from ‘Waiting to Be Drafted’
It might be any evening of spring;
The air is level, twilight in a moment
Will walk behind us and his shadow
Fall cold across our day.
The usual trees surround an empty field
And evergreens and gravel frame the house;
Primroses lie like tickets on the ground;
The mauve island floats on grey.
My senses are too sharp for what the mind
Presents them. In this common scene reside
Small elements with power to agitate
And move me like a play.
Pity and love one instant and the next
Disgust, and constantly the sense of time
Retreating, leaving events like traps: I feel
This always, most today.
My comrades are in the house, their bodies are
At the mercy of time, their minds are nothing but yearning.
From windows where they lie, as from quiet water,
The light is taken away.
This month’s poem comes from a much overlooked writer called Roy Fuller (1912-1991). Fuller served in the Royal Navy during World War II and wrote many poems about his experiences. ‘Waiting to Be Drafted’ is one of his most moving war poems. It does not describe the sound and fury found in combat, but instead the eerie, tense stillness of soldiers awaiting duty (‘At the mercy of time’), on stand-by, at once restless and powerless. The ‘common scene’ Fuller described is, at the moment, particularly pertinent, and though ‘The usual trees surround an empty field’, our evenings are newly sharp with anticipation, ‘leaving events like traps’.
Think about the first three words: ‘It might be’. They set up, immediately, the poems’s theme: waiting and readiness. There is the sense – in that weighty ‘might’ – that the fight could come at any time, and we must always be prepared. It is a disconcerting reality of war that is not often thought about, and one we glimpse in Fuller’s use of personification: ‘twilight in a moment | Will walk behind us and his shadow | Fall cold across our day’.
The rhyme of the poem also builds on this quality. The stanzas (or, if we’re being technical, quatrains) themselves are unrhymed, as if the poet has more pressing things on their mind that finding pretty pretty-sounding words; and yet, if we read things as a whole, we find a pattern in the last word of each stanza: ‘day’/‘grey’/‘play’/‘today’/‘away’. By having a sound recur from beginning to end in this way, Fuller lends the poem a profound sense of inevitability. By the time we reach the end, it is as if we somehow always knew that the soldier, like the light, would be ‘taken away’ to war.
As the world watches the events in Ukraine unfold (many feelingly similarly frustrated and powerless), it does us well to remember Fuller’s words, and his subtle depiction of those ready to fight, ‘their minds nothing but yearning’; and to understand war’s consequences in their fullest sense, right down to the ‘Small elements’ that play out across this ‘common scene’.