Register Tuesday | June 25 | 2019

Novels About the Great War

A Poem

Reading them in bed with a nice hot cup of tea

not made with muddy water in a tin tasting of kerosene

not gulped, scalding,  to clear the mouth of earth

or purge the nostrils of decay, I am

flabby as a pillow, spoiled by ease,

curious and safe and ashamed. 

 

They are so many, so thick with anguish,

peopled with ordinary chaps

from Manchester and Adelaide, Prince Rupert and Arles,

Hamburg, Trieste, the world

clearly insane from this distance

clear as the mud in which they, their horses, their huge packs

eighty pounds or more, pulling them backwards helplessly,

drowned.

 

From this distance the soldiers wear the chiseled features

of saints: tortured, transcendent,

refusing to give in.

They have their own language, arcane

and vaguely medieval, with its salients and parapets,

its shrapnel, battalions, estaminets;

its comrades bravely fallen

on the field of the brave.

But the language fails them.

 

So they have only each other,

huddled in dugouts under the constant barrage—

the noise, and the stench of putrescence,

the skin-pricking misery of lice

and the damp

and never getting home

and fighting boys as young and cold and lonely

as themselves. 

 

From this distance we can write and read the novels;

we can bear to know what happened.

Then, no one could,

least of all those who were there, numb, defiant,

almost dead,

dead.