Friday, September 9, 2016

Elizabeth Jennings: "The Enemies"

Here is a strange, enigmatic poem by Elizabeth Jennings, a poet of whom I know nothing.  I shall have to do some digging around.

The Enemies

Last night they came across the river and
Entered the city.  Women were awake
With lights and food.  They entertained the band,
Not asking what the men had come to take
Or what strange tongue they spoke
Or why they came so suddenly through the land.

Now in the morning all the town is filled
With stories of the swift and dark invasion;
The women say that not one stranger told
A reason for his coming.  The intrusion
Was not for devastation:
Peace is apparent still on hearth and field.

Yet all the city is a haunted place.
Man meeting man speaks cautiously.  Old friends
Close up the candid looks upon their face.
There is no warmth in hands accepting hands;
Each ponders, 'Better hide myself in case
Those strangers have set up their homes in minds
I used to walk in.  Better draw the blinds
Even if the strangers haunt in my own house.

-- Elizabeth Jennings --
from Penguin Modern Poets: I

Who are the invaders? 

What is the role of the women here?  Why were they "awake/With lights and food?"  Why didn't they ask any questions of the invaders?  Did the women invite them?

Who are the enemies?  Who are the real enemies?

The last stanza suggests that the men, assuming that the term "man" is not a generic term that refers to both men and women,  now fear their neighbors more than they do the invaders.  How has this come about?

Is this a "feminist" poem?


  1. marvelous poem. i don't think it's meant to be feminist (i wonder when this was written?), but it could be, nevertheless... i'm leaning toward some kind of prejudicial phenomena, involving fear... could be anything from the great depression to the house of unamerican activities(HUAC); some sort of general miasma affecting the entire population. it has a certain lovecraftian or poeish sense to it...

    1. Mudpuddle,

      It was written in the 1950s, according to one source. She was an English poet, 1926-2001. Written in the 50s might suggest the Cold War in particular and mistrust of people in general.

    2. Mudpuddle,

      What struck me was the difference between the women's and the men's reactions toward the "strangers," as the women refer to them.

  2. Fred: in the first stanza, "the band" is mentioned. so it sounds like Jennings is referring to a platoon, or some sort of organized group. it's confusing, because later, in the morning, whatever it is has spread everywhere... and the moving into minds phrase and drawing the blinds... very strange and i haven't a clue...

    1. Mudpuddle,

      Yes, that's how I saw it, a group of more or less organized invaders.

      I wonder if the "invading band" is actually an idea or a fear or an attitude of some sort something like a fear of extremist Islamic terrorists pouring over the border.

    2. the Korean war? or maybe it was in reaction to the just starting cold war; i remember practicing hiding under my desk at school from a possible atom bomb attack (a silly business, but we didn't know much then, and i guess they had to do something); or maybe it really was the house unamerican activities commission which instilled fear of communism in the country right about then; that arch bad guy, McCarthy...

    3. I remember under the desk too. I always suspected this was teacher "get even" time, keeping students under the desk a little longer than necessary, or maybe being unnecessarily strict about positioning -- hogtying the student.

      "Duck and Cover" was about flying debris. No one had any illusions about what would happen to people (and students) near the blast, but further out flying debris (e.g. glass) could be deadly when the bast itself was not.

    4. I also remember the desk drills, but I never saw them as "get even" time. It was scary though, as I grew up in Chicago and knew that we were a primary target.

    5. I grew up on Long Island but was either too young or too immature to worry. I was never concerned about the Cold War or a nuclear war. I'm actually more concerned today. With all the expansion teams playing in the game I wonder what each player's nuclear launch protocol is. Seriously! Think about it! What does it take for an accidental launch or for a seriously deranged individual to start WWIII? Is it like the Star Trek self-destruct protocol that requires more than one concurrence? What can a nuclear submarine commander do? This is what we don't worry about enough.

      But I digress. I can remember teachers laughing at our discomfort. Yes, I can.

    6. Shadow Flutter,

      Guess I burned out during the Cold War. I don't see these times as frightening as back when the US and the USSR confronted each other regularly.

      Perhaps it's because those threats never materialized into a world catastrophe that I now view confrontations with China (a long-time foe), North Korea, Iran, whathaveyou, with more equanimity than back then, still disturbing but not to the extent it had been..

  3. Mudpuddle,

    Perhaps just a generalized fear of the stranger which the politics of the time fed into?

    Still don't understand her point about the difference in response to the "invasion" between the women and the men.

  4. Mudpuddle,

    Might do a bit more digging around and see if anyone has posted some thoughts on this.

  5. The women were awake (waiting?) with lights and food and were entertaining to the invaders who are men. This sounds welcoming. But it may be resignation/acceptance/sacrifice. Peace is uninterrupted, yet the city is haunted, and the men are forever changed.

    It's as if the men of the town, expecting the invasion, sent the women out to meet and entertain the invaders while they hid somewhere. It worked. Peace abides. Yet it didn't work, not really. The city us haunted (with memory? Of decisions made?). Is that closed up look on the men's faces a result of shame?

    Old Testament overtones?

    1. Shadow Flutter,

      Could it also be fear of the future, a change that is invading the town?

    2. Yes, Fred, for sure. But the invaders are men. They may come with ill-intent or with a new idea or with the offer of a new future, but the invaders are all men, and their presence possibly threatens the men already there. There is a reason why the women (are left to meet) the invaders, while the men of the city are absent and possibly in hiding. The women are to entertain the invaders but ask no questions. Reminds me of several passages in the Old Testament in which the husband turns his wife into a peace offering to hostile outsiders.

      The next day we are assured the invaders meant no devastation -- at least physical devastation -- yet the change to the city, especially the men of the city -- is palpable and looks like a kind of psychological devastation.

      This can be about the future, a new idea, or cultural confrontation. Mass migrations and wars were the most effective methods of cross-cultural fertilization. But such changes come with winners and losers, and al most everyone is affected, victor and loser alike.

    3. Shadow Flutter,

      Doesn't one example occur in Abraham, and doesn't Lot offer his daughters to the crowd in place of the visiting strangers?

      I agree that while there appears to be no physical devastation or deaths resulting from the invasion, it seems clear that there is already a psychological devastation.

  6. According to Wiki, Jennings was an Oxford graduate and resident, a Roman Catholic, and a writer who once experience severe mental illness... it's a short, fairly uninformative article; further research might reveal more clues...

  7. Mudpuddle,

    Yes, I read that article and wasn't really that happy with it. Need to do some more extensive digging about.