In Normandy, in November

I’d just left a small but well-kept graveyard where again
I’d searched but failed to find my father’s grave—
I was beginning to wonder if it mattered. And that was
the moment, while closing the gate, that I heard it,
a set of Great Highland bagpipes noising down the cobbled way.

A piper in regimental regalia, glengarry, sporran and kilt,
even a sgian-dubh poking from his hose, was slowly marching
along the road, plaintively playing Going Home. And amazingly,
from every neat brick home from both sides of the street,
they came to stand and listen: young and old, small and tall,
men and women, each solemnly watching the one man parade.

After he passed I asked an elderly man who the piper was.
His English was as bad as my French but eventually
I understood that the young man’s father used to annually
march this route, calling to the comrades he had left behind
in the scattering of graveyards thereabouts.
When the elder had become too infirm to stand his watch,
the son had taken up the call. Then the old man grew silent.

And in silence, his eyes, soft under their big bushes,
lingered long on the back of the piper. Close but not,
I could hear just then the roar and screams of
desperate men in desperate times raging through
and around and over us. It was, no doubt, a time
when all that could be owned was chance, and as luck
would have it, he lived and mine didn’t, but more
importantly, he remembered what I had forgot.
Then catching himself, he nodded a curt Au revoir,
but before letting him go, I took the blood red poppy
from my breast and pinned it to his own.

This poem originated from an idea poised by my dear friend and wonderful poet, Julia Dean-Richards who blogs at A Place for Poetry. She proposed co-writing a poem on the line, “Where would you put your poppy down?” But of course I botched the whole idea by making it the original title of this poem and writing the whole thing from beginning to end because I couldn’t stop, once the story got in my head. And then, eventually I changed the title. (That’s me for you, no gratitude, not even for a great line of poetry. Sorry, Julia!)

The story presented here is not factual, although I hope, real. I am particularly thankful that my father, although a veteran of the Second War, is still alive and hearty at 89. The part about the piper is, however, real and happened to my sister. She and her husband were visiting a small Canadian Military graveyard in Normandy when a young man came marching by playing his bagpipes in honor of his father who had recently passed away.

Some notes on the poem: Normandy, France was the site of the Allied invasion into Europe and against Germany during World War II, and was the site of much fierce fighting and loss of life, as attested to by the many military graveyards located there. November 11th, also known as Armistice Day, Veteran’s Day and Remembrance Day is dedicated in North America and Europe to the memory of those who have fallen in military conflict. The traditional emblem of the day throughout the Commonwealth Nations and Europe is a blood red poppy, a flower which grows wild in the numerous graveyards dedicated to the fallen of the 20th century’s two World Wars, and as immortalized in the poem commemorating the dead, In Flander’s Fields. (Written, by the way, by a Canadian. We’re everywhere.)

Scottish regimental bagpipe bands wear a quite formal version of the highland costume: the glengarry is a traditional Scot’s hat; the sporran is a pouch worn around the waist to hang in the front and the kilt is a knee-length and manly skirt-like garment with pleats at the rear and woven in a particular clan or organizational tartan color; it is traditionally worn by men in the Highlands of Scotland. A sgian-dubh (pronounced skee-en-doo) is a small, single-edged knife traditionally worn at the top of the mid-calf high socks (hose) of a kilt wearer. Bagpipes are a traditional Gaelic instrument that are based on smaller instruments originally introduced to the Iberian peninsula by the Muslim Moors of  North Africa. They come in many sizes, but the largest and most impressive is the Great Highland bagpipeGoing Home is a tune adapted from the Largo section of Antonin Dvorak’s New World Symphony (the 9th) as a spiritual hymn.

Thank you for reading In Normandy, in November. I sincerely hope you have enjoyed it and I humbly appreciate your visiting the Book of Pain. As always, I look forward to your comments.

john

© 2013 by John Etheridge; all rights reserved. This poem and accompanying notes are licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 Unported License. This applies to all original work found on this site, unless noted otherwise. The attribution claimed under the license is: © 2013 by John Etheridge, https://bookofpain.wordpress.com.

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8 Comments

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8 responses to “In Normandy, in November

  1. So much here. There is a sadness here … overlapping powerful themes, transcendent themes: our fathers, war … I went back to the first stanza, I really liked this: “I was beginning to wonder if it mattered. And it was then,
    while closing the gate, that I heard them, a set of
    Great Highland bagpipes noising down the cobbled way.”

    • T., thank you! It was surprising how quickly the general outline came to me and how hard it was to massage it into place. (I’ve already edited the posted version a couple of times!) Telling a specific, detailed story in poetry is darn hard when compared to the ‘ease’ (mechanically, at least) of explaining slippery and malleable emotions and ideas. But for some odd reason, I really like this poem…

  2. John, really a moving poem. >KB

  3. I almost liked it better without the explanation. Still, excellent.

    That opening line is perfect. As melancholic and absorbing as the opening of Camus’s ‘The Stranger’.

    Love the title too; IN, IN.

  4. To clarify: I liked it better before the explanation in one sense. The story is deeper when believed to be a first-person, honest account. I don’t mean that I’m disappointed your father didn’t in fact die on the beaches of France.

    By the way, a thanks to your father, the veteran, for his service.

    • JR, not to worry, I understand completely your reservation about the notes. I disputed with myself about what to say on the poem (as usual I erred on the side of foolishness and said too much). But eventually, the need to be honest with the blog readers won out. I am glad that you liked it. It was surprising how much work it took to get it to its final form. The first draft was far too long and so melodramatic that a reader had a fair right to expect a beautiful maiden tied to a train track and a villain pulling his pencil thin mustache in the next verse. I kept re-writing it trying to make it more believable and true to the essence of being healed. Narrative poetry is darn hard to do well!