Poetry Friday: Armistice Day 2016

The years roll on, and take their toll.  I come to this day a little wearier each time.  I have less to say, other than to trot out the familiar phrases—my unease with American jingoism on holidays like this one, where we pretend that the day is to honor the brave and not the fallen, to exult in the nobility of war rather than to lament its destructive wrath; then, more sadly, something pious and humble and mostly true about what the memory of those long dead, especially the dead from the Great War whose hallowed day this November 11th was from the very beginning (and will always be, to me), means to someone born many decades later.  You can click on the Veterans Day tag and see the rest, if you like.  I hope the collection of my reflections and each year’s poem or poems brings you solace, or solemnity, or anything fitting the occasion.

But that’s more than enough from me: as always, I yield the floor (and will not comment afterwards) to a poet who knew the horrors of war.  This is the final section of Alan Seeger’s “Ode in Memory of the American Volunteers Fallen for France”, written in 1916.  It has been a century, Alan.  Young American volunteers still die—not for France, but for other nations the world over, for causes that (however they seem to us at our safe remove) must have seemed good to them.  May we honor their memories as you do.  May we end the wars and bring them home before next year, for their sake, and their families’.

“There, holding still, in frozen steadfastness,
Their bayonets toward the beckoning frontiers,
They lie—our comrades—lie among their peers,
Clad in the glory of fallen warriors,
Grim clustered under thorny trellises,
Dry, furthest foam upon disastrous shores,
Leaves that made last year beautiful, still strewn
Even as they fell, unchanged, beneath the changing moon;
And earth in her divine indifference
Rolls on, and many paltry things and mean
Prate to be heard and caper to be seen.
But they are silent, clam; their eloquence
Is that incomparable attitude;
No human presences their witness are,
But summer clouds and sunset crimson-hued,
And showers and night winds and the northern star
Nay, even our salutations seem profane,
Opposed to their Elysian quietude;
Our salutations calling from afar,
From our ignobler plane
And undistinction of our lesser parts:
Hail, brothers, and farewell; you are twice blest, brave hearts.
Double your glory is who perished thus,
For you have died for France and vindicated us.”

Poetry Friday: Good Friday 2015

As is my custom on two or three Christian holidays in the year, I share today a poem that I think has particular resonance for me in the context of an important day to my faith tradition.  I have tried, as usual, to select a poem that I think will speak to people from other traditions, or having no particular connection to faith at all—in fact, this Good Friday, my poem is not particularly Christian at all.  And in talking about it, I’ll try to say some things that I think might resonate with anyone, in addition to things that may make sense only to other people in my broadly-defined community of faith (and probably one or more things that make sense only to me).  For today’s poem, I’ve picked the work of a very well-regarded poet from the Pacific Northwest (my neck of the woods)—Tess Gallagher—specifically a short poem she wrote entitled “Wake”:

“Three nights you lay in our house.
Three nights in the chill of the body.
Did I want to prove how surely
I’d been left behind? In the room’s great dark
I climbed up beside you onto our high bed, bed
we’d loved in and slept in, married
and unmarried.

There was a halo of cold around you
as if the body’s messages carry farther
in death, my own warmth taking on the silver-white
of a voice sent unbroken across snow just to hear
itself in its clarity of calling. We were dead
a little while together then, serene
and afloat on the strange broad canopy
of the abandoned world.”

Gallagher’s poem is clearly referencing, on one level, the death of her husband, the famous author of short stories, Raymond Carver.  But I think the emphasis on three-ness, especially the three days dead, are adding an intentional layer of Christ imagery that I’ll talk about later on, which may explain why something about this poem catches hold of me today in particular.

There’s a loveliness to this poem on so many levels, despite the deeply sad setting and what I think are obviously very raw emotions for Gallagher even as she looks back at these days from a distance.  One of the things that draws me in is the ambiguity of the language: are the three nights “in the chill of the body” a reference to Carver’s three days lying in state?  Or is it Gallagher whose days are caught in the “chill” of this cold form, incapable of tearing herself away?  Is her proving she’s been “left behind” a reference to her keeping his body in the house, or is her climbing into bed a strangely inverted way of proving this, creating the most intimate of moments in order to prove to herself that intimacy has been lost?  Even the poem’s title is a cipher: a prosaic reference to this as a kind of “wake” like that practiced in many communities (often Catholic families, I think?), a shouted admonition to herself to snap out of the dark reverie she is in, a hopeless plea to her lost love to turn this eternal sleep into something more human and temporary?  The way we take these little moments certainly affects the way the poem delivers its message—and in some ways alters the message itself entirely.

