Vernon Scannell--British


Vernon Scannell
(1922-    )


During World War II Scannell served in the British Army as a member of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders in France and North Africa.  He was wounded near Caen.  Scannell disliked military life, so on impulse he deserted after V-E Day.  He was captured after two years of running, and imprisoned.  He wrote of his experiences in An Argument of Kings, published in 1987.  While he was “on the run” Scannell wrote poetry.  Many of his war poems, especially “Walking Wounded,” are regarded as among the best to come out of World War II.  Scannell has been the recipient of a number of important British poetry awards including, the Heinemann Award for Literature.

Casualty—Mental Ward

Something has gone wrong inside my head.
The sappers have left mines and wire behind,
I hold long conversations with the dead.

I do not always know what has been said;
The rhythms, not the words, stay in my mind;
Something has gone wrong inside my head.

Not just the sky but grass and trees are red,
The flares and tracers—or I’m color-blind;
I hold long conversations with the dead.

Their presence comforts and sustains like bread;
When they don’t come its hard to be resigned;
Something has gone wrong inside my head.

They know about the snipers that I dread
And how the world is booby-trapped and mined;
I hold long conversation with the dead;

As all eyes close, they gather round my bed
And whisper consolation. When I find
Something has gone wrong inside my head
I hold long conversations with the dead.


The Walking Wounded

A mammoth morning moved grey flanks and groaned

In the rusty hedges pale rags of mist hung;

The gruel of mud and leaves in the mauled lane

Smelled sweet, like blood.  Birds had died or flown

Their green and silent antics sprouting now

With branches of leafed steel, riding round eyes

And ripe grenades ready to drop and burst.

In the ditch at the cross-roads the fallen rider lays

Hugging his dead machine and did not stir

At crunch of mortar, tantrum of a Bren

Answering a Spandau’s manic jabber.

Then into sight the ambulances came,

Stumbling and churning past the broken farm,

The amputated sign-post and smashed trees,

Slow wagonloads of bandaged cries, square trucks

That rolled on ominous wheels, vehicles

Made mythopoetic by their mortal freight

And crimson crosses on the dirty white.

This grave procession passed, though, for a while,

The grinding of their engines could be heard,

A dark noise on the pallor of the morning,

Dark as dried blood; and then it faded, died.

The road was empty, but it seemed to wait—

Like a stage that knows its cast is in the wings—

For a different traffic to appear.

The mist still hung in snags from dripping thorns;

Absent-minded guns still sighed and thumped,

And then they came, the walking wounded,

Straggling the road like convicts loosely chained,

Dragging at ankles exhaustion and despair.

Their heads were weighted down by last night’s lead,

And eyes still drank the dark.  They trailed the night

Along the morning road.  Some limped on sticks;

Others wore rough dressings, splints and slings;

A few had turbaned heads, the dirty cloth

Brown-badged with blood.  A humble brotherhood,

Not one was suffered from a lethal hurt,

They were not magnified by noble wounds,

There was no splendor in that company.

And yet, remembering after eighteen years,

In the heart’s throat a sour sadness stirs;

Imagination pauses and returns

To see them walking still, but multiplied

In thousands now.  And when heroic corpses

Turn slowly in their decorated sleep

And every ambulance has disappeared

The walking wounded still trudge down that lane,

And when recalled they must bear arms again.