Water Chits: Denise Bennett, Indigo Dreams
Denise Bennett is a prize-winning poet, editor and teacher who runs poetry workshops in the local community. She has previously published a pamphlet and and two full-length collections. With several poems about famous ships and a poem about the Portsmouth blitz in 1941, there is a naval theme to Water Chits, her fourth collection, and a preoccupation with war.
One of the places where she gains inspiration for her writing is the National Museum of the Royal Navy. The poem from which the pamphlet takes its title refers to HMS M33, the only surviving gunboat from the first world war’s Gallipoli campaign, which is now berthed next to HMS Victory at Portsmouth dockyard. The poem is about the lack of water at Gallipoli and is one of a series that she wrote in a response to a letter written by a bandsman / medic in 1916:
I joined the band to play the flute
to chivvy the men to war –
but mostly I was lackey to the medic,
sent out with water chits;
scraps of paper with the words,
please let the bearer have some drinking water;
sent out to the lighter
to fetch the water shipped from Egypt.
The front cover of the pamphlet reproduces some of these words from a fragment of the original chit with the permission of the museum. Bennett’s words are unadorned, phrased in the way that the bandsman may well have spoken if he had been speaking to the reader today.
Poems written in response to art works – in particular Stanley Spencer, Jacob Epstein and Marc Chagall – give a sense of the history of the times in which they lived. One of Bennett’s strong points is the ability to conjure up the past with an attention to detail that makes these poems seem real to us now. In ‘Making Jam Sandwiches with Stanley Spencer’ we feel as if we are there in the hospital ward serving the tea to those wounded in war.
In other poems she draws inspiration from the Portsmouth City Museum and cathedrals. She also writes about events in her own life – a memory of playing in the garden as a child, Sunday afternoon flying a kite and, most poignant of all, a series of poems concerning the last days of her mother’s life.
The impressive poems about Edward Thomas are beautifully and sensitively written. Tinged with sadness, they avoid falling into the trap of being sentimental. Bennett knows how to use her words for maximum effect. In ‘Mrs Edward Thomas Speaks’ she ends with these telling lines of joy and then sadness:
That last Christmas we had was
so unexpectedly wonderful.
I dug a tree from the garden,
bought a new red dress, presents
for the children …
... Those last days, we could not
look at each other, the snow lay deep –
and at our parting, when I let him go,
he went singing into the frosty air.
These journeys into the past are well researched and put together. The universal themes of grief and loss, often set against the background of war, will resonate with many readers.