Catching up: Martin Malone’s “The Unreturning”


[from Part 2: The Unreturning]

Here we are at last. Thought we’d never get here. Except we haven’t even started, not by a long chalk. I’m thinking of those pioneering Himalayan climbers who took months just to get to the foot of Everest, and essentially they still hadn’t started the job they came to do. Here I am at last, and still scrambling around, looking for a likely line. Daunted. Because Martin Malone’s The Unrerturning is a hefty piece of work, a 

    sequence of merciless hymns to our cultural obsession with the First World War …an effort

   to create meaningful acts of witness for ‘a nation/with so many memorials/but no memory..

   a collection of great ambition and originality [Peter Robinson]

As PW Bridgman says in his London Grip Review 

   it is widespread failures and (inescapably) distortions of historical memory that are Malone’s central concern…..

 with a conjured mythology about war [I would say THIS war, in particular]..a false record that has been cultivated 

 and propagated to serve certain political ends

The more I’ve chewed this over, the more I’ve come to think that I need to put the whole business of assertions  about ‘conjured mythologies’ in some kind of context. Because there are lots of them, and many are mutually exclusive. After all, there were more than 16 million dead — armed forces and civilians. 

Let’s play a game of association, bearing in mind that we’re already primed to be thinking of WW1 poetry and poets. If you think of the First World War, what images come to mind? Would they, perhaps, be like mine.. a silhouette of a procession of gas-blinded men? miles of mud, barbed wire? artillery men trying to drag a floundering horse out of a crater? 

If you had to choose just a single image, would it be a poppy? 

Like this one, for instance, which featured in the Yorkshire Post this week. It’s certified to have been plucked from the battlefield in 1916 by the brother of one killed there in action

“The dried poppy – described as “one of the most poignant symbols of brotherly love ever seen” – was plucked in memory of Private James Henry Lester. It’s up for auction amongst a collection of WW1 memorabilia, and expected to raise in excess of £1000; the family owners hope 

“that a museum may purchase the items and put them on public display, a permanent reminder of the sacrifices made by an entire generation.”

After all, we’re concerned with ‘conjured mythologies’. Which is the concern at the heart of Martin Malone’s collection.

When you’re asked to think of WW1, is your default image one of Flanders Fields? If you like, it’s easy to argue that our collective ‘memory’ has edited the World out of World War.

For instance, if I ask you to think of a battle, I think the odds are that it’ll be The Somme, or Ypres. Something like that. But if you were French, it might be Verdun, or the Ardennes; if you were Italian, it might be Isonzo. For Russians, Tannenberg, for Romanians, Bucharest.

Like I said, Flanders is probably your default …not Macedonia, or Sinai and Palestine, or Egypt, or the Congo, or Mesapotamia/Iraq, or the Dardenelles where Attlee was the penultimate man of the beach in covering the retreat from Suvla Bay.

And if you’re like me, you probably didn’t think of naval warfare at all….Jutland, The Falklands. In truth, there were few naval engagements, which is ironic, especially for those mythologists who still sing Rule Britannia  (Britannia rule the waves). Navies were mainly engaged in blockading enemy ports in an effort to starve them into defeat. And so on.

Our collective memories and myths shrink the world. 

Here’s another thing. If I ask you to name the first bit of WW1 writing that comes to mind what’s the odds that it’ll be a poem? A bit of Wilfred Owen? A bit of Rupert Brooke? Isaac Rosenberg? Edward Thomas? August Stramm? 

How many of you thought first of memoir (Vera Britten? Robert Graves?) 

Or novels…All quiet on the Western Front ? (Eric Remarque’s book was burned by the nazis). Pat Barker’s Regeneration Trilogy ? Solzhenitsyn’s August 1914?

And if we’re thinking of image making, how about film? Paths of Glory Oh what a lovely war ? Peter Weir’s Gallipoli.

The scale, both spatial and temporal, is clearly beyond daunting. Martin is quite clear about this in various interviews he’s given about The Unreturning, and about his more recent Selected Poems. A couple of extracts will make the point:

The Unreturning …… was a subject given/ gifted me on the basis of funding for my Sheffield PhD. My main challenge was to say something new about [the poetry of WW1] from the perspective of its centenary. 

