I've written a lot of poems about my ancestors - I'm fascinated by family history - and sometimes you get a story that's passed down by oral transmission - you're not quite sure who the person was, or exactly where it was set - you just know that it's somebody in your family and that's the case with this episode. I've called the poem 'The Russian War' which was what the people apparently referred to the Crimean War as, so it's looking back to the Crimean War in the 1850s.
The Russian War
Great-great-great-uncle Francis Eggington
came back from the Russian War
(it was the kind of war you came back from,
if you were lucky: bad, but over).
He didn’t come to the front door –
the lice and filth were falling off him –
he slipped along the alley to the yard.
‘Who’s that out at the pump?’ they said
‘- a tall tramp stripping his rags off!’
The soap was where it usually was.
He scrubbed and splashed and scrubbed
and combed his beard over the hole in his throat.
‘Give me some clothes,’ he said. ‘I’m back.’
‘God save us, Frank, it’s you!’ they said.
‘What happened? Were you at Scutari?
And what’s that hole inside your beard?’
‘Tea first,’ he said. ‘I’ll tell you later.
And Willie’s children will tell their grandchildren;
I’ll be a thing called oral history.’
from Poems 1960-2000 (Bloodaxe Books, 2000), copyright Fleur Adcock 2000, used by permission of the author