Strange Arts & Visual Delights
"Nocturne," by Henry-Jacques
Night scene on the battlefield, showing Verey lights being fired from the trenches, Thiepval, 7 August 1916. (https://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205072490)
In “Nocturne,” the final poem of Henry-Jacques I have translated so far, a night in the trenches becomes a dark night of the soul. He is becoming part of the darkness; the darkness is becoming part of him. He must find a new language—using words that war “has not stained”—to understand the shadow, both “hard” and “ungraspable,” that holds him.
Cold night, with supple tentacles
winding round the neck and shoulder:
here I am, I don’t know where,
stooping in a narrow cell.
From the pit around me rise
the arcana, opaque and hard.
I grope the earth as if fumbling cards.
Tonight hands must be my eyes.
Like a beast in the teeth of a snare,
my will contorts itself, dismayed
that in this gloom I am no more
than shadow merging into shade.
I feel as if I were being poured
into hard, ungraspable shadow
that, through fissures I cannot see
and without noise, slips into me.
The mind, mustering all its power
to leave the dark in which it’s caught,
floats like wood, emptied of thought,
on the black, slow-moving water.
It hears the murky silence made
of whispering voices in the thousands
flowing together in human currents.
Huddled in the trench we wait.
A little more and the naked mind
dares question its fate; and now,
escaping the words that war has stained,
it senses truths it never knew.
And from the throat of the pit a noise
rises, a funereal voice:
“What are you doing in this shadow?”
And my heart responds, “I do not know.”
"Landscapes," by Henry-Jacques
Source: Pinterest UK
Henry-Jacque’s first collection of poems on the First World War is called La Symphonie héroïque; it won a prize, the Prix de la Renaissance, in 1922. Henry-Jacques (1886 - 1973) was a pseudonym; his name at birth was Henri Edmond Jacques. The title and structure of the book reflect his interest in music; after the war, he published two music journals and was recognized as a musicologist. In addition to two other books of poetry based on his wartime experiences, he was a journalist, a novelist, an adventurer at sea. He circumnavigated the globe several times, twice sailing around Cape Horn.
In “Landscapes” (“Paysages”), a soldier is entering the trenches and marching towards the dangerous front line to work as an observer, as in the poem I recently posted, “Assassin Poet.” As other stories and poems from the war reveal, the trenches were confusing and disorienting, even for an experienced soldier; the aerial photo above gives some idea. The front and the war were, as the poem says, everywhere. Enemy planes, mines placed by sappers in tunnels under the trenches, artillery shells, and gas attacks affected far more than the designated front line.
In the wall, wide as a porch,
a hole that opens on a hole,
barbed wire that flays the skin.
A hand notice riddled with holes:
"Trench four, to the lines,” to war,
over there, everywhere.
As black as vine shoots, the pickets
all skin and bone show their signs
as they stand watch on top of sacks
cast up on this petrified sea.
Before you is the gate of hell;
pass through, but watch out for the front,
that too vague something: the front.
It’s there, above, below, in the air,
deep opening into deep, impalpable,
an anguish clinging to the flesh.
There, where your eyes come to rest,
that ridge—it’s near yet very far,
the end of the world, that low crest,
right there… a little farther… a bit less.
A little closer, a little farther…
the trench runs to every quarter;
drifting away but never moving,
everywhere and nowhere fleeing
in broken angles of separation
that snap even the greatest strength.
But fighting the weary, dejected fear
of anything that moves or stirs,
of even the air tense with silence,
the heart divines that it is there!
The outpost’s distrustful eye,
its furtive spyhole, narrow transom
cut in the never-ending wall.
Stretching outward his watchful mind,
a man looks through the hole and hazards
his eye to those he cannot trust.
He scrutinizes the soul of war,
but sometimes, slipping across the edge,
his gaze takes in the whole of death
beyond life, beyond the earth.