Both academic research and my creative practice did, indeed, look to poets like Thomas and Isaac Rosenberg, however, as well as the even more obvious ones. For the Ghosts of the Vortex sequence, my purpose was to seek out some of the lost, or lesser-known, narratives of the conflict and convey a sense of its global dimensions and legacies: hence poems like ‘Ansky’s Lament’, ‘Legacies’, ‘The 1st Women’s Battalion of Death’, ‘Nostos’ and ‘The Turnip Winter’. German Great War poetry is, in many ways, more interesting than the British stuff – certainly, it often feels more modern and experimental – though it’s an all-but-lost canon. So, I wanted to be a bit more 360° than is often the case with UK writing about the war.”


“The complicating factor in a project such as this is the pervasive nature of the Great War’s literary legacy. Already the most poetically memorialized conflict since Troy, its writers provide the urtext to our collective sensibility of much subsequent warfare, while its historical stature as global event represents something of a dragon lying across the threshold to our under- standing of the modern world 

Catherine Reilly’s estimation that, in Britain alone, there were 2225 published poets of the Great War (1978) is a formidable enough legacy, further deepened by the remarkably privileged position enjoyed in UK culture by that small body of poets who have since emerged as representatives of its core canon [my italics]: poets such as Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, Isaac Rosenberg, Robert Graves, Rupert Brooke, Laurence Binyon and John McCrae, all of whom are studied widely in schools or habitually appear in Remembrance Day ceremonies. “


History of the Cenotaph | English Heritage

What he sets out to do is to provide some sort of perspective on the failures and distortions of historical memory, both about the war itself, about the ‘truth’ or otherwise of its poetry, and what he sees as conjured mythologies, the ‘trench honesties’ occluded by ‘one century/ and the paradigms of myth’. And when you consider the ‘truth’ of the poetry, it’s as well to remember that this war was unprecedented, mechanised, industrialised. There was no language ready made to account for it. Which brings us to Martin Malone’s poems, and particularly at this point, an extract from one about Wilfred Owen at the time of his recuperation after Craiglockhart.

They were dying again at Beaumont Hamel

as you stroll Borage Lane,

three days after your twenty-fifth birthday,

mind yet cobbled with skulls of the lads you left behind…


At number seven, you unlatch the gate,

take out a key and stroll up to the white front door.


Searching for peace, you retreat to the attic with its tiny skylight,

the shrieks of children playing soldiers down the street.

Here you are Chatterton and Keats,

half in love with death’s idea

while making best use of its dutiful shadow.


You write your mother, go over old drafts,

‘defectuosities’, and ‘the inwardness of war’.


Briefly, you pause to listen to swallows skirruping their early return,


then back to your notes, strike-throughs,

séance and retrospection,

another time-strafed Edwardian

caught out in the open with defective kit…

                                                                        (from “Ripon Work”)

It’s the last two lines I find particularly poignant; Edwardian poetry, with its roots in lyrical Romanticism, simply wasn’t set up to deal with the horrors of trench warfare, particularly if your mind was

                           cobbled with skulls of the lads you left behind…

It’s Martin’s concern with the disjunction between the limits of language at any given time, and the actual experience it’s trying to realise that colours the whole collection, which, as one reviewer pointed out, and as the book’s jacket copy correctly declares, is in effect a “Great War diptych in which the later dissenting voices… parley with [war poetry’s] more traditional elegiac forms.”

So, set this poem from the second part (The Unreturning) against Ripon Work, and you’ll get a sense of the way it works

41. War Poet

Beneath this creeping barrage squats our chap, in his breast pocket the scribbled draft that sets off a vintage look: hapless subaltern, sick with sin, chewing pencil and pity onto notepaper doomed to be found upon a mud-matted corpse. En route to legend, Herr Krupp’s handiwork tears its messy path through temporal, parietal and the red wet thing of a line-break. Let us rest here a while then dig down to the destruction layer where we find change come suddenly and everywhere, and everywhere the final week of this poets’ war: Boudicca’s wrath, shock and awe, the stratified earth of charred words pulling free of decorum.

 “The first half of the diptych (collectively, “Ghosts in the Vortex”) does indeed consist of poems, mostly written in free verse, which are conventionally presented and employ language and diction that beautifully reflects Martin’s own earlier absorption in poets like Edward Thomas, and the landscapes of, say Eric Ravillious. The second half, by contrast, comes to us in prose poetry form and speaks in a conspicuously more modern voice. The prose poems look back at some of the content of the first half, offering an often acerbic, but nevertheless lyrical, commentary on real truths as they have sometimes been refracted though systematically distorted lenses. (PWBridgman in London Grip).

