In Hell’s Despite
at an exhibition of Stanley Spencer’s paintings of the Great War
on loan from the Sandham Memorial Chapel
Angels are everywhere. A sergeant in a dug-out,
his shoulders camouflaged with fern-fronds, stands
a second before his nemesis in Salonika.
Soldiers are leaning into a tent at Reveille
to tell the stragglers dressing under mosquito-nets
it is come, it is morning, voices annunciate.
An orderly with thin buckets on his arms
strides, seeming to hover, past still patients
huddled with frostbite in a hospital ward.
Stanley Spencer, beneath a sky of barbed wire,
trawls the darkness for the action of light.
The cross is everywhere. People’s flung arms,
the paths between a kit inspection on blankets,
the slithering ground between trenches, or else a tent-pole
with strut-supports, or a marble-slabbed water-fountain…
yet it is nowhere. No crucifix and no angels.
No resurrection crashing a storm-chord symphony
above an altar, hundreds of soldiers with crosses,
and horses, too, restored from the dust. And no Christ
in the far background, taking the small grave-roods.
To Stanley Spencer, an angel of the Great War,
it is given to tell the Word of nowhere to man.
God is everywhere. The landscape of now is shattered
by what is behind. Brushing aside a veneer
of chores, of repetitive acts that go with breathing,
is the unknowable face and force of Another.
A lorry arriving with wounded; a charge at floor-scrubbing;
merely the moving of kit-bags; the sorting of laundry;
bed-making; the filling of tea-urns. Out on the Front
an officer map-reads . . . as soldiers snooze, gather bilberries.
By night the scorching of grass to stop flames jumping.
At Stanley Spencer’s side my mind is lit
to see the heavenly arch in hell’s despite.