Wire grass, or bermudagrass (Cynodon dactylon)
Wire grass, or bermudagrass (Cynodon dactylon), is a nonnative perennial grass. Like many weeds that come to the casual gardener’s attention, it is persistent and hard to remove. It spreads by above-ground runners (called stolons) and underground rhizomes that can reach a foot or more into the ground. Its stem is tough, and I surmise the origin of its name. It’s said that the plant can grow back from small sections of a stolon or rhizome. It is not a pretty plant, but I find a certain elegance in its leggy architecture.
I had this sprig sit for a photoshoot this afternoon. I’m digging up part of our front lawn for a bed of perennial native plants and the occasional annual. It’s a sunny spot. I welcome recommendations. Message me on Facebook or send an email to email@example.com.
Henry-Jacques, "Assassin Poet"
French front line trenches, c. 1916 (source: Once Upon a Time in War, https://demons.swallowthesky.org/tagged/World%20War%20I%3A%20French%20Troops/page/5)
Henry-Jacques was a French soldier in the trenches in the First World War. He’s obscure by any standard, but his poems were republished a few years ago as part of the commemoration of the war.
This poem captures a peaceful moment in the war that nevertheless ends in death. The narrator sees himself in the dreams and struggles he ascribes to the German soldier, but his internal debate ends in his pulling the trigger. The poem captures many truths of the war, as I know them through reading, with this striking one: any relaxation of discipline or momentary lack of fear that led a soldier to poke his head above the parapet of the trench was likely to end in his death.
Much of the poem reminds me of Thomas Hardy's well-known poem, "The Man He Killed."
The languor of the autumn sun
ennobles the Forest of Argonne,
that wounded wood
where, knocked to the grass, the trees are dead;
or left in ruin,
leafless, branches hacked, trunks scarred;
or cut to the ground and black as timbers in a mine.
The paths are no more now than the narrow hallways
we traverse seeing nothing all day
but a patch of sky, the ghost of an oak that leans
and holds out a branch, or all of it that remains;
stacked sandbags; logs scattered
amid broken armor;
a treacherous loophole where a well-placed bullet
suddenly gets you in the gullet:
This is the frontier,
the barricade where lurk the watchers of the war.
Like the others, I am here,
eyes alert and sharp, hearing acute--
small task, enormous duty
to be guardian of the route.
My rifle loses its coldness in my hands--
and what if a fired-up German
were to rise from his trench and run
right at me? I can see his lines,
the pickets knocked sideways, the broken strands of wire,
the green-bellied sacks; and—souvenir
of some futile fight--
in the dirt, a cadaver trembling with swarms of flies.
But this day of calm and sun
has so much charm
for the men placed under arms
that a kind of sleep like new wine
appeases the desire to rage and murder.
A great hush,
a great sweetness,
a new song soars over us.
My marveling heart,
my sun-reveling heart,
my heart for once escapes the fight
and, freed from its immense duty,
ascends into the light
resurrected to love and hope and beauty.
But above a gap in the trenches,
a cap, a head appear:
a man we face is being drawn out by the dream--
the clear sky’s perfect tenderness,
the song lost overhead
in the white depths of a cloud,
the giddy sweetness he drinks in,
his piercing hope of living on.
So near, so far, O soldier I do not know,
in this moment I do not hate you;
man in green, man in blue, aren’t we the same?
In this moment, you and I—we think the same.
—My rifle is suddenly heavy in my hands--
Dream on, ignore the watching man,
The unknown poet who has you in his hands.
—What’s this cartridge for?--
We are both of us alike
in the sunlight.
—The stock rises to my cheek, ready to fire--
Isn’t war a shameful thing?
— O instinct for savagery that springs
from histories we know not of--
Keep dreaming, thoughtful enemy,
I do not wish your death.
—My finger is on the trigger, squeezes--
What use is any fresh regret?
—A gunshot in the wood called La Grurie--
I see his cap fly off. I cannot see his head.
The song flies off into the wood.
Such is war: not winning or losing,
But a man, like me, in a fate not of his choosing.
Pity is all I felt for him,
And I killed him.
