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Home Front: voices left behind

Home Front combines the collections of four female poets on the experiences of war for those left behind. The narrative of Isabel Palmer’s first collection, Atmospherics, begins with seeing her only son go to war in Afghanistan soon after his 21st birthday. The poems that emerged from her weekly writing ritual caught the eye of Andrew Motion, who writes in his foreword that the collection’s “subjects have a high level of documentary interest, but Isabel Palmer’s particular achievement is to invest them with the authority of the heart.” Motion’s praise is restrained, yet very expressive and complementary. His sincerity left her feeling “very honoured and very humbled.”

It is clear on first meeting Isabel Palmer that she is open, warm and very motherly. She talks frankly and tenderly about how her collection came to be published. “When Afghanistan came around, the most natural thing for me to do, to absorb myself in something other than watching the news all the time, was to write poetry. I found it quite cathartic. It was painful, but the focus it demanded to find exactly the right words took my mind off obsessing about news broadcasts of death and injuries. That’s why I wrote the poems. But as for seeking publication, I felt so strongly that there weren’t voices explaining what it was like for those left behind.” Though the poems were written for very personal and private reasons, she now wants to help people understand these experiences of “unpopular wars”. She tells us, “This is what really happens—you must make up your own mind about whether it’s justified or not.”

Palmer’s poems came to be combined with those of Bryony Doran, Jehanne Dubrow and Elyse Fenton when Bloodaxe received four collections describing the experience of being a woman on the Home Front, which were “all very compelling, and very different in their styles of poetry.” She was delighted to join forces, since “we all felt that our individual egos and our success in poetry was far less important than telling a story in as powerful a way as we can.” Doran’s collection is written with a fantastically dry sense of humour. “Her poems are far more direct in how they tackle the experiences, and there’s a sense of irony as well.” Dubrow sees her experience in a historical context, invoking the plight of Penelope in the Odyssey. Palmer’s poems are “about fear,” and what sets her apart is her exquisite choice of images. She thinks her “focus is always on the language, and the sounds of the language, and finding the right image for the feeling I’m describing.”

Palmer is right about how right her images feel—her father’s gun is “fast and sleek as a salmon”—and this accuracy was often reached in one draft. “I didn’t change them very much. They came from somewhere quite deep—I didn’t think someone looking back on the experience months or years later could really find a better way of saying it.” It is obvious from reading her poems that she has thought carefully about lineation and the sounds of her words. Her background as an English teacher meant that she knew all about shaping diff erent kinds of poetry, but “that never came into it. It was all about allowing the thoughts to come and then revisiting it later to see if maybe that word or that image wasn’t appropriate.”

The poems beg to be read aloud, resembling invocations or addresses rather than letters. It was important to Palmer that the poems felt as if she were talking directly to her son—it was her way of “bridging the communication gap.” Phone calls were rare and brief, so every Monday morning she put together a parcel to send to Afghanistan and wrote a poem. When sending a parcel, according to Isabel, “the important thing is to find something that they want, to find something to lift their morale, and to find something that isn’t too heavy—and that seems to me the same process as writing a poem.”

Home Front is launched on Remembrance Day—the only day that felt appropriate for Palmer. The new voices in this quadruple collection are powerful, unusual and varied. They have so many stories to tell, and they are calling for listeners.

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