relevant.

In a very subtle way in this piece, James, you have taken your own knowing, and jumped from that into a realm you know nothing about in a literal sense, but one you can imagine in a comprehensive way. And your recent, very real, experiences have given you some insight about this. This makes the reader empathise and say, ‘Yes, that’s in all probability what its like to get wounded, that’s the horror, the impersonality of it.’ And so you say something very important about fighting, about the nature of war, and that very personal observation of the first few lines becomes the counterpoint for what the reader feels through the rest of the poem.

I feel I’m not very good at writing outside of ‘what I know’. Probably for all of us this will mean different things. I suppose what I mean here, is writing about what I can feel, but what I’m afraid of. I know virtually nothing about the internal combustion engine, but I’m not that worried that I can’t write a poem about it. And I guess if I was really moved to do so, I could skim a couple of manuals and create something that was almost passable!
But I do get concerned that I never write about other things, especially ‘the political’ (large P or small one). I simply don’t feel I’m well read enough any more when it comes to political issues. Most of this is rooted in ‘real life.’ I have chosen to exempt myself from the political because, after years of activism, I simply began to find the horror and injustice of it all so debilitating that keeping my sanity was an issue, (still is, many would say!). I had to cut myself off to find some peace. I know that as an intelligent, articulate member of society I am to a great extent shirking my responsibilities, and I feel bad about that, but it just had to be. So I don’t tend to write ‘issues’ poems, or attacks on injustice because I feel they would simply consume me and make me feel the futility all over again. Yes, I watch the news, I see the atrocities in Lebanon and Iraq, I wonder most of all how it is that one Western or Israeli casualty seems to be worth many more on the ‘other side’. But as I can’t think about his to any great extent before I begin to be so furious I implode, so I can’t, (thus far!), write about it either. As my life is disengaged from this, so my poetry is, too. I know I am the loser, my life, my poetry is the loser.

But it’s a complex issue. Didn’t someone say ‘the personal is political’? I have written at length of experiences of abuse, have tackled Alzheimer’s and mental illness. Yet though I can write about my own experiences of these things, I don’t think my work ever reaches far into that which I ‘don’t know’, the wider issues. Look at your poem, James, how it widens and in the end really says something to make the reader engage and think about more than just someone having a minor op. I don’t think my poems ever widen out in a similar way, and that’s a limitation in my work….Perhaps the issues are in the gaps…that’s a comforting thought, but I don’t know the truth of it.

Moving on from what I can actually write about, I’ve been thinking about one of my favourite poets, Wilfred Owen, someone who for so long didn’t write about ‘what he knew’ because he felt poetry had to be somehow apart from that. When I read Dulce et Decorum Est, I am phenomenally, tragically moved, but its only while thinking about writing this that I have wondered, is it true? And does it matter that it’s true? I assume Owen went through many gas attacks, I assume he watched people be affected, watched them suffering, watched them die. But does it matter? Its such an authentic piece of writing, it moves, it touches and it LIVES…does it matter if it’s what Owen ‘knew’? Never occurred to me before…what does anyone else think? I only really know the WW1 poets, and I’ve always assumed that they actually went through what they write about, but does it matter? There must be modern war poets writing from a non-combat experience, therefore in a sense writing what they don’t know, does it matter?

My response would be that of course it doesn’t if the writing feels authentic – but then why do I shy away from tackling issues I feel I have not experienced, or those which I feel are so massive in scope that I cannot grasp them properly or despair?
I’ve read Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy in which she so brilliantly uses the real experiences of Owen and Sassoon to weave a tragedy of massive impact. I’ve read Sebastian Faulks’ Birdsong and wept. Two writers who could not be directly involved, yet who can convince us of what they ‘know’ so that we are touched, moved and tragically uplifted.