Rilke, "Mensonge II" (Lie II)
This illustration by an artist named Miranda from around 1874 depicts the fatal failure of a flying apparatus. The self-styled “Flying Man” fell from the skies over London. It’s an apt metaphor for those betrayed by their own lies. (https://www.oldbookillustrations.com/illustrations/de-groof-falling/)
Below is the first draft of my translation of a poem in French by Rilke. The many metaphors (sometimes verging on allegory) are insightful. I particularly like the metaphor of the lie as an amphora with no feet: it must be lifted and held by the liar since it can’t stand on its own (see section 2). Section 4 is about complicity in lies, four lines I find very troubling to consider. It’s a poem I will live with for a while.
Please send comments, suggestions, and critiques to firstname.lastname@example.org.
by Rainer Maria Rilke
Lie, a toy we break.
Garden where we change places
the better to hide;
yet where at times we cry out
to be half found.
Wind, that sings for us,
our shadow, that stretches out.
Collection of handsome holes
in our sponge.
Mask? No. You are fuller,
lie, you have speaking eyes.
Rather vase without foot, amphora
that wants to be held.
Your handles, no doubt, have swallowed your foot.
We’d say, whoever carries you completes you,
were it not for the movement, so remarkable,
with which he lifts you.
Are you flower, are you bird,
lie? Are you scarcely word
or word and a half? What pure silence
surrounds you, beautiful new islet;
maps don’t know your provenance.
Late-comer to creation,
work of the eighth day, posthumous.
Since it’s we who make you,
it must be God who consumes.
Have I called you? But of what word, what gesture
am I suddenly guilty
if your silence cries to me, if your eyelid winks at me
with hidden understanding?
For this bare smile
how can we find a face?
Better if a cheek agrees
to put this make-up on.
Lying is in the air,
like this awning that long ago
we burned, completely grayed
by its life upside-down.
I’m not making myself clear.
We close our eyes, we leap,
an act almost devout
with God at least.
After, we open our eyes
because we’re being eaten by regret:
next to a lie so beautiful,
don’t we seem counterfeit?
NOTE: “handsome holes” I swiped from A. Poulin’s translation of this poem.
Here's the original:
Mensonge, jouet que l’on casse.
Jardin où l’on change de place,
pour mieux se cacher ;
où pourtant, parfois, on jette un cri,
pour être trouvé à demi.
Vent, qui chante pour nous,
ombre de nous, qui s’allonge.
Collection de beaux trous
dans notre éponge.
Masque ? Non. Tu es plus plein,
mensonge, tu as des yeux sonores.
Plutôt vase sans pied, amphore
qui veut qu’on la tient.
Tes anses, sans doute, ont mangé ton pied.
On dirait que celui qui te porte, t’achève,
n'était le mouvement dont il te soulève,
Es-tu fleur, es-tu oiseau,
mensonge ? Es-tu à peine mot
ou mot et demi ? Quel pure silence
t’entoure, bel îlot nouveau
dont les cartes ignorent la provenance.
Tard-venu de la création,
œuvre du huitième jour, posthume.
Puisque c’est nous qui te faisons,
il faut croire que Dieu te consume.
T’ai-je appelé ? Mais de quel mot, de quel signe
suis-je coupable soudain,
si ton silence me crie, si ta paupière me cligne
d’un accord souterrain ?
À ce sourire épars
comment trouver un visage ?
On voudrait qu’une joue e’engage
à mettre ce fard.
Il y a du mensonge dans l’air,
comme, autrefois, cette marquise
qu’on a brûlée, toute grise
de la vie a l’envers.
Je ne m’explique point.
On ferme les yeux, on saute ;
c’est chose presque dévote
avec Dieu au moins.
On ouvre les yeux après,
parce qu’un remord nous ronge :
à côté d’un si beau mensonge,
ne semble-t-on contrefait ?
Gravestone on Rilke's grave in Raron, Switzerland. Possible translation of the epitaph (based on Wikipedia, Wiktionary, and Google translate)::
"Rose, o pure contradiction, desire
To be no one's sleep beneath so many
One translator interprets Lidern (eyelids) as petals, an attractive possibility.
