Veterans' Day

JSA Lowe

Nov 14, 2011

"In Flanders fields the poppies blow / Between the crosses, row on row½."
I memorized this poem as a schoolgirl; many of us did and still do. To me at the time it seemed evocative and tragic:
"We are the Dead. Short days ago / We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow½."
Yet now it seems so tame and mannered, so precisely metrical and true-rhyming, divorced in its formal elements from the ugly destructive senselessness of battle. I think of the red plastic-and-fabric remembrance poppy you can buy in Britain for Armistice Day, available at every till and corner by putting a pound coin in a tin. On that day red poppies flare on coat lapels everywhere, in a country still marked and marred by the world wars, where people can tell you stories about grandparents who served. A few days ago, Glyn Maxwell's tersely moving piece on the Ivoy Gurney poem "To His Love" reminded me of the tradition of war poetry in English. If you spent any time on social media this year, on Veterans Day you might have noticed people paying more attention to the date (11/11/11--numbers which would have pleased James Joyce) rather than the fact of its being a holiday. Let's redress that by paying attention to a few war poems--some equally as famous as John McCrae's, some less well-known, but each more or less about the gritty, unprettified experience of being a soldier. "Break of Day in the Trenches" by Isaac Rosenberg (1890-1918) Poppies appear in this poem, too; but they are plastered white with the dust of combat, not bloodily red. Paul Fussell called Rosenberg's lyric "the greatest poem of the war"--where "the war" means The Great War, as it once seemed inconceivable there should ever be another as horrific. Rosenberg's voice here is cynical and sardonic, straight from the trench; it doesn't flinch from the violence deferred from the bodies of the soldiers into the earth and sky themselves. The poem's intelligent speaker manages to find a bitter amusement in the rat's survival and its "cosmopolitan sympathies," even in the darkness of "the bowels of the earth."
The darkness crumbles away. It is the same old druid Time as ever, Only a live thing leaps my hand, A queer sardonic rat As I pull the parapet's poppy To stick behind my ear. Droll rat, they would shoot you if they knew? Your cosmopolitan sympathies. Now you have touched this English hand You will do the same to a German Soon, no doubt, if it be your pleasure To cross the sleeping green between. It seems you inwardly grin as you pass Strong eyes, fine limbs, haughty athletes, Less chanced than you for life, Bonds to the whims of murder, Sprawled in the bowels of the earth, The torn fields of France. What do you see in our eyes At the shrieking iron and flame Hurled through still heavens? What quaver--what heart aghast? Poppies whose roots are in man's veins Drop, and are ever dropping; But mine in my ear is safe-- Just a little white with the dust.
"Dulce Et Decorum Est" by Wilfred Owen (1893--1918) I've been teaching this poem for years, reciting it for many more, and the ending never fails to give me chills--it's such a perfect, hair-raising melding of formal strategies and pure unadulterated acid. Owen has composed a sort of run-on sonnet, with that single couplet in the middle of the poem right where the speaker himself falls apart, shaken out of form by the recurrent figure of the gas-poisoned soldier, so that we get "drowning" twice. The last octet's being written in the conditional, as a long "if½then" sentence, adds propulsion and momentum to the conclusion, as do the jagged, jangled metrics. I defy you to read it aloud and not get a picture of "my friend" that's entirely sinister and unflattering (and which may remind you of certain of our own elected officials).
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks, Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge, Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs And towards our distant rest began to trudge. Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind; Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots Of disappointed shells that dropped behind. GAS! Gas! Quick, boys!--An ecstasy of fumbling, Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time; But someone still was yelling out and stumbling And floundering like a man in fire or lime.-- Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light As under a green sea, I saw him drowning. In all my dreams, before my helpless sight, He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning. If in some smothering dreams you too could pace Behind the wagon that we flung him in, And watch the white eyes writhing in his face, His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin; If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs, Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,-- My friend, you would not tell with such high zest To children ardent for some desperate glory, The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est Pro patria mori.
"We Never Know" by Yusef Komunyakaa Komunyakaa's poem is lyrical in its simplicity and even more disturbing for this, as the reader one by one unravels each metaphor into its real image. By the time we get to the place where the poet says as much, we too have fallen in love. What does the title mean? What kinds of things do we never know--about each other, about the work we do?
