Posts filed under ‘War Poetry’
Der Krieg wird nicht mehr erklärt,
sondern fortgesetzt. Das Unerhörte
ist alltäglich geworden. Der Held
bleibt den Kämpfen fern. Der Schwache
ist in die Feuerzonen gerückt.
Die Uniform des Tages ist die Geduld,
die Auszeichnung der armselige Stern
der Hoffnung über dem Herzen.
Er wird verliehen,
wenn nichts mehr geschieht,
wenn das Trommelfeuer verstummt,
wenn der Feind unsichtbar geworden ist
und der Schatten ewiger Rüstung
den Himmel bedeckt.
Er wird verliehen
für die Flucht von den Fahnen,
für die Tapferkeit vor dem Freund,
für den Verrat unwürdiger Geheimnisse
und die Nichtachtung
Translation (by Peter Filkins):
War is no longer declared,
but rather continued. The outrageous
has become the everyday. The hero
is absent from the battle. The weak
are moved into the firing zone.
The uniform of the day is patience,
the order of merit is the wretched star
of hope over the heart.
It is awarded
when nothing more happens,
when the bombardment is silenced,
when the enemy has become invisible
and the shadow of eternal armament
covers the sky.
It is awarded
for deserting the flag,
for bravery before a friend,
for the betrayal of shameful secrets,
and the disregard
of every command.
I’ve been reading a lot of Bachmann recently, having just got my hands on a 2006 edition of her Collected Poems translated by Peter Filkins and entitled Darkness Spoken.
What I love about this poem is the first stanza, which seems to me to encapsulate the essence of modern warfare, the way the horrors of violence are converted into just another television feature, how routine steadily numbs us to the brutality of the truth.
Thanks for the tree
between me & a sniper’s bullet.
I don’t know what made the grass
sway seconds before the Viet Cong
raised his soundless rifle.
Some voice always followed,
telling me which foot
to put down first.
Thanks for deflecting the ricochet
against that anarchy of dusk.
I was back in San Francisco
wrapped up in a woman’s wild colors,
causing some dark bird’s love call
to be shattered by daylight
when my hands reached up
& pulled a branch away
from my face. Thanks
for the vague white flower
that pointed to me the gleaming metal
reflecting how it is to be broken
like mist over the grass,
as we played some deadly
game for blind gods.
What made me spot the monarch
writhing on a single thread
tied to a farmer’s gate,
holding the day together
like an unfingered guitar string,
is beyond me. Maybe the hills
grew weary & leaned a little in the heat.
Again, thanks for the dud
hand grenade tossed at my feet
outside Chu Lai. I’m still
falling through its silence.
I don’t know why the intrepid
sun touched the bayonet,
but I know that something
stood among those lost trees
& moved only when I moved.
Anytime contemporary war poetry gets discussed, Komunyakaa’s Dien Cai Dau is bound to get mentioned, and with good reason. Direct and moving, Komunyakaa’s poems combine brutal honesty with fragile lyricism, offer us an insider’s view of the war that is stripped of all rhetoric, above and beyond all politics. Reading them, we find ourselves placed in the human center of a maelstrom of savagery, loss, courage and hope, searching for a tentative beauty that is snatched away even as we glimpse it.
Today’s poem is, I think, a good example of what makes Dien Cai Dau so powerful. With its litany of narrow escapes, ‘Thanks’ shows us how the constant awareness of death is the constant awareness of grace, how the true horror of war is the way it proves death arbitrary, “slave to Fate, Chance, kings and desperate men” (as Donne would have it) and how if we come to believe in a power that transcends us, it is because we are constantly aware of how frail the thread of our life is, and how little we have done to deserve to keep it intact.