« Les hannetons ont fini leur ravage” is a Rilke poem I have grappled with on and off for several years, but I have not figured out how to translate as I’d like, especially the rhyme. Suggestions are welcome! (Send them to email@example.com).
The poem is interesting—the points of view accorded the branches killed by the beetles and to the tree itself are surprising. My favorite line is “La vie s’attaque à la vie sans haine, » which, with the poem as a whole, gives a different perspective on nature “red in tooth and claw.”
Les hannetons ont fini leur ravage
The beetles have finished laying waste.
Bestowed on these fallen branches of the tree,
they seem full and innocent and wise,
as if they’re sons of the walnut tree.
And the tree itself hardly complains,
for its void is filled with healing blue.
Life attacks life but without hate.
It abounds in the happy meadows
where excited crickets raise cry on cry.
In the middle of the young vines moves
the head of a girl in a red scarf
like a dot offered to all these i’s.
Most surprising to me is the girl at the end. I suppose a row of vines pruned back to the main stalk might be seen as a series of the letter i, but it’s not an image I’d have ever imagined.
Here's the original:
Les hannetons ont fini leur ravage.
A ces rameaux déchus octroyées,
ils semblent plein et innocent et sages,
comme s’ils étaient les fils du noyer.
Et l’arbre même ne se plaint qu’a peine,
car dans son vide guérit tant de bleu.
La vie s’attaque à la vie sans haine.
Elle abonde dans les prés heureux
ou les grillons s’exaltent cri par cri.
Tout au milieu des jeunes vignes bouge
la tête d’une fille au foulard rouge
comme un point offert à tous ces i.
Allegorical depiction of the Roman goddess Abundantia with a cornucopia, by Rubens (ca. 1630). Public domain.From the Google Art Project.
As I’ve noted here before, near the end of his life, Rainer Maria Rilke wrote many short poems in French. I find them challenging to translate; I feel as if I’m tramping through a China shop in muddy boots three sizes too large.
I’ve struggled with “Cornucopia” on and off since around 2009. For myself, I’ve come to regard it as a gloss on the familiar language in Malachi 3:10: God will open “the windows of heaven, and pour you out a blessing, that there shall not be room enough to receive it,” a sensation I often experienced in the months after returning to the church. The third stanza is key: if our hearts are already full, the plenty pouring out of the horn will appear as an incessant attack. In the final couplet, the symbol of the hunting horn suggests the attack is intentional, part of the miracle of plenty.
As to what Rilke was thinking, the poems begins with a question about the origin of the horn, and the last couplet is ambiguous at best: while English heaven first summons the idea of a divine beyond, and secondarily the sky, French ciel works in the opposite way, I think.
O beautiful horn, from where
do you lean into our hope?
Being only the slope
of a calyx, pour
out flowers, flowers, flowers
that, falling, make a bed
bursting with the roundness
of fruits fully ripened.
And it all without end
attacks us, a sudden onslaught
to punish our insufficient,
already full heart.
O outsized horn, what
miracle by you is given?
O hunting horn sounding all
things with the breath of heaven!
Please direct comments and questions to firstname.lastname@example.org
February 15th, 2023
GREEK ANTHOLOGY -- Anthologia Graeca Planudea, in Greek. Recension by Maximus Planudes (c.1299), edited by Janus Lascaris (1445-1535). Florence: Laurentius Francisci de Alopa, 11 August 1494. (https://www.christies.com/lot/lot-greek-anthology-anthologia-graeca-5370940/?)
The Greek Anthology is a rich collection of Greek poems, mostly epigrams, from the earliest poets through the Byzantine era. Many English translations exist for large parts of the anthology, so I’m exploring no new ground.
The poems here are all drawn from Book VI. It contains votive poems, described by David Ferry in his notes to Horace’s ode i.5, as “’dedicatory epigrams,’ in which representatives of various occupations—farmers, soldiers, artisans, musicians—deposit the tools of their trade in the temples of the appropriate gods.” In my observation, this is when the worker is retiring or nearing death (usually the same event).
