Hints of Sepia – My Great Grandfather

The sepia of the creased photo
hints at breath of ale and sweet tobacco
that clung to pipes lined up in a rack.
It echoes with the tock of a mantel clock
and the faster tick of a watch
tethered to his pocket by a brass chain. His moustache,
waxed and sharp, would prickle your face,
and his sergeant-major’s voice made you sit up straight
for a daily check: neck and hands had to be clean,
shoes shone like army boots, hair brushed like the bearskin
he kept with two brass shell cases, polished every day.
He cracked walnuts and dipped them in salt, the Indian way.
But inside his barrel chest wrestled gremlins of horror and fear,
and the unkept promise of death on the battlefields of the Great War.

Kim M. Russell, 25th May 2019

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My poem for Imaginary Garden with Real Toads Weekend Mini Challenge: Portraiture, also linked to Poets United Poetry Pantry

I’m hosting the mini challenge over at the Imaginary Garden this weekend with some examples of Seamus Heaney’s poetry. One of the things I love is the way he paints portraits with words.

Based on three examples of poems by Heaney, I have asked Toads to write a new poem, or revise an old one, which paints a portrait, which can be of someone we know or have known, a relative or a lover, or a stranger, someone interesting or unusual.

47 thoughts on “Hints of Sepia – My Great Grandfather

  1. This is such an accomplished poem, Kim! ❤️ I can really see him with his “moustache, waxed and sharp, and “brushed like the bearskin,” 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  2. The line about his mustache made me smile–it reminded me of grandfather. And the last two lines, well… you probably already know those to lines wrap around the chest of so many of us, wrap around our chests… and remind us not to forget.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. The most striking thing about this piece is how you started off with him as almost being a legendary being and by the end, remind us that even Achilles had a problem with his heel. The shifting view makes me think of the changes in the way we view the world when we are children and when we are adults.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Well done, Kim. For me there were echoes of Rilke’s “Portrait of My Father As A Young Man” — so precise in every military detail, a rigor which stands straight in the face of such an absolute horror at the Great War which eviscerated British society. Loved the scent of tobacco lingering in the pipes, reminds me so much of my father.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you, Brendan. I was four when he died; he must have been really old then but he was still a straight-backed,disciplinarian, I remember very clearly playing with his pipe cleaners and lining up the pipes in the rack.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much, Toni. I was four years old when he died but I remember him as being very strict, a little scary but also very cuddly. I know he put the fear of God into my grandmother and her siblings. He was also a publican – he had two pubs near the Old Kent Road in London, one of which was in Borougjh High Street, where my mother spent her early days upstairs, babysat by a dog, which fetched someone from the bar whenever she cried!. Sadly, neither pub exists now.


  5. Grandfathers are special aren’t they. Mine was a tobacco chewing pretty course fellow, who of all girls, he married a school teacher. You remembered and wrote of sooo many details. Good job with your prompt, I liked it too. I have six grandchildren, five greats, and one great great.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. This is so very real, Kim. Brought to mind mages of my dearly beloved grandfather, and also seemed to spring from the pages of a novel. Remarkable writing.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. I could smell the pipe tobacco and hear the ticking, a strong impression of the order and strength of your great-grandfather from the beginning.

    Liked by 2 people

  8. A powerful portraiture … eloquently rendered. Those closing 2 lines absolutely blew me away … quite unexpected and chilling (perhaps because of the intense believability … as we now know – this was/is so often the case for those who must go on, having borne witness to the horrors of war.)

    Liked by 2 people

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