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,
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
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,