My translations are not independent treatments of poems in a language I cannot read, but the versification of English prose translations. The poems are presented in reverse chronological order, except for last; I cannot find dates for the final poet.
Paulus Silentiarius (died AD 575–580) (VI, 168)
The boar that rooted up the vines,
and wallowed among the nodding reeds,
whose tusks slashed the olive trees
and put the sheepdogs to flight--
Xenophilus fought it with the sword
when he found it by the river, teeth
snapping, razorback bristling, breath
smoking like burning wood,
and on Pan’s tree he hung the hide.
Macedonius the Consul (500 – 560 AD) (VI, 69)
Crantas, after many voyages,
anchors his boat on the temple floor
and dedicates it to the god of the seas.
It no longer cares which winds ruffle the deep,
for it sails the solid earth where poor
Crantas stretches out to sleep.
Pancrates (ca. 140 AD) (VI, 117)
To Hephaestus, the smith
surrenders his pliers and tongs
his five-pound hammer battered
from beating iron,
and the anvil he pounded,
for with them he saved
his children from living poor
and dying starved.
Leonidas of Tarentum (3rd century BC) (VI, 205)
On giving up his calling, the carpenter
sets his tools aside—the grooved file,
the wood-chewing plane, the ochre-stained rule,
the hammer that strikes at both ends,
the line and ochre-box, the drill-box and rasp,
the heavy axe and handle that govern his craft,
his revolving auger, and his faithful gimlet
that turns in wood. Everything the man
has used for fifty years, including his best
screwdrivers and his double-edged adze,
he gives to Athena, for she gave grace
to all he did with the strength of his hands.
On a Mother Dead in Childbirth
Diodorus of Sardis (dates unknown)(VI, 348)
These letters, written by Diodorus,
say I was engraved for Athenaïs,
dead in child-birth bearing a boy;
and I weep to hold the daughter of Melo,
who left in tears the women of Lesbos,
in tears her father, who misses her most;
Artemis would not hear me, bound
on hunting the doe with her baying hounds.
Remembering the Great War—Days of 1918
An extraordinary diary to emerge from the war was written by Piete Kuhr. Aa teenager during the war, she went on, as Jo Mihaly, to become an anti-war Expressionist dancer in Berlin in the 20’s and 30’s, to write novels, and in 1933 to flee Germany with her Jewish husband.
The following passage, from 30 August 1918, juxtaposes her grief at losing a friend, Lieutenant Waldecker, with the funeral of the fictitious Lieutenant von Yellenic elaborately staged by Piete and her friend Gretel. Like Piete herself, one hardly knows whether to laugh or cry:
“No one else was in the house. I covered the camp bed in [my brother’s] room with a cloth and with old sheets and pillows. I made up a life-size dummy…, covered it with a black coach-rug to make it look as if there was a body underneath. Then I put Uncle Bruno's old army boots under the rug. I put a dented steel helmet where Lieutenant Yellenic's head was. I placed my uncle's old cavalry sword and a little bunch of dried lilac … where the hands should have been. I made two Iron Crosses, first and second class, out of cardboard and a paper 'Order of Merit' which Lieutenant von Yellenic had been awarded after his 80th 'kill' in his fighter-plane 'Flea'. I laid out these three medals on Grandma's blue velvet pincushion, then I drew the curtains and lit two candles at the head of the corpse. They were only two little stumps really, but as they were stuck in Grandma's tall brass candlesticks they looked a bit like big funeral candles. After all this I shut the door.
Meanwhile, Gretel had dressed up as the mourning 'Nurse Martha'. She wore Grandma's black dress,… a thin black veil and ... a white handkerchief.… I sat down at the piano and played Chopin's 'Funeral March', then I beat a slow-march rhythm on a saucepan covered with a cloth. It sounded just like a drum roll at a military funeral. The procession then made its way from the bedroom through the dining and drawing rooms. I rushed back to the piano to play 'Jesus, my protector and saviour, lives', and Gretel instantly started to cry—they were real tears.
