Valerie Jack

Poet and Playwright


submarine poem: 'Familygrams'

Posted by Valerie Jack on February 1, 2010 at 12:00 AM



1: Sally


Five boxes wide by eight,

two your rank and name,

two messages a week - one

mine, one for your Mum,

tucked brown in your locker

no grammar no commas no

complex feelings: dyed my hair

red got the job yay.


2: Carla


Great cracks, rats, these things

happen when you're at sea -

it's me who handles it.

Takes two weeks to knit

our lives together, third week's

lovely, by the fourth you're

out there in your mind,

I think just go then.


3: Shelly


My mother tried to make

me understand, but being lonely

wasn't in my world – I

grew up in a pub,

not this big north-facing house.

Let's next time say bye

at the door. I can't

wave off the boat again.


4: Viv


In a cold bucket of

water vibrating on torpedo tubes,

you wash your pants, try

to find an empty bed

still warm from the one

before you, you read this...

I try to see you -

are you still the same?


5: Anne


It gets tedious boxing up

my week, into the void.

But you ticked the box

saying no bad news thanks -

why would you want it,

down there? So silence would

mean bad news, but here's

my good news: no news.


6: Alice


You left a baby who

had trouble rolling over. You'll

find him on a chair,

standing, apron round his middle,

sleeves at elbows, washing dishes,

and won't believe your eyes -

not your son, standing, washing,

not our own magic trick!


7: Margaret


You'd be in a mess

of guys, the loneliest person

in the world - have to

break out the ballast brick

fruit cake I made to

stop the aching. That's how

I'm thinking of it now:

a long deployment, not dead.


Nuclear powered submarine operating under frozen water surface


Life aboard is often a life of prolonged separation from loved ones. This experience is lived at its extreme by Royal Navy submariners, who maintain the nuclear deterrent and submerge for three months at a time. The only communication these men receive is in the form of 40 word messages, known as familygrams. Because of the need to keep the sub’s position secret, the men cannot respond.


I wrote this sequence after discovering the interesting site, on which I listened to women’s accounts of what it is like to love a submariner. I may also extend this series to include familygrams from fathers/brothers/sons/boyfriends of submariners, and it would be interesting to imagine what the submariners themselves may be thinking and feeling but unable to communicate.


I have used an experimental form in this sequence, the reasons for which I hope are made clear by the first poem. If any one has any comments on this, anything else about the sequence, or any suggestions for future poems please write something here. Thanks!



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Reply mike
4:39 AM on January 31, 2010 
I really liked these, keep going! I found the first three particularly moving. The second one is just great.
Reply Elisabeth
2:32 PM on February 6, 2010 
I really like these as well. Very interesting idea and good execution. Not exactly upbeat, so fit your MO!
Reply Kirsten
3:38 AM on February 9, 2010 
I couldn't work out the first poem till I read your explanation at the bottom, but I get it now!

I like the way they are conversational but also lonely, a combination of letter and diary entry (because they get no repsonse). I wonder if these ladies ever talk to each other? Was there a WAGs club feeling for them?
Reply Vivienne
2:37 PM on April 12, 2010 
I very much enjoyed these, if enjoyed is the right word. It almost makes you think that it might be more difficult for the loved ones left behind to get on with their lives than for the submariner, who, we must assume has chosen this job because he has a total passion for the sea and silence. Poignant.
Reply Ridwan
12:48 PM on April 19, 2010 
Reply Subsam
3:44 PM on May 6, 2010 
Hi Valarie, Liked this, stirred up a few memorries.I will answer your questions as soon as I get 5 mins
Reply kevin wilkes
5:30 PM on May 8, 2012 
i am an ex submariner, michelle put your poem my way and I must say i am really touched by it, my wife knows exactly what you are trying to get across, well done
Reply Gary A
11:54 PM on October 13, 2015 
Great. I enjoyed. I understand. All I ever searched for in my life is Peace.
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