What Didn’t Happen

For this Understory Conversation, Lorna Dowell invites guest Lydia Fulleylove to talk about a poem from her new book.

St Rhadagunds

We never visited St Rhadagunds together,
although I lived so close. You never had the chance 
to say, Let’s go. We did not take the footpath to the sea,
past bunkers now grassed over, or point out
the concrete bases where the radar masts had stood. 
No bee orchids were seen along the cliffs.

We did not walk up the drive arm in arm,
nor idle in the sun. No butterflies drifted
through open windows, as if winter would never come.
We did not try to work out which room you slept in.
Your eyes did not light up. That was not your laughter.
You did not recall the dancing. We did not have that day.

Lydia Fulleylove, from Ampersand, Valley Press, 2022

Lorna Dowell: Before we start talking about this poem, I feel we ought to place it in the context of your new book Ampersand because, in a way, although this is a poem in its own right, it’s also part of a dialogue – something that came about when you found your mother’s war diaries.

Lydia Fulleylove: Yes, I found them about a year after her death and despite my initial excitement – and sadness that we hadn’t read them together when she was alive – it was at least a couple of years before I began to engage with them in any written form. What had particularly struck me was how lyrical her language was and how easily it seemed to slip into rhythmical couplets, and I began to explore this.

But it was through discussion with you, later, that I realised that this re-arranging of her words wasn’t being true to the diaries. It was more as if her entries – which often sound as if she’s talking intimately to an unknown reader as well as to herself – were prompting new poems from me, often about connected memories of my own. And, in a strange kind of way, the diary entries seemed to suggest particular structures or forms.

LD: I find your book a subtly complex weaving of past and present, because you’re looking back to a past (your mother’s) you didn’t know, as well as one that you shared, but all through the prism of your present awareness and life experience since. That said, ‘St Rhadagunds’ is an unusual poem in the context of Ampersand because most of the poems are about things that did happen. And this is all about what did not.

LF: Yes. My mother was a radar operator in the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force, and was posted at different stations along the south coast between 1942 and 1945. In the diary entry that inspired this poem she talks about being posted to St Rhadagunds on the Isle of Wight, not far from where I now live. She describes a holiday atmosphere during the nine days she was stationed there. She seems both intensely involved in the present, yet also aware that this brief interlude of ’eternal summer’ – feeling ‘as though they had all day’, with ‘room for the heart and mind to expand’ – is an illusion. She stands outside as well as inside the moment. And it was this which somehow brought me particularly close to her and made me want to respond.

LD: I feel that’s very much what you’re doing throughout Ampersand – having a live conversation with your mother, a continuing relationship. It reminds me of something Vic Pickup said in a Conversation with Charlotte, when she talked about words binding us and making it possible to connect ‘with a world of people both dead and alive’. There are lots of connections you make, ways in which you question and explore the relationship which creates a sense of ongoingness, so I wouldn’t say that it’s a sense of grief that predominates?

LF: No, the strength of her feeling about nature and her love of words and images are equally significant, and in turn I respond to those. I was aware – even in this poem – of what she would have loved, had we done that walk. The fusion of her diary entry and the writing of my poem brought home to me that sense of lost opportunity.

It was the phrase ‘as though they had all day’ which particularly caught my attention when I started to write this poem. Changing it to ‘that day’, the one my mother and I could have shared, underlined the poignancy of what we’d both lost – each of the many particular days, if that makes sense. Perhaps this poem, more than any of the others I wrote, is infused with my mother’s words, albeit in a different – minor? – key.

LD: Maybe that’s why I find the tone particularly sad, that minor key? To me it’s all about loss of an aching kind that’s hard to define because it’s the loss of something you never had. A loss of potential, perhaps…

LF: … which I could only realise, could only really feel by focusing on the detail.

LD: You convey this so well in the simple but sustained use of the negative to paint a picture of what might have been but was not. And because that picture is so detailed and realised, it makes us feel the loss or lack all the more. It also seems to carry an implicit weight – the fact that it was more than just that day that you never had?

LF: Yes. It was deciding to write it entirely in negatives that enabled me to begin and to explore the emotion or rather, perhaps, the emotion welled as I wrote it. The poem was then deceptively easy to write. What came home to me, as I worked through the diaries, were all the ways in which I had shut my mother out, particularly in my adult life, and/or been angry with her. I could so easily have given her – and myself – something which we might have shared. There was a kind of retrospective grief – as well as a sense of discovery.

LD: I think that’s what’s coming through in those hanging line breaks – the way they create an expectation and then enact a kind of let down as they drop to the next line: ‘You never had the chance / to say, Let’s go.’ Or ‘No butterflies drifted / through open windows,’ followed by the freighted ‘as if winter would never come.’ And then there’s the subtle way it seems to speed up at the end with that succession of short sentences, as if time’s running out. Something which, of course, we don’t necessarily realise then but only in retrospect. Hence the quietly mournful tone of regret? There’s also something haunting about place that seems key to this – a feeling of not being able to go there in more senses than one.

LF: Yes, I think this is one of only two poems in the book where we share a place known to both of us. Perhaps it comes close to feeling as if we’re inhabiting it together, sharply juxtaposed with the sense that this isn’t possible.

LD: And we do seem to go back to places to connect with people and the past, don’t we? But maybe, by writing about it, that sense of going back, both literally and metaphorically, is heightened and we can see things from a different perspective.

LF: I think that is what’s happening here. The sense of ‘going back’, which reading the diaries and writing my responses gave me, also showed me her vulnerabilities, her swings from exuberance to sadness, even depression – with which I identify. And I’m aware, here especially, of a kind of reflective awareness of the bigger picture.

LD: I’ve never responded poetically to a diary myself, but I have written poems in response to things like letters and conversations. It’s always seemed to be a way of revisiting events and saying the things I couldn’t say at the time. Although there’s a great sense of loss inherent in this – because you couldn’t or didn’t say or do these things when the person was alive – I wonder if sometimes it’s only possible do this after someone has died?

LF: The sad thing is that, given our particular personalities and family circumstances, I couldn’t have seen those connections and I don’t think I could have behaved differently… although you could say that there were also ways in which we were too alike! Place is always powerful for me, in reading and in writing poetry, and I think in writing this poem a kind of healing came about which wasn’t possible when she was alive. In talking to you about it, I’ve realised that it’s the key poem in the book – that this loss is central in the book – and that’s thanks to you choosing ‘St Rhadagunds’ for our Conversation.

LD: It’s so interesting, Lydia, that we began by agreeing that this poem is not necessarily representative of Ampersand as a whole and yet, in the course of this conversation, we’ve come to the conclusion that the tone of this poem is key to it! I suppose you could say, in that sense, it’s the tone to the Understory. I find it very poignant and sad in a way that resonates. Thank you for exploring it with me.