Because they were prisoners,
because they were polite and friendly and lonesome and homesick,
because they said Yes, they knew
the names of the bombs they dropped
but didn’t say whether they understood what these bombs
are designed to do
to human flesh, and because
I didn’t ask them, being unable to decide
whether to ask would serve
any purpose other than cruelty, and
because since then I met Mrs. Brown, the mother of one of their fellow prisoners,
and loved her, for she has the same lovingkindness in her
that I saw in Vietnamese women (and men too)
and because my hostility left the room and wasn’t there
when I thought I needed it
while I was drinking tea with the POW’s,
because of all these reasons I hope
they were truly as ignorant,
as they seemed,
I hope their chances in life up to this point
have been poor,
I hope they can truly be considered
victims of the middle America they come from,
their American Legionnaire fathers, their macho high schools,
their dull skimped Freshman English courses,
for if they did understand precisely
what they were doing, and did it anyway, and would do it again,
then I must learn to distrust
my own preference for trusting people,
then I must learn to question
my own preference for liking people,
then I must learn to keep
my hostility chained to me
so it won’t leave me when I need it.
And if it is proved to me
that these men understood their acts,
how shall I ever again
be able to meet the eyes of Mrs. Brown?
It’s about time we updated this blog. And it’s about time we had a Levertov poem up on it.
I really like Levertov – at her best she’s one of the most stunningly lyrical poets of her generation. Today’s poem is taken from The Freeing of the Dust (1975) – one of her most political collections, featuring a whole series of ‘protest’ poems about Vietnam. Of these, The Pilots is easily my favorite, not so much because of its technical brilliance or the quality of its imagery (though it is a deeply eloquent poem) but because of the way it so perfectly captures the fundamental dichotomy between the abstraction of war and human reality of those who fight it, the way it’s so easy to hate War as an idea, and so much harder to condemn those who fight it in person. What do you say to the families of those killed fighting what you believe is a fundamentally unjust war? What do you say to the Mrs. Browns of the world, who are kind, generous and sincere human beings, and yet who take pride in the fact that their sons are out there attacking and killing innocent people?
The Pilots is set in Vietnam, but the questions it raises, the choices its narrator is faced with, remain (sadly) as relevant today as they were three decades ago.
Is all of this
sorrow? I don’t know.
I stood in the cemetery dressed in
the camouflage clothes of a living man: brown pants
and a shirt yellow as the sun.
Cemeteries are cheap; they don’t ask for much.
Even the wastebaskets are small, made for holding
that wrapped flowers from the store.
Cemeteries are a polite and disciplined thing.
“I Shall never forget you,” in French
on a little ceramic plaque.
I don’t know who it is that won’t ever forget:
he’s more anonymous than the one who died.
Is all of this sorrow? I guess so.
“May ye find consolation in the building
of the homeland.” But how long
can you go on building the homeland
and not fall behind in the terrible
between consolation and building and death?
Yes, all of this is sorrow. But leave
a little love burning always
like the small bulb in the room of a sleeping baby
that gives him a bit of security and quiet love
though he doesn’t know what the light is
or where it comes from.
[translated from the Hebrew by Chana Bloch]
What better way to end our series on War poetry than with Amichai? I could try summing up the theme, but I don’t need to. This poem says it all.
Coming up on Poi-tre: A Valentine’s Day Special and an Auden retrospective. Stay tuned.
C. K. Williams
(May 1970: Kent State, Jackson State)
I don’t want to hear anymore that the innocent farmer in ohio on guard
duty means well but is fucked up by his politicians and raises his
rifle out of some primal fear for his own life and his family’s and
that he hates niggers hates them hates them because he is warped and
deceived by events
and pulls the trigger
I’m sorry I don’t want to forgive him anymore
I don’t want to say he didn’t know what he was doing
because he knew what he was doing
because he didn’t pull the trigger once and run away screaming
they kept shooting the kids said
we thought they were blanks but they kept shooting and shooting
we were so scared.
I don’t want to forgive the bricklayer from akron who might or might
not hate his mother I don’t care or the lawyer or gas station
attendant from cleveland who may or may not have had a bad childhood
I don’t care
I don’t want to know
I don’t want to hear anything about it
another kid said the rocks weren’t even reaching them!
