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This review is taken from PN Review 270, Volume 49 Number 4, March - April 2023.

Cover of Poppy
Horatio MorpurgoPoppy, Joseph Minden (Carcanet) £11.99
Huge Dolls Get Mandolined

The paintings in Anselm Kiefer’s recent retrospective, ‘Pour Paul Celan’, centred around the large lead sculpture of a 1940s aircraft. Its wings were loaded with lead books, their pages marked with poppy heads on long stems, of the same metal. These unlikely book-marks were not a reference to poppies as the British might think of them in connection with war. They were a quotation from ‘Mohn und Gedächtnis’ / ‘Poppy and Memory’, an early poem of Celan’s in which this pair figure as inseparable antagonists rather than synonyms.

Joseph Minden’s collection goes potholing deep below the familiar surface of such imagery. ‘In 1960 / the Imperial War Graves Commission / changed its name’, as he baldly puts it, prefacing a story. In November 2010 a British delegation to China, led by Prime Minister David Cameron, was asked to remove the poppies they were wearing, as to their hosts these were ‘reminders of the Opium War’. The poppies were not removed.

What exactly do we remember through poppies and who is this ‘we’? Minden’s ‘Edwardian headwound… re-opens as a memorial in 1920’ to be used as a ‘hospital serving poppies… in the form of strong, forgetful tea’. Or again, remembrance is an ‘anaesthetic haze / spreading like spilt tea across the map of the world’.

Poppies have another British history. They supplied a ‘soft somniferum’ that Celan would have recognised – for De Quincey as for Sara Coleridge and her ‘nullifying cup / that terminates concern’. ‘There are no headstones for what is under the name’, Minden writes, ...

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