Some of the poems made me consider the disparate backgrounds of those who fought, especially before conscription. There were the Pals Regiments who could not initially be supplied with unforms, and who were subsequently decimated; there were those who were rejected because of the effects of malnutrition. Later, of course, the need for men to fill their places became acute, and thus were formed the Bantam Regiments of men below 5’3”…the Jewish East-ender Isaac Rosenberg was one of them. There were those conflicted, like Owen and Edward Thomas who enlisted later in the war, And there were the enthusiasts, the beautiful, blue-eyed bourgeouis boys like Rupert Brooke and Julian Grenfell.

Martin’s momentarily unsparing of Julian Grenfell and his “Krupp-made end”.

Warm with late spring, in a field near Ypres,

you were never happier than on this big picnic, 

chatting with the General when that shell struck

                                   [Phoebus Apollo]

He can just as easily borrow some of the acerbity of Sassoon when dealing with others, like Sassoon himself, and Robert Graves, who bought their own superior gear from the Army and Navy stores)

Yes, how we hate you, you cheerful young men
with your tinned kippers and today’s Daily Mail;
the periscope from Harrods, the warm new boots.

                                      [Trench Requisites]

There’s one poem in part two of the diptych that savages the literal business of the memorabilia of wars, and it illustrates for me the to-and-fro of reverberation between the two parts. I like way the distinctively modern dialect throws a light on Sassoon’s use of his demotic. I like the savagery of it.


29. Webbing

Buy it now for two-seven-five, condition as shown in photo, too well-made to be repro, the kosher stuff of a lost patrol. As metaphors got real and euphemism ugly, the Aldershot Design lugged its rough rigging onto the dog-tired shoulders of our line. And, if you’re browsing for archetype, for “how it really was”, then scroll no further than this, one belt; two braces; bayonet frog; pouches for ammo; one haversack; valise with two straps and carriers for the head and helve of an E-tool. This was our hyperlink, a one-piece jacket for the universal soldier: Dai’s Greatcoat, Hotspur’s mail, John Ball’s frayed thread for the fucked-up Grail of Mametz Wood. Epic failure/ epic fail


Equally, Martin Malone can write with a deft lyricism that conjures the literary/poetic world of the age.


As though nothing happens

our hemisphere shoulders the sun,


the hill asleep on its trove of peat,

the sea is soaked in light.


In the days before Johnsmas

we bear fuel to the sgùrr,

our own brief blaze stoked

in its hours and seasons


by the darkness and the light.


I love the completeness of this, its precision (its echoes of MacCaig, too), and not least for the way it sits alongside much bleaker, more deliberately disturbing poems, like the one about the artist Kokoscha, shot in the head and wounded in the lung, left for dead on the Russian front, and later declared insane by his hospital doctor.



A spitted dragoon 

prone in pike-grey, 

Oskar Kokoschka considers his fate

and wonders if you can paint a premonition

or, in the war of endless coincidence,

is this just another incident

bereft of the brush 

to anoint its meaning?


As March canvass turns 

August into wounds, 

his lung swabs blood 

from the jag of Russian bayonet

and things begin to swim, 

heading out towards allegory

and revenant self-portrait:

Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani? 


He floats above himself as seraphim,

notes a passing influence of Grünewald 

and the Northern Renaissance, 

while Mahler’s widow looks on,

sphinx-like, close attendant

to his ever-present grief

and the narrow horizontal

of a stricken son of man.


I like the way that this reminds me that painters were way ahead of poets when it came to the profound disorientations of this war (and possibly everything else throught history). I like the way it takes the reader away from the provincialism of English war poetry, I like the widening perspective. And I realise, belatedly that it chimes with an image(the pikelhaube snout) in one of the prose poems from the second half of the diptych (The Unreturning).

10. School Run

If you’ve a minute, tweet this: the car-struck badger you’ve driven past these last two weeks, pikelhaube snout irate in death, body bloating with fetid air, hind-legs rigid in surrender. Kamerad, emptied of essence, this is the boy from your home village; that snotty kid with a terrier whose Dad liked a drink, the one who pissed himself when Miss Manning caught him with a rat in his desk. Him: always the last to put up his hand, always unlucky in love. His losing streak continued over here and now that’s him rotting away to your left, hung on the brambles of a B-Road: a passing stain in no man’s land, fuel for the coming spring. He’ll walk no more on Cotswold.