I don’t want to understand why they did it
how could you?
everything else is pure shit.
on the front page of the times a girl is screaming
she will be screaming forever
and her friend will lie there forever you wouldn’t know she wasn’t
just sleeping in the sun except for the other screaming
and on the editorial page
“the tragic nature of the division of the country…the provocation
undoubtably was great and was also unpardonable…”
o my god
if there was a way to purify the world who would be left?
there is a list
and it says
this person for doing this
and that person for doing nothing
and this person for not howling in rage
and that for desperately hanging on to the reasons the reasons
there is an avenger
who would be left?
who is there now who isn’t completely insane from all this?
who didn’t dream with me last night
of burning everything destroying everyone
of tearing pieces of your own body off
of coughing your language up and spitting it away like vomit
of wanting to start at the bottom of your house
breaking everything floor by floor
burning the pictures
tearing the mattresses up
smashing windows and chairs until nothing is left
and then the cars with a sledgehammer
the stores that sell things
the bridges into the city
the international harbors
the tall buildings crumpling like corpses
the theaters torn down to the bare stage
the galleries naked the bookstores like mouths open
there should be funerals in front of the white house
bones in the capitol
where do you stop?
how can we be like this?
The more I hear people drawing comparisons between the war in Vietnam and the current one in Iraq, the more I’m struck by one vivid difference – the lack of widespread public protest against the Iraq invasion. Never mind the opinion polls, where are the marches, the street protests?
I’m not alone in noticing this. In last week’s New Yorker, Adam Gopnik writes:
“One of the things that will strike future historians about our era is the placidity of American cultural life at the time of a wildly unpopular war – the unexcited alteration of American death and “American Idol” so different from the eruptions that attended Vietnam – that is a result of our not having to go there if we don’t have [want?] to.”
Today’s poem takes us back to 1970, to the time of those violent eruptions, to the massive outpouring of political outrage that once overflowed America’s campuses, and became the keynote of a generation that turned protest into a culture. It is an angry and (uncharacteristically for Williams) over-the-top poem, frantic in its accusations, breathless with sensibility. Like the generation it champions it is frenzied and impractical; but that is exactly the point. There are times when our conscience demands that we not be reasonable, that we refuse to make allowances. And when what is at stake is the lives and freedoms of innocent people, whether at home or in another country, then that time has come.
There is much that could be said against the student protests of the 70s. You could take, with Gopnik, the cynical view, and argue that, in the era of the draft, the protests were motivated by self-interest. You could say that at the end of the day the protests achieved nothing. No matter what their reasons and no matter how little they achieved, though, at least the young people of the day protested – as loudly and as vehemently as they were able. You may say they were dreamers, but it was a beautiful dream.
And why is a poem about the suppressing of an anti-war protest part of a series on War Poetry? Because in the end the only war worth fighting is the one against war itself.
P.S.: C.K. Williams has a new Collected Poems out (FSG, 2006). A lovely book.
Anna Swirszczynska ‘Swir’
Selections (click on title to hear)
We were afraid as we built the barricade
The tavern-keeper, the jeweler’s mistress, the barber,
all of us cowards.
The servant-girl fell to the ground
as she lugged a paving-stone, we were terribly afraid
all of us cowards –
the janitor, the market-woman, the pensioner.
The pharmacist fell to the ground
as he dragged the door of a toilet,
we were even more afraid, the smuggler-woman,
the dressmaker, the streetcar driver,
all of us cowards.
A kid from reform school fell
as he dragged a sandbag,
you see we were really
Though no one forced us,
we did build the barricade
In the morning when he began setting
the bottles of gasoline in the gateway,
the janitor swore like mad.
stuck his tongue all the way out at him.
In the evening the soldiers brought him back,
he had set a tank on fire.
Now the janitor swore more softly as he dug a small hole
in the yard for that brat.
Said the Major
(in memory of Anna Ratynska)
“The order must be delivered within the hour,”
said the major.
“That’s impossible, it’s hell out there,”
said the second lieutenant.
Five runner-girls set out,
one got through.
The order was delivered within the hour.
The sweethearts were dying
buried in the rubble of the cellar.
When there was no more air
forgot to come
who gave who
the last drop of air.
They’ve stopped shooting, lieutenant,
give me a grenade, I’ll go first,
I’m the smallest, they won’t spot me,
I’ll move like a cat on it’s belly, give me a grenade.
Like a cat on its belly, through the puddle,
a grenade in my hand, slowly, very slowly,
my heart pounding so hard they might hear it,
help me, God, slowly, very slowly,
like a cat on its belly, closer, closer,
oh God, even closer, even closer,
now pull the pin, leap.
