My interest in Susan Miles having been aroused, I ordered two books of her poems from the depths of the Bodleian – Annotations of 1922 and The Hares and other poems of 1924. Some of the pages of The Hares were still uncut, which indicates how much academic interest this rather good writer has been granted during the past eighty years.
In The Hares intelligent and compact little rhymed poems predominate, often making pointed comments about contemporary ethics. On the whole, though, I think she comes over best in the free verse poems of Annotations. There’s The Cenotaph, which I quoted part of yesterday, and another poem set on a bus, The Unknown Warrior. I assume that this is a picture of shell-shock. It’s certainly a picture of very English embarrassment. Susan Miles was brilliant at describing embarrassment:
The Unknown Warrior
The tired conductor has sought to cajole him
On to the outside of the ‘bus.
But he has asserted with reiteration
That he will not go.
Having sweated all day
He does not intend to risk catching
A bloody cold.
He has beamed all-inclusively upon us, his neighbours,
Pleasurably anticipating our commendation
Of his admirable prudence.
But we have stared detachedly before us,
Determined to avoid inveiglement
In conversation that would inevitably embarrass.
He has lapsed, after much discourse,
We have rustled our relief,
Relaxing, undeliberately, our strained attention,
And shifting our umbrellas.
But now he has laughed,
And we are tense again
Our hearts, being British, dread a scene.
Our hearts being human hope for one.
We speculate as to whether he is about to utter
A blasphemous phrase,
An indecent comment,
Or something merely maudlin.
He is still laughing;
His face is crumpling itself
In hilarious creases.
“And then,” (his voice lurches towards us
“And then they buried
The Unknown Warrior.”
His mirth is curvetting
Up and down the ‘bus,
Crashing against our conventions and shaking them
Without shifting them.
The tired conductor is taking a new fare
And the ‘bus is barging on again,
Through empty streets
In the moonlight.
The lids that have winked ironically
Now droop like a weary child’s.
We watch their slumber
And are still.