Now came the high point: I opened the double doors. Gretel whispered 'Oh God!' when she saw Lieutenant von Yellenic's corpse in full war regalia in the candlelight, and I must say that it really looked as if there was a dead officer lying there. Nurse Martha sobbed as if her heart was about to break, for she was of course secretly in love with Lieutenant von Yellenic.
I didn't know whether to roar with laughter or cry. I was near to both, but then it suddenly struck me that the whole affair resembled Lieutenant Waldecker's funeral procession. I made a speech about Flight Lieutenant von Yellenic, honouring his 80 'kills' and burst three paper bags which I had blown up.
And so ended the game of Nurse Martha and [Lieutenant] von Yellenic.” [Source: Svetlana Palmer and Sarah Wallis, ed. A War in Words: The First World War in Diaries and Letters].
by Wilfred Owen
It seemed that out of battle I escaped
Down some profound dull tunnel, long since scooped
Through granites which titanic wars had groined.
Yet also there encumbered sleepers groaned,
Too fast in thought or death to be bestirred.
Then, as I probed them, one sprang up, and stared
With piteous recognition in fixed eyes,
Lifting distressful hands, as if to bless.
And by his smile, I knew that sullen hall,--
By his dead smile I knew we stood in Hell.
With a thousand fears that vision's face was grained;
Yet no blood reached there from the upper ground,
And no guns thumped, or down the flues made moan.
“Strange friend,” I said, “here is no cause to mourn.”
“None,” said that other, “save the undone years,
The hopelessness. Whatever hope is yours,
Was my life also; I went hunting wild
After the wildest beauty in the world,
Which lies not calm in eyes, or braided hair,
But mocks the steady running of the hour,
And if it grieves, grieves richlier than here.
For by my glee might many men have laughed,
And of my weeping something had been left,
Which must die now. I mean the truth untold,
The pity of war, the pity war distilled.
Now men will go content with what we spoiled.
Or, discontent, boil bloody, and be spilled.
They will be swift with swiftness of the tigress.
None will break ranks, though nations trek from progress.
Courage was mine, and I had mystery;
Wisdom was mine, and I had mastery:
To miss the march of this retreating world
Into vain citadels that are not walled.
Then, when much blood had clogged their chariot-wheels,
I would go up and wash them from sweet wells,
Even with truths that lie too deep for taint.
I would have poured my spirit without stint
But not through wounds; not on the cess of war.
Foreheads of men have bled where no wounds were.
“I am the enemy you killed, my friend.
I knew you in this dark: for so you frowned
Yesterday through me as you jabbed and killed.
I parried; but my hands were loath and cold.
Let us sleep now. . . .”
[Source: Dominic Hibberd and John Onions, The Winter of the World]
Editors’ note: “Written March–May 1918…. Owen’s first, worst memory of the front was of a captured dugout where he and his men had almost been buried alive, a horror that must often have recurred in his shellshock nightmares. As Edmund Blunden noted, the poem is ‘a dream only a stage further on than the actuality of the crowded dugouts’. But it is also a very literary vision, Owen’s farewell to poetry, with echoes of Homer, the Bible, Dante, Spenser, Shelley, Keats, Tennyson and many others. Acutely aware of the crisis at the front, he foresees his own likely death, expects his poetry to achieve nothing and – unlike most of the war’s poets – faces up to the full implications of killing.”
Although written in early 1919, this poem by a survivor of the war, Siegfried Sassoon, captures the joy of being liberated from the war.
Everyone suddenly burst out singing;
And I was filled with such delight
As prisoned birds must find in freedom,
Winging wildly across the white
Orchards and dark-green fields; on – on – and out of sight.
Everyone’s voice was suddenly lifted;
And beauty came like the setting sun:
My heart was shaken with tears; and horror
Drifted away ... O, but Everyone
Was a bird; and the song was wordless; the singing will never be done.