She leaped. The Germans
let loose with a burst.
Those were not German planes,
they were bringing help,
we could not believe our eyes,
but there were fewer and fewer living eyes left.
of antiaircraft bursts
those were not German planes.
We lifted up our hands,
with our hands
we tried to shield from death
the planes that were not German.
My fear grows more powerful
I am as powerful
as a second of fear
I am a universe of fear
I am standing at the wall
and don’t know whether to close my eyes
or not close them.
I am standing at the wall waiting to be shot.
For a split second
we look each other in the eye.
When the split second passes
you will shoot at me.
It’s hard to die
it’s hard to kill
there is fear in my eyes
there is fear in your eyes
you are killing these two fears
He is going into captivity as if bearing
the bodies of his lads who’ve been killed.
He repeats in a whisper, repeats endlessly
their eighteen-year-old names,
he sees the eyes of their mothers, they are looking at him.
“Your son was killed defending the barricade
that’s no longer there, defending the house
that’s now disintegrated into rubble, into fine sand.
Your son was killed defending the street
that’s ceased to exist.
For those bricks, for that rubble, for that sand
they gave their living bodies.
I led them to their death
and I am alive.”
The Germans are saying: Hurry up, lieutenant,
hurry up into captivity.
But he can’t move any faster, he’s bearing
the bodies of his lads.
“The Warsaw Uprising was one of the most tragic events of World War II. The destruction it brought to a city of more than a million people can only be compared to the destruction visited on Hiroshima. Warsaw was transformed into a wasteland filled with corpses, ruins and smouldering ashes. That part of the population which survived the inferno was driven out and deported to various concentration camps. After the capitulation, German soldiers systematically burned and dynamited the remaining buildings. Himmler said: “Warsaw must be levelled to the ground, in order to set a deterring example for the whole of Europe.”
The priceless cultural heritage that had been accumulated in Warsaw over the centuries by countless generations of Poles was completely destroyed. The splendid palaces, the Castle of the Polish Kings, the historic churches, the rich collections of art, the museums, the libraries – all were turned into ashes and rubble. The flower of the young intelligentsia, who had been raised in a romantic love of freedom, perished. So did thousands of heroic children, the world’s youngest soldiers at twelve and thirteen: with unexampled courage they threw themselves at the tanks, gasoline bombs in hand, and carried dispatches under a hail of bullets. The German army that fought the insurrectionists was very well-equipped; it had bombers, tanks, self-propelled guns and flame-throwers. The insurrectionists had few weapons, limited mainly to pistols and grenades. People for whom even these weapons were in short supply often took them from the enemy with their bare hands. The insurrectionists suffered from hunger and cold; they had no medicines nor bandages. Despite everything, they fought heroically, in the belief that fervor and self-sacrifice would make up for the overwhelming strength of the enemy.
Life in Warsaw during the Uprising had the quality of a nightmare. The city was deprived of water, electricity, gas and food supplies. The sewer system was largely unoperative. Hospitals lacked medicines of pure water. German bombers rampaged over the city day and night, burying the living beneath the rubble. People sought shelter from the air raid in basements, but found no safety even there: the Germans dragged them out and conducted mass executions – of men, women and children. The Nazi tanks that rolled through the streets spread death and destruction. The insurrectionists and the population at large tried to defend themselves by building barricades. Everyone joined in this undertaking, regardless of age and sex. People did not sleep, eat or wash for days on end. No one knew whether he would be alive five minutes later. Corpses lay about in the streets, and the stench of rotting bodies rose from the ruins. Despite these horrible conditions, the city put up a heroic struggle for sixty-three days. The insurrectionists and the population at large displayed an extraordinary moral courage. But faced with the lack of food, weapons and ammunition, Warsaw finally had to surrender.”
(translated by Magnus J. Krynski and Robert A. Maguire)
Not all wars are fought by soldiers. Some of the most heroic battles of the last century were fought street by street, doorway by doorway, rice field by rice field; were fought by ordinary civilians who found they could no longer bear the tyranny of occupying forces, and chose to take arms against them, knowing full well that the odds were impossible, that defeat was almost certain. These were people who chose to reassert themselves in the face of oppression, and the cost of their rebellion was measured out in the lives of the innocent.