For the non-religious—and for those people of faith whose beliefs about the world do not encompass the idea of a personal afterlife or resurrection—it seems to me the poem is mainly intended.  It offers a vision of death that is, however remote and in some ways unsettling, more a traveler’s passage than a snuffing-out, yet without giving in to any impulse to describe where the passage takes us or what that means.  Carver, lying there dead, can still for a time inhabit his house and his marriage-bed, cold but still bodily present.  Gallagher feels her life drawn out of her into something spare and far away—the icy beauty of that field of frost, and her voice going out via his body into some vast, echoing space.  But that drawing out is not terrifying to her: in a way, it comforts her, as she and Carver go those first few steps into death together.  Somehow grieving and dying become one in that placid image of them afloat and at peace, like lilies in a springtime pond, like cosmic bodies gently adrift in the universe.  The world sinks beneath them and yet simultaneously bears them up.  It is abandoned but not empty.  It is a strange place to which Carver no longer need accommodate himself, and to which Gallagher will return changed, once she rises from that cold embrace.  There are only a few non-religious or areligious poems that give me a sense of death’s inhuman loveliness, and this is one of them (Swinburne’s “Garden of Proserpine” is another).  I hope that, whatever it means to you, it provides you with a sense of comfort about that ultimate frontier to which all of us are borne.

Today, of course, for someone identifying as a Christian (as I do), contemplation of death is particularly important.  What it means to die, and what it might have meant for someone undying to, inexplicably, die.  What it means if death is no longer an end, but instead the opening of a doorway into some other place.  To me, there is more comfort in the poem than Gallagher herself may see or have intended.  She forces herself to recognize the death of a loved one by staying with him far past what a medical professional would deem “the end”.  She responds to death with love, and does not even deny the physical connection between her and her absent husband, wrapping her arms around him one last time.  I think of the cold form of a broken man being carried down from the hill of execution.  Based on the accounts we have, we think most of his friends were gone, but that some few still remained.  His mother was there.  Did they hold him close, any of them?  Did Mary wrap her arms around her dead son and wonder why the angel had lied to her, promised her a triumphant redeemer and yet delivered only a man condemned by his own people to die in ignominy?  Did John, the disciple he loved, wonder where love could go when the loved one passed into death’s arms?  When the enigmatic Joseph of Arimathea lifted the body to place him in a rich man’s tomb, did he remove his fine robes and rings first, to better feel the chill of a fallen Messiah’s stopped blood just once before rolling a stone between them?  I wonder.  Surely they felt, in their own ways, a grief as deep and profound as Gallagher’s.  That night, after lighting the Sabbath candles, I wonder if any of them lay quietly in bed, arms out and face upwards, envisioning themselves adrift and calm on death’s waves with the cold form of Jesus nearby.  I hope they did.

For resurrection to mean anything to a church founded on it, we have to confront death, I think.  Certainly, for me, if I don’t really engage with what it was like that Good Friday evening, that Holy Saturday morning and all that long afternoon, Easter morning feels superficial, excessively cheery.  Whatever it means to rise again, first we must fall into that cold, dark place, in order to feel the rising.  I am glad for poems like Gallagher’s that remind me how to look with both eyes at death and not rush past it into whatever comfort the ideas of new life and Heaven bring.  Christianity is often tarred with the brush of being too glib about death, too quick to see “oh, but Heaven will be wonderful” as an excuse for all Earth’s sorrows.  I think there can be truth in that, and I want to avoid it for myself, if I can: I am grateful to Gallagher, and all the other writers who have walked right up to the edge of death and peered into it, for helping me see humanity and mortality with clear eyes and a serious heart.