Owen said: ‘My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity. Yet these elegies are to this generation in no sense consolatory. They may be to the next. All a poet can do today is warn. That is why true Poets must be truthful’

I don’t know if he meant this in entirely a literal way but I am interpreting it as the crux of the debate…we must be true, we must ‘know’ - as in be as authentic as we can to our real experience or our imagined one. It seems to me this is what your poem does, James.

tinyclanger at 15:47 on 15 August 2006  Report this post
Tom Waits seems to me to hit a similar note to James in that mix of the personal and the political in his song, The Day After Tomorrow'

I got your letter today
And I miss you all so much, here
I can't wait to see you all
And I'm counting the days, dear
I still believe that there's gold
At the end of the world
And I'll come home
To Illinois
On the day after tomorrow

It is so hard
And it's cold here
And I'm tired of taking orders
And I miss old Rockford town
Up by the Wisconsin border
But I miss you won't believe
Shoveling snow and raking leaves
And my plane will touch tomorrow
On the day after tomorrow

I close my eyes
Every night
And I dream that I can hold you
They fill us full of lies
Everyone buys
About what it means to be a soldier
I still don't know how I'm supposed to feel
About all the blood that's been spilled
Look out on the street
Get me back home
On the day after tomorrow

You can't deny
The other side
Don't want to die
Any more than we do
What I'm trying to say,
Is don't they pray
To the same God that we do?
Tell me, how does God choose?
Whose prayers does he refuse?
Who turns the wheel?
And who throws the dice
On the day after tomorrow?

I'm not fighting
For justice
I am not fighting
For freedom
I am fighting
For my life
And another day
In the world here
I just do what I've been told
You're just the gravel on the road
And the one's that are lucky
One's come home
On the day after tomorrow

And the summer
It too will fade
And with it comes the winter's frost, dear
And I know we too are made
Of all the things that we have lost here
I'll be twenty-one today
I've been saving all my pay
And my plane will touch down
On the day after tomorrow
And my plane it will touch down
On the day after tomorrow

Wonderful, even better with music!

James Graham at 20:35 on 16 August 2006  Report this post
Tc, your thoughts are much appreciated. Thank you for taking the time to write such an extended comment. When I brought up the subject of writing on wider issues as well as personal ones, I didn’t mean to suggest that any poet who writes exclusively about personal experience is in some way limited. If my previous posting (‘What should we write about?’) contains that message, I hereby recant. At least to this extent - that I think poetry of personal experience is of equal value with poetry on public issues.

I don’t think I understood, until now, what was meant by ‘The personal is political’. Your ‘High Beech’ poem celebrates the forest and the impact it has on yourself as an individual and a writer. Your Kew poem celebrates the orchids and the experience of seeing them. What you’re doing in these poems - and what many other poets do - is to assert our right to seek out rich and worthwhile experience and to share it with others. Or to broaden it out a bit, our right to live the kind of fulfilled lives that these experiences represent.

The more I think about it, the more I’m convinced that’s the most important political statement anyone can make. The American philosopher Ted Honderich has said that the first priority of politics, way ahead of any other considerations, should be ‘to get people out of bad lives’. Which is the same as saying that the proper business of politics is to create the conditions for people everywhere to live good lives, with good life chances and many opportunities to have rich, uplifting, memorable experiences.

But what our leading politicians seem to do instead is plunge people into bad lives. Whatever ‘side’ they represent, whether we’re talking about Bush, Blair, Saddam, Olmert or What’s-his-name the leader of Hizbollah, they all bring grief and suffering into people’s lives; they all terrorise people, dispossess them, force them on to the open road as refugees. Poetry that celebrates ‘ordinary’ experience - the impact of the forest, the pleasure we take in the seasons, the inspiration we get from visiting a particular place, a good day, a chance encounter, a relationship - all this asserts (implicitly - it never has to be explicit) the value of these things, and the right of all people to demand of politicians (a) a reasonable standard of living; and (b) peace, so that they can get on with ‘the pursuit of happiness’. It may not be what was originally intended by the phrase, but that’s what I mean by ‘the personal is political’.