(Thus, Ivor Gurney. I’d forgotten that I shared this early prosepoem in a post in which Martin was my guest poet. You can check it out via this link.

I realised a long long time ago I’d not do justice to the complexities and variety of this collection– lyrical, satitirical, rhetorical, polemical, extensively researched, and technically accomplished. Put all that together and you realise that it doesn’t add up to something you might recognize as currently fashionable. But do go and buy it. You’ll not be disappointed and you’ll certainly be educated. And you can dream that Michael Gove and his satraps could be forced to learn this poem by heart.


Thank you for your neo-concern

that we grasp the full facts

of this complicated matter;

for sending out, once again,

the officer class to explain 

the subtle difference between

Blackadder and the nation’s history,

the one being truth the other comedy;

for pointing out our parents’ mistake

in taking Oh What A Lovely War!

to be anything but a sixties musical 

and not how it really was. Thank you

for assuming our poetry stops at Owen;

for sending out the privately-educated

to explain that confusion in the ranks

between your national story

and literature’s false history,

as if, not royal families, but poetry

tips men into war graves.

Saxe-Coburg, be advised, your poppy

is not mine.


I’m grateful to you for letting me hear

Paxman attempt the phrase wor canny bairns.

And I do appreciate your engagement

with those events which legitimise

the contemporary state of affairs,

or, as you put it on a recent visit

to a sink school, make pride cool again

I appreciate, as you say, the need 

to understand the popular thinking

of the day; how words you are trying

to re-claim meant something real

to my grandfather right up to that morning

the Liverpool Regiment came unstuck

at Hermies, on the road to Cambrai. 

As if history can make some

long term sense of the losses 

and every lesson to be learned

is, once more, yours.

Martin Malone, thanks for your patience, and for your generous sharing of so many poems from The Unreturning. 

ps. I’ll finish with one last thought. I’ve read a lot of reviews of the book and transcripts of interviews that Martin has given as well as articles he’s written. Sometimes, Google sends you down unexpected pathways. I came across the deeply depressing world of Poetry Notes and Analyses….the virtual world’s Cole’s Notes. Amongst other things I learned that there is no kind of filter. You’d be astonished to find that it’s commonly assumed by all sorts of writers, and even some reviewers, that Wilfred Owen’s poem The unreturning is a War Poem. The first two stanzas certainly sound as if they may be

In fact, it was written between 1912 and 1913, and it’s about a crisis of theological and doctrinal doubt. It has more affinity with the Dark Sonnets of GM Hopkins than with war poetry. There you go.


Martin Malone lives in north-east Scotland. 

He has published 3 poetry collections: The Waiting Hillside (Templar, 2011), 

                                                                       Cur (Shoestring, 2015) 


                                                                    The Unreturning (Shoestring 2019). 

Larksong Static: Selected Poems 2005-2020 was published by Hedgehog Poetry in December 2020. 

In addition, he has published 4 pamphlets: 17 Landscapes (Bluegate Books), Prodigals (The Black Light Engine Room), Mr. Willett’s Summertime* (Poetry Salzburg), Shetland Lyrics (Hedgehog). Poems from these and his other work have been published in a wide variety of magazines & journals. 

He reviews for  Poetry Ireland Review, Poetry Wales and Poetry Salzburg Review. 

An editor at Poetry Salzburg and  Honorary Research Fellow in Creative Writing at Aberdeen University, he has a PhD in poetry from Sheffield University. Currently,  Martin is a Poetry Ambassador for the Scottish Poetry Library.


*Mr. Willett’s Summertime comprises 25 poems that were the early nucleus of The Unreturning

4 thoughts on “Catching up: Martin Malone’s “The Unreturning”

  1. As ever, informative and good to read, as well as the poems.
    Until the other day I had never heard of David Jones who ‘survived’ his WW1 fighting experiences. I was watching Owen Sheers’ TV programme (recorded) and analysis of Jones’ poems. His ‘In Parenthesis’ was not published until the early 30s – Owen asserts, probably rightly, that it took him that long to be able to get them written down to be able to cope with his mental health troubles that were present after the war.


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