I first heard of Anna Swirszczynska in an essay by Milosz. Writing about the reaction to World War II and the destruction it caused to Poland in Polish literature, Milosz praised Swirszczynska to the skies, extolling her book Building the Barricades (Budowalam Barykade) as one of the finest literary responses to the horror of those days .
It’s not hard to see why. These poems, exquisite and deeply moving taken individually, form a collection that is an authentic masterwork of the last century – one now tragically overlooked (as I write this, no copies of Building the Barricades are availabe on Amazon, or anywhere else that I can find).
There are many reasons why these are incredible poems. There’s the honesty, for one thing. Like many of the other poems we’ve featured in this theme, these poems give you the authentic sense of lived experience, show you vividly what it was like to be there . Nothing is abstract here, nothing is imagined or metaphorical – indeed, the book as a whole reads like a furiously edited documentary, a collage of heart-rending vignettes put together by deft hands. Married to this is Swirszczynska’s eye for detail, her ability to unerringly pick the one scene that will tell it all, her talent for telling us just enough so that the picture comes alive, and leaving it to us to imagine the rest. (In one of the other poems – They were Twelve Years Old – Swirszczynska writes: “Two of them went to disarm an M.P. / one threw sand in his eyes, the other / lunged after the pistol in his holster./Only one returned that evening to his mamma with the pistol”). Then there’s the sheer range of the poems – the way Swirszczynska shifts effortlessly between the prosaic and the lyrical, between the human and the heroic, making you laugh and cry at the same time. But most of all, there’s the incredible sense of simplicity in her narratives, the vision of ordinary people somehow continuing to be their ordinary selves even as they perform extraordinary acts. Swirszczynska’s great insight is that heroes, at the end of the day, are people too. They have their frailties, their weaknesses. Their hopes are childish, their pride sentimental, their loves banal; they are frequently silly, often afraid. Yet it is such stuff from which the human barricade is fashioned, it is such stuff of which the resistance to tyranny is made.
 Milosz is also co-translator of a book of Swirszczynska’s later poems, Talking to my Body (Copper Canyon, 1996)
 Swirszczynska did, in fact, live through the Warsaw Uprising. At one point, in fact, she was arrested and awaited execution – an experience she describes in Waiting to be Shot above.
“It is a condition of wisdom in the archer to be patient because when the arrow leaves the bow, it returns no more.”
It should make you shake and sweat,
nightmare you, strand you in a desert
of irrevocable desolation, the consequences
seared into the vein, no matter what adrenaline
feeds the muscle its courage, no matter
what god shines down on you, no matter
what crackling pain and anger
you carry in your fists, my friend,
it should break your heart to kill.
Brian Turner’s Here, Bullet (Alice James, 2005) won the 2005 Beatrice Hawley Award for poetry, and has gone on to won a slew of other prizes. Turner is the real thing – he was an infantry team leader in Iraq for a year, and did a spell in Bosnia before that. As a result, his poems have a kind of journalistic authenticity, they are poems of witness in the truest sense, their impact made stronger by the fact that they describe the reality of a conflict that still rages, still fills our television screens.
Yet Turner is so much more than a journalist. Like his soldier-poet forebears (Wilfred Owen, Isaac Rosenberg) Turner blends the horror of the daily reality with passages of lyrical contemplation and dream, finding beauty in the loss, seeking the exquisite in the devastated. They are, inevitably, poems tinged with sadness, but it is a pure sadness, unalloyed with any sense of pride or mission that would make them parochial. Indeed, much of his work reflects an attempt to engage with other cultures, to study the poetry of Iraq and it’s people.
Today’s poem reflects that engagement. The epigraph to the poem comes from The Gulistan of Sa’di. (Sadiq means friend in Arabic). In his notes on the poem, Turner writes: “The year [The Gulistan of Sa’di] was written, Daras Salam (ancient Baghdad) was sacked – it is said that 800,000 lay dead in the streets after forty days of siege followed by forty days of brutal plunder.”
There is something strangely comforting in this. Perhaps, after all, the wars will never end – but neither will the poetry.
P.S. Coming soon to a theatre probably fairly far from you! Turner also features in a forthcoming film. See details here.