Poetry Friday: In memory of grandparents

It’s time to dust off the old blog, begin anew the consideration of literature, America, and how those two massive entities tug me in their gravitational fields as I encounter them.  I’m settled in enough at my new university to feel I can begin reading Upton Sinclair again, and start talking poetry here on Fridays again.  So consider this the blog’s sixth or seventh rebirth—hopefully with some staying power.  Today, though, I won’t be picking out some great poet of days gone by, and if you come here for something more polished today, you might want to look elsewhere on the Internet for a great poet.  This is one more personal Friday, one more chance for me to impose a little of my own verse on you, and perhaps you’ll enjoy it, or at least it will give you something to think about.  Saturday is my grandmother’s memorial service, and we’ll be commemorating both her and her husband, my grandfather, who died several years ago, before I moved to Chicago, and never had a formal service.  Today we drive across the mountains to be able to join the family for the occasion.  Grandma’s loss is still too recent for me to have set down any thoughts about it in verse form—I don’t know if I ever will, but if I do, surely they’ll make their way here someday.  But I do have the poem that saying goodbye to Grandpa Olander brought out of me, several months after his passing.  So I offer it today as my meditation on loss and love, on Grandpa and Grandma, on the world as it is and the world as it will be—as always, with my own work, I won’t comment in the post itself, but I’m happy to talk about it in comments if anyone cares to do so.  This is “Penn Cove Thanksgiving”, by James Rosenzweig:

The Thanksgiving after my grandfather dies,
my wife and I drive to his cabin.
A crisp blanket of snow surrounds us
on the drive up—
hems us in with its white glory,
but the roads are not icy.
We have an easy journey.

The last stretch of road is familiar to us—
we walked it arm in arm, once,
a decade ago,
the night we first saw that
two friends were going to fall in love,
at last.

That was a mild May evening.
It is full of frost air now.
The woods are ominous.
The world is going into the dark
and will not return again.
Not the same world.

We are slowly unpacking the car,
preparing to trudge our way to the front door,
when she stops.

“Look,” she says, and points out
at the deck illuminated by our headlights.
We walk forward together,
our eyes aimed downward
as she shows me the tracks left in the snow.
Unfamiliar small footprints—
they belong to a creature neither of us can name,
so we follow them, our breath swirling around
and behind us in visible clouds.

On the deck the tracks swirl and loop
in chaotic patterns, until a single trail
of prints leads away westward
and stops.
“A bird”, we both say,
but we remain motionless for a moment.

We are standing in a place
where something living broke free from the earth
into the open sky,
or else in a place where,
unimaginably,
a life traded the unbounded expanse of the air
to walk where we do,
leaving strange prints on the frozen earth,
intersecting itself with us for reasons we cannot guess.

We return to our bags and boxes,
we pack ourselves into the cabin and sleep.
The next morning we watch the prints on the melting snow
as they darken, soften, and vanish.

It is Thanksgiving morning.
We will be full today.

Poetry Friday: Rupert Brooke

W. B. Yeats called Rupert "the handsomest young man in England"...and it's not hard to see why.

W. B. Yeats called Rupert “the handsomest young man in England”…and it’s not hard to see why.

Returning, as I am semi-regularly, to poetry in connection with the 100th anniversary of World War I—an anniversary that does not loom large enough in our popular culture right now (at least, I think we could learn a lot from reflecting on it, and we seem not to be)—coming to Rupert Brooke was more or less a necessity.  The first WWI poet I ever featured on the blog (a poem posted for Veterans Day 2009), Brooke is the archetype of the World War I poet—a bright young thing, sent off to war with glorious notions about valor and duty, writing a few beautiful poems that express some deep truths about his experience and then dying a tragic young death in some gas-filled trench.  Except that almost none of that is true of Rupert Brooke, who lives in the imagination (when he is remembered) a life he didn’t exactly live in real life.  Today I want to reflect on a lovely sonnet by Brooke but also to consider how myth and truth come together to form images that our society will accept.

First, then, a quick reality check about Brooke—he’s usually talked about as though he was one of the many teenagers rushing off to war, a perception made easier by the fact that his poetry (for all its charms) comes across as a bit naive, the sort of thing a man might write before his twentieth birthday.  But the Rupert Brooke who headed off to the Great War was in his mid-twenties, an associate of a very “adult” and artsy crowd in BloomsburyLytton Strachey was a romantic rival of his, at one point, and while at university Brooke once went skinny-dipping with Virginia Woolf; Brooke was a man of the world by the time the war came, possibly a father of a child born to a Tahitian woman who had known him during his travels in the South Seas.  The glory, valor, and duty part?  Oh yes, we can give him that.  But we can’t fill in the rest of the story—unlike many other famous poets of the war (Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen, etc.), Brooke does not become disenchanted with those starry-eyed ideals once he encounters the blood and darkness of combat in the trenches.  He will not, in fact, see any meaningful combat at all—no trench will color his writing about the war, and his death (untimely though it was, and tragic) occurs far from the battlefield, as Brooke perishes of a mosquito-borne infection in a hospital ship in the Greek islands.  He will be buried there in haste before his regiment moves on to the assault on Gallipoli: I wonder what the sweet, golden verse of Brooke would have made of that living nightmare.  We will never know.

