East Coker is a village in Somersetshire. In 1667, Andrew Eliot emigrated from the village to the New World, specifically the American colonies. A little more than two centuries later, one of Andrew’s direct descendants was born in St. Louis, and would grow up to write poetry. He would name one of his poems “East Coker, ” for the village of his ancestors. The poem was one of four “quartets, ” originally published individually as pamphlets in England during World War II. The four would eventually be published together in America under the title of Four Quartets.
The poet, of course, is T.S. Eliot, who is more associated with what we describe as “modernism” than virtually any other poet. (Other modernist poets include Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, Dylan Thomas and Wallace Stevens.) Modernism has much to do with the changes that wracked Western society and culture following the Industrial Revolution, the population shift from rural to urban areas, the scientific revolution, and World War I. Context had changed; culture had changed. Society was disjointed, a kind of “waste land, ” to use Eliot’s phrase, collectively suffering what we call today “post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).” People had become “hollow men.”
It is these modernist images from Eliot that we find embedded in East of Coker, a novella-length work by U.K. writer Andy Owen. The title is clearly inspired by Eliot, but changed just slightly enough to shift the focus to the east, to war, to wars in the Middle East specifically. For this is a contemporary interpretation of Eliot, applied to the aftermath of war, when the soldiers come home to deal with injuries, recuperation, and what will remain a part of them for the rest of their lives.
In fictional and almost poetic form, Owen is describing what has gone by such names as shell shock and battle fatigue but we know as PTSD. It’s a medical problem known across decades and wars, and it can manifest itself in a variety of ways: reliving the trauma, nightmares, hallucinations, detachment and isolation, avoidance of what reminds one of the trauma, excessive emotions, problems relating to people including loved ones, and outbursts. There is a sense that something is broken and can’t be fixed. In the words of the old veteran in East of Coker:
“April is the cruelest month. As the dull roots are bathed with April showers, so I want to bathe every vein in different liquor, to remain numb, to avoid stirring memories buried under the snow of time. As the world wakes from winter and rejuvenation is the theme, I am reminded of what I lost, what is still missing, what is no longer a part of me. I sit on the cold bench, old dry bones aching in the leaching sunlight.”
“April is the cruelest month” is the opening line from Eliot’s The Waste Land. East of Coker is divided into six prose narratives, five bearing the title of one of the sections of The Waste Land: “The Burial of the Dead, ” “A Game of Chess, ” “The Fire Sermon, ” “Death by Water, ” and “What the Thunder Said.” Owen adds a sixth and final section: “After the Rains Came.” Each narrator—the old veteran, his lost love, the younger veteran, an Iraqi wife who hates the Allied troops and her husband for helping them, and the old veteran again—tells a story. Each illustrates the impact of both individual and societal PTSD, of how a trauma like war changes everything forever.
Owen has written one other work, Invective, which is also about war, this one the war in Afghanistan. He writes with a knowledge of war and the military so vividly, at times the reader is right next to him, experiencing the same events. And he writes with a quiet beauty that is often simply stunning.
And yet East of Coker is ultimately hopeful, that lives can be renewed. One can’t pick up from where one left, but one can start a new life, a different life. The old veteran eventually sees that, as he reaches out to the lost love decades later.
Proceeds from the sales of East of Coker are given to the Shoulder-to-Shoulder Project in the U.K., which helps veterans and their families. Currently there are Shoulder-to-Shoulder Projects in London, Birmingham, and Scotland.
East of Coker is an extraordinarily fine way of using the poetry of T.S. Eliot in a way that I believe Eliot meant it to be understood. It is a worthy fundraising project. And a very moving narrative.
How to Read a Poem uses images like the mouse, the hive, the switch (from the Billy Collins poem)—to guide readers into new ways of understanding poems. Anthology included.
“I require all our incoming poetry students—in the MFA I direct—to buy and read this book.”
—Jeanetta Calhoun Mish