As I prepare to embark on a new Pulitzer novel—1943’s Dragon’s Teeth, by Upton Sinclair—it’s time to embark on 1943’s poetry, as well. We’ll start with a short one this week, and a poem written under unusual circumstances. Leo Marks was a young British cryptographer working on encryption as a part of the war effort: he missed the cut to get into Britain’s now-famous (then, of course, top secret and unknown) Bletchley Park code team, but found work elsewhere in the military. Marks was one of the first cryptographers to develop and use the incredibly secure one-time pad cryptographic method: I’ll leave out the details (reading about cryptography is one of my many weird habits), but the long and short of it is that one-time pad cryptography works because the code is created using an encoding document that is unique. Unique pads, though, are incredibly difficult to generate, so the British were taking a less secure shortcut: they’d have an agent memorize a poem or two, and use the poem as the key to a cipher that would ideally be very difficult to decode. The Germans, however, learned to crack those simply by looking through poetry anthologies and adopting a “trial-and-error” approach. So Marks resorted to writing his own poetry for the purpose, sending agents out into occupied Europe with original poetry of his own devising, which would force the Germans to use much slower and more complicated methods of decryption and increase the agent’s chances of operating undetected.
Today’s poem, then, is one Marks wrote for a purpose—a weaponized poem, we might almost call it, and yet it is a strangely personal poem. Marks could easily have written little ditties about flowers and springtime, since artistic achievement was irrelevant to his purpose, but instead it seems he was willing to be forthcoming about himself…honest in the way that poets are honest. This is a poem he ended up entrusting to Violette Szabo, a French woman working for the British behind enemy lines who was ultimately captured, tortured, and killed by the Nazis. He wrote it after the death of his girlfriend, a young woman named Ruth, who had died in a plane crash in Canada, half a world away from Marks. So here’s a poem that fought the Nazis, a work inspired by a Canadian tragedy, written by a British intelligence officer, and smuggled across the channel into the hands and mind of a French woman who gave her life in defense of her country. This is “The Life That I Have”:
“The life that I have
Is all that I have
And the life that I have
The love that I have
Of the life that I have
Is yours and yours and yours.
A sleep I shall have
A rest I shall have
Yet death will be but a pause.
For the peace of my years
In the long green grass
Will be yours and yours and yours.”
Marks writes a poem that is not initially all that complicated—simple words, almost the simplest, really. Not a word of the poem takes up more than one syllable, and there probably isn’t a word here that would be unfamiliar to a first grader. But the depth of feeling here is real, I think. At first it seems like a love poem you would write for someone still living: Marks is dedicating his life to her, he is giving himself to her. It feels like the kind of thing someone might say as a part of their wedding vows, or might whisper on bended knee as a way of preparing to ask for a wedding. The intimacy is too close, almost, for me—I feel I have opened the door on a moment no one else should witness, I am profaning somehow the sanctity of that pure love by eavesdropping like a village gossip.
The poem opens itself up, I think, as some of the phrases turn out to be more complex than they appear at a distance. “The life that I have is yours” is easy enough, but what is “the love that I have of the life that I have”? Is he talking about the love in his life? The love he feels in his life or the love others feel toward him? Is it how he loves his life? And what, in any case, does it mean that this love is “yours and yours and yours”? There is something so generous about this kind of self-emptying, because it does not feel remotely self-deprecating. This isn’t the kind of sacrifice someone makes when they feel worthless. This is the kind of sacrifice we make when we discover something beyond value, something whose worth we could not begin to calculate.
The third stanza is just a little too trite for me—we’ve heard other poets, better craftsmen and craftswomen, tackle the notion that death is only a sleep, that we have the hope of waking in another world, and a better. But then the fourth stanza breaks over us again with that complexity. Is “the peace of my years in the long green grass” him talking about his death, his burial in a cemetery? Or the long life he will have without her, sunny days and picnics in the park, a life lived fully and not cut short like hers was? And again, in either case, what does it mean for that peace to be “yours and yours and yours”? I feel I understand him implicitly, and I have absolutely no way of translating it directly.
This is a beautiful little poem, and I don’t want to overanalyze it. It strikes me not only as a fine start to 1943, but also as a nice poem for Valentine’s Day weekend, if any of us are in the mood for talk of real love in the neighborhood of a holiday that beats us over the head with a prepackaged notion of what it looks like. Love can come from a pink card, I know—from the dozen roses and the heart-shaped box of chocolates that make their appearance on doorsteps across the nation. But it also comes from heartbreak and sorrow, from the shaking pen of a 23 year old who has lost a woman he loved and who worries he may yet lose his country, from a poem tucked inside the coat of a woman who will go to her death bravely. I hope it strikes you as the right poem to ponder this weekend; it’s certainly given me plenty to think about.