So again, Brooke wasn’t the ideal “World War One poet” as far as his biography goes.  But the verse he left behind is more than worthy of remembering, and here at the beginning of September, with the trenches (for the most part) not yet dug in the fields of France in 1914, I think it’s time to give him the floor again.  This is one of the five poems in a series of sonnets he entitled “1914” and wrote sometime in the autumn of that year—two of the sonnets, oddly, have the same subtitle, “The Dead”.  This is the latter of them, the fourth sonnet in the cycle of five, and I think perhaps his best work.

“These hearts were woven of human joys and cares,
Washed marvellously with sorrow, swift to mirth.
The years had given them kindness. Dawn was theirs,
And sunset, and the colours of the earth.
These had seen movement, and heard music; known
Slumber and waking; loved; gone proudly friended;
Felt the quick stir of wonder; sat alone;
Touched flowers and furs and cheeks. All this is ended.

There are waters blown by changing winds to laughter
And lit by the rich skies, all day. And after,
Frost, with a gesture, stays the waves that dance
And wandering loveliness. He leaves a white
Unbroken glory, a gathered radiance,
A width, a shining peace, under the night.”

Brooke composes a sonnet in praise of the war dead that, as I suggested earlier, is free of any of the realities of modern warfare.  But it is undeniably beautiful, and I think there are truths here to grapple with regardless.  Look at those almost effortless opening lines—presenting the dead to us as though carving them in monument.  The dead are strangely alive in Brooke’s hands—marvelous in sorrow, swift to laugh.  He comforts us by weaving an image of life that makes death bashful to show its face.  For who can dwell on the awfulness of death in the face of this joy?  Time itself is a kindness to all who have had the gift of life.  Each human shares in the possession of light and life that beams in on us from the sky and erupts around us from the fertile ground.  Each moment of their living is something to wonder at, for Brooke—that there should be music to hear, sleep to comfort ourselves with, friends to cheer us, somehow all of it is amazing to him, and therefore by extension to us.

He executes the turn then, with the last half of the eighth line, “all this is ended”, and it is so abrupt and unexpected, we think we see where the sestet will go—the sonnet is turning from life to death, we feel instinctively, and brace ourselves for it.  But there is a pause and a rush of air and we find something else.  The commotion of human life is ended, but Brooke seizes on that, not to lament, but to pull backwards and appreciate this immense, vibrant space in which this life took place.  Humans are entirely absent from this second half of the sonnet: instead, the light and laughter have moved on from human contexts and into the waters and winds.  The frost freezes them in appreciation of the magic of the dance, holding immobile, at least for the moment, water in the midst of the wind.  What else he does, as winter approaches, is to leave something else incredible “under the night”, some physical presence that Brooke sees as peaceful and glorious and overflowing with light.

Few soldiers could have written this even several months later; truthfully, Brooke could hardly have written it himself past mid-1915, given both the likelihood that he would have died at Gallipoli and the likelihood that a man who survived Gallipoli would be able to write something this impersonal and idealistic afterwards.  But there’s something I like about it—the sense that the immense splendor of the earth compensates us in ways we can hardly calculate for injustices that we may face along the way, the reality that no human death stops wind or wave and that therefore all life does go on, even when we do not.  This is a commonly anthologized poem and it’s not hard to see why.  To the extent that this obscures the grim reality of war, and makes it seem so noble and significant that it encourages our politicians to be cavalier about conflict, I’ll criticize the poem.  But tonight it’s more important for me to appreciate it—to step back and ask myself where I can draw joy from unexpected places in my life, and how moving out away from human cares can provide real clarity about how to care more effectively.  Whether it calls you to that or not, I hope it engages with you, on some level, and provides insight into our place in a lively and busy world.