And another kind of personal poetry, the kind that confronts bad experience - as many of your poems do - perhaps works in a different way towards the same end. The poet writes in order to articulate, clarify, and somehow get a sense of being in control of traumatic experiences. Or, like Owen, they write in order to raise consciousness and to ‘be truthful’ and ‘warn’. However it may be, this kind of poetry is hardly ever negative. It asserts the strength of human beings, their capacity to strike a blow against the ‘badness’ they encounter in their lives. Poetry of that kind too is an assertion of the human values - people’s right to live good lives and the affront to humanity that we should all feel when that right is denied them. Again, that’s how I understand ‘the personal is political’.

I don’t think any writer of personal poetry needs to be aware of any of this, or write with ‘the personal is political’ in mind. Just the act of celebrating good experience, or confronting bad experience, is enough in itself.

I think I can understand your disengagement from politics, especially international politics. I go through phases of disengagement. Another childhood memory - having been born immediately before World War II I reached the age of 6 thinking (as millions of children must have done) that’s what the world was like. Then I was told the war was over, and there was peace. But when the Korean War started, every time my father turned on the radio for the Six o’Clock News I used to go to my room, or out into the woods at the back of our house. (Beech woods!) To this day I know next to nothing about the Korean War. And from time to time in adult life - especially, I remember, during the first Gulf War - I have shut myself off from it. I do find sometimes that I can write a poem about world issues, so long as I feel that what I don’t actually ‘know’ I can make an effort to imagine. But poetry that doesn’t consciously put a toe into the political water can still ‘broaden out’ in purely human terms.


Tina at 08:21 on 02 September 2006  Report this post
Hi James

First I would like to say how much I have enjoyed reading the extended posts here and the great dialogue with so many thought provoking comments. Special thanks too to TC for the lovely Tom Waits poem.

Your writing as always is sensitive and sparks thought into many directions. Form the first this poem touches the spine with a gentle finger going all the way down to the final verses and the reality of war - for me - which is what you conclude:

all the young men who ever had;
who ever had even a wound
to the soft flesh while wide awake.

Whilst on holiday recently we stopped off in a small town for the night which was about 20 miles south of Reims. Near the church there was a sign to war graves and so we went in and looked. There were amongst the graves of local villagers dating back to the 1800s seven graves - beautifully keep with the names of seven american airmen none older than 29 who had died when their plane crashed into a local field - all burned to death in the crash. The stark reality here was that these boys ( one only 18) far from home would never see their land again - it was so moving - quiet - serene and done with such dignity. Somehow its impact was more powerful than the great fields of white crosses that we have also visited. These were /are the reality of war - and - how can this be happening again in the 21 century? So much has been written and still we write. These only two:

Wilfred Owen - Futility
David Harsent - The Piss-pail

I enjoyed your writing James and it took me a while to realise that the opening lines are about an operation too.

What you say in your last post about cutting yourself off from war - from the Korean war - I think that there is a poem in that- just got the feeling as I read it.

Thanks for your writing as ever

James Graham at 20:15 on 03 September 2006  Report this post
Thanks for your comment, Tina, and for the story of your visit to the graveyard in France. At a place called the Pheasant Inn, at Falstone in Northumbria (where we stayed for a weekend not long ago) there’s a very plain stone memorial in the garden, to a German airman who crashed nearby. It’s engraved in English and German. That too was very moving.

Your suggestion about there being a poem in my avoidance of war news hasn’t fallen on stony ground. I’ve started scribbling and it may come to something yet. A small incident in a school staff room in 1991, at the time of the first Gulf War, might find its way in. A group of young male teachers were talking excitedly about the previous night’s news film of the bombardment of Iraq, like teenagers talking about a TV show or a shoot-em-up computer game. After a couple of minutes one of my colleagues in the English Department turned to them and said, ‘Look, if you want to talk about these things in that way, I’d appreciate it if you’d move to another part of the staff room. You don't realise how offensive it is. People are dying in these explosions.’ They didn't move, but they shut up.


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