August 20, 2011
I cleaned the house this morning. It’s stinking hot outside and the house isn’t all that dirty, but cleaning is the only antidote for the combination of melancholy and anxiety that hangs over me as I await the appearance of my book. It’s due out in September. I don’t know what to do with myself, and despite my resolution not to waste the intervening time, I feel like I’m spinning my wheels.
As I swore and grunted my way through the vacuuming it struck me that none of this would be happening if sixty-nine years ago today my great uncle Howard McTavish had not set out with five thousand other Canadians to the shores of Dieppe and met his death.
The raid did not bring victory, and victory certainly did not bring peace to the world. When the war ended, another set of problems cropped up to take its place, and another, and another. The headlines today are about the troubles in Syria, our economic roller coaster, and a suicide bomber in Afghanistan. Still, I’m sure that as my great uncle prepared himself and his men for battle, he told himself he was doing it for me — or at least for my generation. He hoped that over a half century later a woman in Canada might have the luxury of complaining about dust bunnies and lamenting the end of a summer she never quite allowed herself to enjoy. He would also have wanted me remember him.
And I do — because, back in 1942, my grandmother, Mona Gould heard about her brother’s death, along with the families of over a thousand other men. She was a poet, and turned to her craft to make sense of the event. The result was “This Was My Brother,” which several months later appeared in newspapers across the country as part of a campaign for victory bonds. It is reprinted in schoolbooks and anthologies to this day.
There were many illusions propagated about the Dieppe raid, not only in the news, but years later, in Mona’s living room. In grooming me for a literary life, she told me that writing the poem had been cathartic for her. It was her triumph, as Dieppe had been Howard’s. Yet her bloated, alcoholic body said everything her words did not: she was in terrible pain.
My own life has been fortunate, compared to Mona’s and that of many other people; still I’ve seen enough trouble to believe that trauma never really goes away. Writing about it means revisiting it and – often – reactivating the pain. I used to think that Mona enjoyed the attention she got from the poem, but lately, I’ve started to wonder if it was a drug just like whiskey. It poisoned her, even though she could never get enough.
Still, there are real rewards to writing about trauma, and I think Mona experienced them when she saw the poem reprinted again and again through her lifetime. She liked to know that her brother’s death was not wasted. She felt passionate – once the war was over – about using it to put forward her pacifist message: make words not war.
In later years, when her eyesight was failing, I took care of permissions for Mona’s poetry. She wanted to see “This Was My Brother,” indeed, all her work, distributed widely, and for free. This was crazy; she was poor. I bargained for the best rates I could, yet on at least one occasion, royalty cheques were found stale-dated under her bed. Now with a Creative Commons license Mona’s poetry will be freely available, and she’ll have her wish. Here is the poem. Please read it and share it.