Poetry Friday: The Great War begins

So it comes—a century ago, now, Germany, claiming that necessity and self-defense alone drove them to such a dire strait, invades neutral Belgium en route to the fields of northern France, and the nations of the earth are almost all drawn in with them to a worldwide conflict.  We might be tempted to think that, 100 years later, we are wiser somehow—that we would not be susceptible to the same mistakes and irresistible urges.  But there is always a new nation to claim its hand is forced—to see in the eyes of its neighbors only threat and not the possibility of peace—and a new population of innocents to be trampled by the machinery of war as one army races over them to find the foe beyond.  Much as I think the Germans can fairly be blamed for a lot of the factors that led to the Great War, France cannot be set aside as innocent in the coming of that conflict, or the rest of the Great Powers of Europe, for that matter.  But the people of Belgium, especially the folk of its little villages and fields whose only sin was a desire to remain in their home and to defend it against any who would try to harm them—their innocence is unchallengeable, I think, and so those who died in the Flemish fields deserve a special remembrance.

So this Poetry Friday, in their honor and in honor of all innocents who are killed when nations go to war with reckless hands, I offer a poem by a favorite author of mine who is not particularly well known as a poet, but who always wished to be one—one of the great figures of English literature in the Edwardian era, Gilbert Keith Chesterton.  Here is G. K. Chesterton’s poem, “The Wife of Flanders”, written in the voice of a woman of Belgium addressing a German soldier standing before her:

“Low and brown barns, thatched and repatched and tattered,
Where I had seven sons until to-day,
A little hill of hay your spur has scattered. . . .
This is not Paris. You have lost the way.

You, staring at your sword to find it brittle,
Surprised at the surprise that was your plan,
Who, shaking and breaking barriers not a little,
Find never more the death-door of Sedan

Must I for more than carnage call you claimant,
Paying you a penny for each son you slay?
Man, the whole globe in gold were no repayment
For what you have lost. And how shall I repay?

What is the price of that red spark that caught me
From a kind farm that never had a name?
What is the price of that dead man they brought me?
For other dead men do not look the same.

How should I pay for one poor graven steeple
Whereon you shattered what you shall not know?
How should I pay you, miserable people?
How should I pay you everything you owe?

Unhappy, can I give you back your honour?
Though I forgave, would any man forget?
While all the great green land has trampled on her
The treason and terror of the night we met.

Not any more in vengeance or in pardon
An old wife bargains for a bean that’s hers.
You have no word to break: no heart to harden.
Ride on and prosper. You have lost your spurs.”

Chesterton is never a subtle writer, which can limit the effectiveness of much of his poetry, but here I think it works for him, both because the subject calls for bold strokes and because, under the circumstances, the blunt and direct voice of the speaker is perfectly consistent with how that woman in that moment might talk to someone else.  You can hear the crack in her voice from the beginning, the sad, wry observation that this army before her is a lost one—lost in the technical sense that her little Flemish town is not “on the way to Paris” by any real stretch of the map, and lost in the much more profound moral sense that, in seeking to do battle with their true foe, they have stained themselves with killing they can never wash clean.  The German before her, seemingly sent to seize property or gold or supplies from her farm as spoils of war, has some decency—he looks down at his sword, he is perhaps ashamed of himself, or at least embarrassed by this woman’s fearlessness in challenging him.  But decency is not enough to suit the occasion.

What, she asks, is Germany’s due in all this—what did she and her family, smaller today than it was not long ago, owe them?  Is Germany really going to plunder Belgium for materials and supplies, in addition to slaughtering her youth?  She reduces that vast scale of plunder to the personal and gut-wrenching, the notion that she is being forced to pay them a penny at swordpoint, as though she owes one coin for each murdered son.  And then she turns the tables again, since we expect her to say that nothing could ever repay HER for the loss of her sons, but instead she tells the German that nothing will ever be able to repay HIM for what he has lost by killing.  Chesterton lets her speak directly to the soldier’s inmost being, the soul that now carries a burden it cannot unload, the heart that will be heavier forever.  And she breaks that sentiment over him again and again, like the waves of a fathomless ocean, repeating incessantly that nothing she can give will free him from the chains he made for himself, that no amount of largesse will wipe out the memory of what these conquering boots have shattered.  Even her forgiveness—a gift so substantial and unlooked-for that we almost cannot imagine her extending it, and yet she raises it as a possibility—would not be enough to give the German soldier back what he threw away so heedlessly.

