Returning of issue is the sixth and final part of Henry Reed’s Lessons of the war cycle. Published two and a half decades after Naming of parts, it is in two voices, like the rest of the cycle, but they are difficult to tell apart. The recording of the poem on the Sole Arabia Tree web site (follow the link and scroll down to the bottom of the page) differentiates the two voices very nicely; it’s also a somewhat different version of the poem, and you may find the differences interesting. The version that you see here is the written one from the aforementioned site.
From a linguistic point of view, the most obvious (to me, anyways) thing going on in this poem is that Reed goes back to plays on the various meanings of the English word issue, and in the case of this poem–as opposed to his Unarmed combat–the sense of progeny is one of the meanings that he draws on, as the sadder parts of the poem are a dialogue with the trainee’s deceased father. Here are a couple of the relatively obscure items of vocabulary–scroll down past the illustrations to find the poem.
Reed, Henry. “Returning of Issue.” Listener 84, no. 2170 (29 October 1970): 596-597.
LESSONS OF THE WAR
VI. RETURNING OF ISSUE
Tomorrow will be your last day here. Someone is speaking:
A familiar voice, speaking again at all of us.
And beyond the windows— it is inside now, and autumn—
On a wind growing daily harsher, small things to the earth
Are turning and whirling, small. Tomorrow will be
Your last day here,
But not we hope for always. You cannot see through the windows
If they are leaves or flowers. We hope that many of you
Will be coming back for good. Silence, and stupefaction.
The coarsening wind and the things whirling upon it
Scour that rough stamping-ground where we so long
Have spent our substance,
As the trees are spending theirs. How much of mine have I spent,
Father, oh father? How sorry we are to lose you
I do not have to say, since the sergeant-major
Has said it, the RSM has said it, and the colonel
Has sent over a message to say that he also says it.
Everyone sorry to lose us,
And you, oh father, father, once sorry too. I think
I can honestly say you are one and all of you now:
Soldiers. Silence, and disbelief. A fact that will stand you
In pretty good stead in the various jobs you go back to.
I wish you the best of luck. Silence. And all of you know
You can think of us here, as home.
As home: a home we shall any of you welcome you back to.
Most of you have, I know, some sort of work waiting for you,
And the rest of you now being, thanks to us, fit and able,
Will be bound to find something. I begin to be in want.
Would any citizen of this country send me
Into his fields? And
Before I finalise: one thing about tomorrow
I must make perfectly clear. Tomorrow is clear already:
I saw myself once, but now am by time forbidden
To see myself so: as the man who went evil ways,
Till lie determined, in time of famine, to seek
His father’s home.
Autumn is later down there: it should now be the time
Of vivacious triumph in the fruitful fields.
As he approached, he ran over his speeches of sorrow,
Not less of truth for being much-rehearsed:
The last distilment from a long and inward
Discourse of heartbreak. And
The first thing you do, after first thing tomorrow morning,
Is, those that leave not been previously detailed to do so,
Which I think is the case in most cases, is a systematic
Returning of issue. It is all-important
You should restore to store one of every store issued.
And in the case of two, two.
And I, as always late, shall never know that lifted fear
When the small hard-working master of those fields
Looked up. I trembled. But his heart came out to me
With a shout of compassion. And all my speech was only:
‘Father, I have sinned against heaven, and am no more worthy
To be called thy son.’
But if I cried it, father, you could not hear me now,
Where now you lie, crumpled in that small grave
Like any withering dog. Your fields are sold and built on,
Your lanes are filled with husks the swine reject.
I scoop them in my hands. I have earned no more; and more
I shall not inherit. And
A careful check will be made of every such object
That was issued to each personnel originally,
And checked at issue. And let me be quite implicit:
That no accoutrements, impedimentas, fittings, or military garments
May be taken as souvenirs. The one exception is shirts,
And whatever you wear underneath.
These may be kept, those that wish. But the rest of the issue
Must be returned, except who intend to rejoin
In regular service. Silence. Which involves a simple procedure
I will explain in a simple group to those that rejoin.
Now, how many will that be? Silence. No one? No one at all?
I see. Very well. I have up to now
Spoken with the utmost of mildness. I speak so still,
But it does seem to me a bit of a bloody pity,
A bit un-bloody-feeling, after the all
We have bloody done for you, you should sit on your dumb bloody arses,
Just waiting like bloody milksops till I bloody dismiss you.
Silence, embarrassed, but silent.
And am I to break it, father, to break this silence?
Is there no bloody man among you? Not one bloody single one?
I will break the silence, father. Yes, sergeant, I will stay
In a group of one. Father, be proud of me.
Oh splendid, man! And for Christ’s sake, tell them all,
Why you are doing this.
Why am I doing this? And is it too late to say no?
Come speak out, man: tell us, and shame these bastards.
I hope to shame no one, sergeant, in simply wishing
To remain a personnel. I have been such a thing before.
It was good, and simple; and it was the best I could do.
Here is a man, men! Silence.
Silence, indeed. How could I tell them, now?
I have nowhere else to go? How could I say
I have no longer gift or want; or how describe
The inexplicable tears that filled my eyes
When the poor sergeant said: ‘After the all
We have bloody done for you’?
Goodbye forever, father, after the all you have done for me.
Soon I must start to forget you; but how to forget
That reconcilement, never enacted between us,
Which should have been ours, under the autumn sun?
I can see it and feel it now, clearer than daylight, clearer
For one brief moment, now,
Than even the astonished faces of my fellows,
The sergeant’s uneasy smile, the trees, the relief at choosing
To learn once more the things I shall one day teach:
A rhetoric instead of words; instead of a love, the use
Of accoutrements, impedimenta, and fittings, and military garments,
And harlots, and riotous living.