Watching the Sky journalist, Colin Brazier, picking through a suitcase at the crime scene / crash site of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 in eastern Ukraine was the grimmest reminder of our fascination with the relics. Sadly, nothing changes much – back in 1815, Lady Caroline Lamb was in the first wave of tourists to descend, vulture-like, upon Waterloo. She wrote to Lady Melbourne that ‘The great amusement at Brussels, indeed the only one except visiting the sick, is to make up large parties & go to the field of battle – & pick up a skull or a gunshot or an old shoe or a letter, and bring it home.’
As the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo approaches, Jo Field’s (no relation) The Anglesey Leg finds an engaging way to present the battle and its aftermath – through the story of the 2nd Earl of Uxbridge’s prosthetic leg. In modern warfare, the high-tech carbon fibre prosthesis is an icon of rehabilitation, which resonates with the Anglesey Leg. Its movements were controlled by kangaroo tendon strips and it was advertised commercially until 1914.
The breathless first poem, Waterloo, balances order and chaos. Enjambement pushes the poem forwards and Uxbridge, like Chronos, is the master of time: ‘Saddle-leather clamped between his thighs / he spurs the hours forward.’ Although not strictly an equivocal word, ‘hours’ can be pronounced as ‘horse,’ making Uxbridge, the man in the saddle, absolute master of his destiny. Even the horses’ fear is concealed and controlled as ‘Again and again / they come, led skittering on their toes / or planting their heels / to brace themselves in elegant levades.’ The levade, a speciality of Vienna’s ‘Spanish’ Riding School, suggests that training, which allows soldiers function on the battlefield, masks fear and brutality with ritual. Like Alice Oswald’s Memorial, Field strips this mechanism away as Uxbridge loses his leg with an arresting, domestic and practically Homeric simile: ‘As a new mother might watch that part / of her which is her dead child / borne away.’ In Second Opinion, the black humour of Field’s title delicately suggests Uxbridge’s shock at the loss of his leg, as if the amputation were a matter for debate. The poem’s lines taper to a brutal point: ‘Sir Hussey’s examination of the thing / is brief, but thorough enough. / He is able to confirm / that it is better / off.’ The sequence’s ninth and final poem, The Last Leg, swings from right to left: ‘ So what / is left?’ perhaps because Uxbridge lost his right leg and would have to lead with his right, swinging out from his good left, permenantly out of step with the British Army’s ‘eft, ‘ight. Field’s line, seeming to answer its own rhetorical question, comes to rest on the left, on Uxbridge’s good leg. However, after the stanza break, the poem leads again from the right with the surprising ‘ Nothing / of flesh and blood’ as ‘back home in Plas Newydd / there is one empty half // of Hussar trouser // and a Potts limb, made of wood // maintained behind glass / in battle-ready order.’
At 16 pages, The Anglesey Leg is short but Jo Field packs so much in. These are purposeful poems and remind us that celebrity culture, ghoulish relic collecting and the nature of war have remained unchanged for 200 years. Waterloo feels a little closer in 2015, not further away.