She will not bargain with him, not spend another word in castigating him for his sins or absolving him in impossible mercy.  There is no man left, she suggests, to deal with—“no word to break: no heart to harden”, she tells him, nothing to hurt or heal or help.  There is a bitter laugh in that last line, as she says “ride on and prosper”, because she’s already made it clear in every possible way that he will never find peace again.  Some violations cannot be undone; some cuts go too deep.

I don’t want to suggest that the Wife of Flanders (and/or Chesterton, if we assume he agrees with her) has the only way of looking at this situation.  I’m a great fan of mercy, myself, and forgiveness, and even in such terrible times I think they can hold immense power.  But she’s right to cast things as she does, I think—to argue that she has only lost the lives of those she loves, precious and priceless as they are.  The German soldier, standing before her, has lost something about himself that is even more terrible to lose, and more devastating to live with.  That poisonous effect of violence, working its way insidiously into everything about us, is what the 20th Century’s best minds grappled with.  There’s a reason men like Gandhi and Dr. King rejected violence even in the service of a good cause: they understood what it did to a person, how it malformed and scarred them, even under the best of circumstances.  As Joshua learns in WarGames, when it comes to war between the nations, the only winning move is not to play.

That’s not to say I think all soldiers naturally bear the scars the Wife of Flanders describes—obviously there are particular realities about Germany’s conduct in Belgium that made German soldiers particularly responsible for something particularly reprehensible.  But we cannot be too careful in what we choose to do, or endorse, as nations inch towards war—war leaves no one unharmed or unstained.  We have to remember the terrible price even the victor carries away from the field.  I’ll be looking at the works of some excellent Great War poet soldiers in the weeks ahead, because their perspective is key also, and tells us about a side of life the Wife of Flanders cannot give to us.  But I thought starting first with the civilian perspective was the right thing to do, and it’s her voice that I want with me as I look at war, both in the past and in this present hour, to ask what it costs, and who will pay that cost.

Poetry Friday: Poem of the End

I’m immersing myself in the violent world of a century ago—reading Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August about the summer of 1914 when the world sped headlong into war, reading Upton Sinclair’s Dragon’s Teeth (Yes, gentle reader! There will be a Pulitzer novel update post soon!) which, despite its setting in 1930, is very much consumed with the question of what led to the Great War of 1914-1918 and what it meant—and then of course at the same time, because I am alive and human and I want to learn about what it means to be those things, I am reading news online about the violent world around me, both close to home and far from it.  The death of passengers in a Malaysian airplane, the death of so many, including so many innocents, in the Middle East as Gaza erupts in blood, and the deaths of young people on the streets of Chicago in the violence that each summer brings and we seem unable to diminish, despite our efforts (I will not call them “best”: I don’t think we’ve given an effort worthy of that adjective yet).  And Friday comes and I’m supposed to select a poem that says something about something.

I’ve been looking at the poetry of 1914.  A lot of it is from August and later, the world changed by war, and I’ll get to them.  Many of them are exquisitely moving.  But for now I’m thinking of exactly a century ago, as the peoples of Europe held their breath in the long July that stretched between Ferdinand’s death in Sarajevo and the German army’s assault through the Low Countries.  So I don’t want to use the poems of war yet, and then on the other hand all these things on my mind make it hard for me to take the easy way out and pick up a short poem from one of Robert Frost’s collections, say, that appeared in 1914.  So you get “Poem of the End”.

“Poem of the End” appeared in 1914, or so my sources claim—some say it came out in 1913, but in either case I think it captures the mood I’m grappling with, and the tension of that Europe just before the war began.  It’s the work of a Russian poet named Vasilisk Gnedov, a futurist and experimental poet who pushed a lot of boundaries.  He published a collection entitled Death to Art, a series of poems that get progressively shorter and shorter.  You’re probably wondering by now why I’m blathering on about this when I normally just give you the text of the poem.  Well, the last poem in Death to Art is simply the title, “Poem of the End”, and a blank page.

If this reminds you of other famous works—maybe music lovers will especially think of John Cage’s 4’33”—I think that’s fair.  But I think there’s also something distinctive about this work.  When Gnedov performed it, supposedly he would simply walk on stage, announce the title, make a gesture with his hand, pause for some length of time, and then sit down.  Different observers recorded the gesture differently, so it’s not clear to me if the gesture was intended to be difficult to interpret, or if Gnedov simply changed it for different performances.  Each description makes it sound somewhat violent—a hand thrust suddenly up over the face and then dashed away from it, or a hand making a slashing motion first one way and then another, etc.—and deliberate.

