Sometimes we have to go searching for ideas when we are writing.
Sometimes they just drop into our laps, falling from unexpected places.
Like this one –
In WW2, Private Stan Herron (1914 – 1967) was captured by the Japanese, and sent to work with other prisoners on the Burmese railway. Prisoners were issued an undershirt. Stan did not wear his. Instead, he and his camp mates wrote on it with indelible pencil, signing their names, writing messages and drawing cartoons. Stan kept the shirt hidden from the Japanese soldiers under loose floorboards in the prison hut.
When the war finished, Stan returned to Australia, taking the shirt with him. Years later, his wife noticed the writing was fading, and embroidered over it. In 1974, the story of Stan and his wife stitching the shirt featured in an Australian newspaper. After Stan died, his wife gave the shirt to the Australian War Memorial museum in Canberra
I discovered this story in the early 2000s, through Stan’s sister-in-law in England. She was an old lady then, and treasured her furred, yellowing 40 year old newspaper cutting about Stan and the shirt. She often took it out to read it, and show it to friends and family. But she was worried the cutting would fall apart. She asked me to make a copy for her, so she could keep the original safe and show the copy to visitors.
It was such an intriguing, unusual story, it captured my imagination and I wrote this poem.
A Prisoner’s Shirt
The first stitch is the hardest.
Red is the colour I choose,
not the vivid, look-at-me red of uniforms
and poppies, but something more lasting,
a red that tastes of berries, of claret,
so that when people read these names
I am sewing over, they will stop
and remember the men they knew.
My embroidery needle, with its tail of red silk,
seems too fat, punctures the fragile fabric
but the second stitch holds hands with the first.
This is missionary sewing:
every stab of the needle matters.
This piece of cloth, this buff calico
sewn into a shirt by swift Japanese fingers,
was all there was between a captive man
and the wind in the Changi mountains.
Without it, his name would have been
a few deep cuts in marble.
This shirt is a cenotaph.
When it grew too ragged for the wind,
men with few words of a shared language
queued for a turn with an indelible pencil,
to write a piece of themselves.
Even indelible pencil fades.
So I sit in the brightest room
and sew until my fingers are pocked.
All I see is the faint black paths
for my needle to follow, my red stitches
mapping a route to lost places.
This poem won third place in the 2014
Kapiti Coast Libraries poetry competition.