And You, Helen
Poet Deryn Rees-Jones and artist Charlotte Hodes have created a unique approach to the life of Helen Thomas, and through her to the women, and children, left behind by the fatalities of war. Helen Thomas was widowed when her husband the war poet Edward Thomas was killed at the battle of Arras in 1917.
On the centenary of the First World War this specially commissioned collaboration explores Helen’s loss, and the loss of all war widows, through poetry, prose and art. Rees-Jones’s sequence takes as its starting point Thomas’s only poem addressed directly to his wife , ‘And you, Helen’. Rees-Jones’s poem imagines Helen after Edward’s death, and is complemented by a meditative essay on the complexities of the relationship between the poet and his family, and on war, grief, marriage and bereavement more generally: a critical exploration through a personal lens.
Charlotte Hodes takes Rees-Jones’s touchstone for her own exploration of these themes through thirteen of her distinctive collages and prints, which extend her body of work about the changing position of women since the eighteenth century.
Review from the TLS
Deryn Rees-Jones’s original approach in And You, Helen is to offer a sustained reflec- tion on Edward Thomas’s poem of that name, from April 1916. The only poem he addressed directly to his wife, it is in some degree an attempt to acknowledge his treatment of her. Eleanor Farjeon, who loved him too, wrote of “his power to hurt”, and Helen’s two marvel- lous short memoirs, As It Was and World With- out End, in spite of their memorably bold assertion of her womanhood and sexuality, make it clear that he could be very difficult to live with, as he in turn found it difficult to live with others. Rees-Jones connects her own experience of widowhood with Helen’s in the two parts of this book – beautifully illustrated by the colourful and expressive collages of Charlotte Hodes. The first part is her own poetic response to the Thomas poem, the second a more extended essay, “Imagining Helen Thomas”. The poem, in its pauses, its sudden breakings-off and resumptions, con- veys the jagged, reiterative nature of grief, the ebb and flow of difficult feeling, as Helen nav- igates “the terrible shifting ocean of herself”. Even the children register this unsettling trauma as “A child mutters in the breakages of sleep”. The essay deals more explicitly with the biographical background to Thomas’s poem, the relationship, “Edward’s self-lacera- tion and melancholy” and his “cruelties”, but it is always aware of the difficulty of knowing what it was really like. In spite of Helen’s and Eleanor’s memoirs, “there is still something of
a mystery about her situation”. Rees-Jones writes, in an interesting formulation: “I ask myself, what do I need to know by imagining Helen?” and she cannot be blamed, given the opacities of that relationship, for not giving a definitive answer.
Nicholas Murray – TLS