This may be silly poetic posturing, of course, the kind of performance art that gets mocked more than it ever actually gets undertaken by a performance artist.  You may think it very silly for me to offer it to you today, and I may be.  But something about “Poem of the End” spoke to me tonight.  If I may attempt to interpret Gnedov, or at least to make him speak to how I feel today and how the world looks, both in his time of 1914 and ours of 2014, here’s what I see.  I see a poet acknowledging that there is a boundary to what our words can encompass and address.  There is a threshold beyond which it’s hard to see what art can do, other than to stand before us in silence and ask us to examine what is left when the words fall away.  A quiet man, poised on a stage, moves with suddenness and then nothing follows—we expect to be given some meaning to engage with, and instead find ourselves left with only our thoughts and the context around us that we’ve been ignoring in order to attend to our art.  Is it cheeky to print a blank “Poem of the End”?  Of course it is.  But what other poem will suffice to show us what an ending means?

I hope that the world is full of more beginnings tonight than endings, of more hope than despair.  But there is no denying that these past days and weeks have seen too many voices silenced forever, unfairly and before their time.  Gnedov offers us this gift tonight—a space without words into which perhaps those voices can speak.  May we listen well.

Poetry Friday: The Approach of War

Tomorrow marks a century since the Yugoslavian nationalist Gavrilo Princip fatally shot Archduke Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie—the violent act was precipitated by Austria’s long occupation of the Slavic territories surrounding Serbia, and of course it then precipitated the maneuvering of the Powers of Europe until, in August, the guns rang out and what they then called The Great War (and what we would, many years later, call World War I) commenced.  The shadow of that war still hangs over us—World War II and all its aftermath are really dominos toppling in a chain leading back to the Triple Entente and the Triple Alliance, to Versailles and the carving up of the world.  Today, in Iraq, ISIS and the Kurds and the Maliki-led military forces are clashing over a fictional idea that was created by World War I, namely the idea that Iraq, a melange of faiths and ethnicities and national peoples, is a single country that can be ruled by a single government.  Like Kevin Bacon, the Great War unifies all 20th and 21st Century conflicts—it’s hard to point to any war since then that is not connected, usually in only one or two moves, to what began in the streets of Sarajevo on the 28th of June.

As we go through the next few years of 100th anniversaries of key moments in that conflict, I know I’ll reflect from time to time on the poetry of that war.  Most of the Pulitzers I’ve reviewed so far have been impacted in some way by WWI, and some have been explicitly interested in it (His Family and One of Ours, especially).  My current Pulitzer novel deals with families forged in that war.  So reflections on it, and on what the writers at the time made of it, are part and parcel of the long ongoing project here in which I try to make sense of my nation and its art.

Some of the Great War’s poems have already been featured here at one time or another, often on November 11th when I observe Armistice Day.  I haven’t decided yet whether to return to any of them for a second look.  For now, there’s plenty of unused material to work with, beginning with the verse written in this time of anticipation, when war was beginning to seem inevitable but no one yet could anticipate what that would mean.  This summer, the summer of 2014, starts to feel that way with the news out of the Middle East—I hope I am wrong about that.  Certainly, though, whether or not my country goes again to war, there are millions of people caught up today and for the foreseeable future in a war zone in Syria and Iraq.  I think of them as well as of us, when I suggest that it’s time for us to consider this century’s history of war, and what we are to make of it.  This is “Channel Firing”, written in that tense summer of 1914 before the war began, by Thomas Hardy:

That night your great guns, unawares,
Shook all our coffins as we lay,
And broke the chancel window-squares,
We thought it was the Judgment-day

And sat upright. While drearisome
Arose the howl of wakened hounds:
The mouse let fall the altar-crumb,
The worms drew back into the mounds,

The glebe cow drooled. Till God called, “No;
It’s gunnery practice out at sea
Just as before you went below;
The world is as it used to be:

“All nations striving strong to make
Red war yet redder. Mad as hatters
They do no more for Christés sake
Than you who are helpless in such matters.