He danced with tall grass for a moment, like he was swaying with a woman. Our gun barrels glowed white-hot. When I got to him, a blue halo of flies had already claimed him. I pulled the crumbled photograph from his fingers. There's no other way to say this: I fell in love. The morning cleared again, except for a distant mortar & somewhere choppers taking off. I slid the wallet into his pocket & turned him over, so he wouldn't be kissing the ground.
"The Performance" by James Dickey I still remember where I was and what I was doing the morning I read this poem, so astonished by the last two lines in their terrible loveliness. Does the poem capitalize inappropriately off of Donald Armstrong's bleak death, or does it memorialize the shining grace of a young man literally cut down in his prime? Dickey has an Audenesque gift for enjambing nouns and adjectives together in unexpected, illuminating ways: "untrustworthy air," "glittering grave." I never want this poem to be as beautiful as it is.
The last time I saw Donald Armstrong He was staggering oddly off into the sun, Going down, off the Philippine Islands. I let my shovel fall, and put that hand Above my eyes, and moved some way to one side That his body might pass through the sun, And I saw how well he was not Standing there on his hands, On his spindle-shanked forearms balanced, Unbalanced, with his big feet looming and waving In the great, untrustworthy air He flew in each night, when it darkened. Dust fanned in scraped puffs from the earth Between his arms, and blood turned his face inside out, To demonstrate its suppleness Of veins, as he perfected his role. Next day, he toppled his head off On an island beach to the south, And the enemy's two-handed sword Did not fall from anyone's hands At that miraculous sight, As the head rolled over upon Its wide-eyed face, and fell Into the inadequate grave He had dug for himself, under pressure. Yet I put my flat hand to my eyebrows Months later, to see him again In the sun, when I learned how he died, And imagined him, there, Come, judged, before his small captors, Doing all his lean tricks to amaze them-- The back somersault, the kip-up-- And at last, the stand on his hands, Perfect, with his feet together, His head down, evenly breathing, As the sun poured from the sea And the headsman broke down In a blaze of tears, in that light Of the thin, long human frame Upside down in its own strange joy, And, if some other one had not told him, Would have cut off the feet Instead of the head, And if Armstrong had not presently risen In kingly, round-shouldered attendance, And then knelt down in himself Beside his hacked, glittering grave, having done All things in this life that he could.
"Friday Night, FOB Cobra" by Hugh Martin A former classmate of mine, Iraq veteran Martin seems to write straight from his experiences, without filter, using a laconic military tone that you could easily mistake for artlessness. They're deceptive, such poems; you read them and think, I could have written that--unless you're foolish enough to try. In this poem Martin's men cook, lift weights, decorate their gear, take care of camp, and above all talk smack, in exactly the way homesick soldiers almost certainly do. Another friend who served in the Persian Gulf has spoken to me eloquently of the crashing boredom, long uneventful nights with only that simmering undercurrent of threat. Per Milton, they also serve who only stand and wait.
1. Smith, shirtless, curls forty-pound dumbbells, veins burst, worms over biceps. The curls are part of his plan for home: a sex life. 2. On burn detail, Ritchey stirs shit with a metal rod, asks Carter--standing back with a smoke--Doesn't it make you hungry? 3. Jones' brother sent him a twelve-pack of Ultra Sensitive LifeStyle condoms. The box reads: almost like wearing nothing at all. He cuts it out, tapes it to the front of his flak vest. 4. Sergeant Thompson has been in so many fights, there is no cartilage left in his nose. In line for the phone, he shows us: bending it like an ear with one finger, flat against his cheek. 5. Kellerman's wife divorced him over e-mail. 6. When asked why his hands are so hairy, Kenson says, with a cup of coffee and a ball of wet Copenhagen bulging beneath his lip, I ain't a fuckin' girl. He sips four pots a day, changes the grinds once a week. The coffee tastes of steam and heat. 7. In Tower Ten, Stevens discusses mutual funds, interest rates. He says a young guy like me might spend all his money on a bike, truck, a house. He's taking his wife for a cruise, investing the rest, and that's what you do with money. 8. On marriage, Perry says, It ain't like that. You think you just walk in the door, and she hands you a beer, gives you a blowjob. It ain't like that, he says. Just wait, it ain't like that. 9. Ski boils water in a canteen cup, adds ramen, slices of expired Slim Jims. He discusses the meaty juices, how the heat sucks them out. This meal is sacred. 10. Sprinkling hot sauce over cold, boiled potatoes, Dempson talks about reading the paper, the names of the dead. All of us know he's slept with ninety-seven women. After we finish our food, he tells us about one.