“That this is not the judgment-hour
For some of them’s a blessed thing,
For if it were they’d have to scour
Hell’s floor for so much threatening…

“Ha, ha. It will be warmer when
I blow the trumpet (if indeed
I ever do; for you are men,
And rest eternal sorely need).”

So down we lay again. “I wonder,
Will the world ever saner be,”
Said one, “than when He sent us under
In our indifferent century!”

And many a skeleton shook his head.
“Instead of preaching forty year,”
My neighbour Parson Thirdly said,
“I wish I had stuck to pipes and beer.”

Again the guns disturbed the hour,
Roaring their readiness to avenge,
As far inland as Stourton Tower,
And Camelot, and starlit Stonehenge.

Hardy begins where this tale will inevitably end—in the grave, among the dead, who are the nameless collective first person throughout this poem.  They are uneasy in their rest because of the thundering cannons that echo through the churchyard, the sound of naval gunnery practice as Great Britain’s dreadnoughts prepare for the war that is to come.  All nature is disturbed, it seems—the images in the second stanza are of a world knocked a little from its moorings, insecure.

God’s sudden appearance is strange for anyone who knows Hardy: his cynical atheism is at the heart of a lot of his work, and I’ve even explored it a little in a previous Poetry Friday post.  But the cynicism remains even with the arrival of the Deity.  He reassures the dead that it’s not the last trumpet—only the thudding of guns.  A line like “the world is as it used to be” is in one sense soothing, but of course in context it’s also deeply depressing: the dead are being consoled by the simple fact that war and killing remain a major human preoccupation.

I’ll admit, I think the central portion of the poem is weakest for me—the attitude is too easy, too predictable, as God deplores the waste of all this energy on blood and death, and suggests that these folks are lucky it isn’t the Second Coming, since they’d all be doing hard time in Hell for their sins (although why God thinks any delay will change that, under the circumstances, isn’t really clear).  I do like the dryness of God’s laugh “Ha, ha”, not a giggle or a chortle but that flat, open-mouthed laugh that blasts out of you when you can hardly believe what you’re seeing.  It’s a rueful laugh, and it’s followed by a much sharper observation than the previous stanzas—that humanity is in such dire need of “rest eternal” that God’s considering just not waking anybody up, ever, and dispensing with this whole “glorious return” and “renewing of the earth” business that prophecy associates with the judgment day.

And the poem continues to improve, for me, after God’s exit: one of the dead, very naturally, asks if any of the centuries to come will bring a more peaceful era in human history, a better time than the days these sleeping souls once knew.  The bones rattle as the corpses demur—no, they suggest, humanity is on some level unimproveable.  The dead parson laments wasting his time on those sermons, the fruitless words cast out like seeds on rocky soil, doomed not to take root.  Better, he thinks, to have spent his days in a little private pleasure, a little smoke and alcohol to while away this mortal life.  And then that last great stanza as though the camera pulls suddenly back—no, “pulls” isn’t violent enough a word, the camera shoots backward like a fired munition—as we watch the thunder of the gunfire echo inland to Stourton Tower (associated with the “first” English king, Alfred the Great), then Camelot (deeper into the mythic past, and the legendary Arthur), and lastly to that monument under the starlight, the mute trilithons of Stonehenge.  Peering farther and farther back in time, Hardy finally quiets down: he shows rather than tells us that we cannot see back far enough to an age before war, and implicitly invites us to imagine the long, bloody road ahead.

Channel Firing is not the most moving of the Great War’s poems, in part because it is written before the war itself begins.  Hardy cannot yet know or draw on the agony of the trenches, the mad waste of a generation mowed down by machine guns and clouds of mustard gas.  And because it’s grounded in Hardy’s trademark depression, it does seem to weigh us down with its burdens—there is no suggestion that war can be averted, or that humans have any real role to play other than as pawns in this never-ending cycle.  But I see it as valuable, in part because I think it challenges me to argue with the poem, to suggest that there is a side to humanity it does not see.  And in part because I think it reminds me how real these truths are about the human condition, that to fight and die is deeply ingrained in us, and that it will take more than kind intentions and a pledge not to forget to get us off of this course we’re on.  The men and women who survived this war swore it would be the last such conflagration.  They sent their children to die, again, 25 years later.  I don’t think we should be fatalistic, but Hardy demands that I be realistic—when the dead hear the guns again, they will need to hear a better argument than I yet have, if I’m going to convince them that, this time, the cycle will be broken.