[Source: The Winter of the World]
Remembering the Great War--1917
Photograph: E.O. Hoppe/Corbis. From: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/may/31/edward-thomas-adlestrop-to-arras-review-jean-moorcroft-wilson
“[K]illed at Arras on that first day of the battle [April 9] was the British poet Edward Thomas, who so loved the English countryside:
This ploughman dead in battle slept out of doors
Many a frozen night, and merrily
Answered staid drinkers, good bedmen, and all bores:
"At Mrs Greenland's Hawthorn Bush," said he,
"I slept." None knew which bush. Above the town,
Beyond `The Drover', a hundred spot the down
In Wiltshire. And where now at last he sleeps
More sound in France - that, too, he secret keeps.
[Source: Martin Gilbert, The First World War: A Complete History]
Douglas Lyall Grant, a British POW in a German prison camp, on 28th January 1917 – “Renewed joy in the morning when it was discovered that two Russians had escaped last night. We wish them all the best of luck and a rapid journey over the frontier. The method of their escape was particularly cunning. Each day Russian orderlies wheel out barrels of refuse to a ground nearby where the pigs are kept. Today two of these barrels had refuse on the top but Russians underneath.”
“The Italian soldiers had not illusions about a swift breakthrough [at the 10th Battle of the Isonzo, beginning 10 May 1917]. Among their many jingles was the verse:
Il General Cadorna
Ha scritta alla Regina
'Se vuoi veder Trieste,
Compra una cartolina.'"
Gilbert translates: "General Cadorna / Has written to the Queen, / 'If you want to see Trieste, / Buy a picture postcard." [Source: Gilbert, The First World War]
Elias Canetti in the first volume of his memoirs: “I was twelve when I got passionately interested in the Greek wars of liberation, and that same year, 1917, was the year of the Russian Revolution. Even before his journey in the sealed freight car, people were speaking about Lenin living in Zurich [where Canetti lived with his mother]. Mother, who was filled with an insatiable hatred of the war, followed every event that might terminate it. She had no political ties, but Zurich had become a center for war opponents of the most diverse countries and tendencies.
Once, when we were passing a coffeehouse, she pointed at the enormous skull of a man sitting near the window, a huge pile of newspapers lay next to him; he had seized one paper and held it close to his eyes. Suddenly, he threw back his head, turned to a man sitting at his side and fiercely spoke away at him. Mother said: ‘Take a good look at him. That’s Lenin. You’ll be hearing about him.’ We had halted, she was slightly embarrassed about standing like that and staring…, but his sudden movement had struck into her, the energy of his jolting turn towards the other man had transmitted itself to her … I was … astonished at Mother’s immobility. She said: ‘Come on, we can’t just stand here,’ and she pulled me along…..
She never the called the war anything but ‘the killing.’ Since our arrival in Zurich, she had talked about it very openly to me; in Vienna, she had held back to prevent my having any conflicts at school. ‘You will never kill a person who hasn’t done anything to you,’ she said beseechingly; and proud as she was of having three sons, I could sense how worried she was that we too might become such ‘killers’ some day. Her hatred of war had something elemental to it: Once, when telling me the story of Faust, which she didn’t want me to read as yet, she disapproved of his pact with the devil. There was only one justification for such a pact: to put an end to the war. You could even ally yourself with the devil for that, but not for anything else.”—Elias Canetti, The Tongue Set Free
Private D. Sutherland killed in action in the German trench, May, 16, 1916, and the others who died [published in 1917]
by E.A. Mackintosh
So you were David’s father,
And he was your only son,
And the new-cut peats are rotting
And the work is left undone,
Because of an old man weeping,
Just an old man in pain,
For David, his son David,
That will not come again.
Oh, the letters he wrote you,
And I can see them still,
Not a word of the fighting,
But just the sheep on the hill
And how you should get the crops in
Ere the year get stormier,
And the Bosches have got his body,
And I was his officer.
You were only David’s father,
But I had fifty sons
When we went up in the evening
Under the arch of the guns,
And we came back at twilight--
O God! I heard them call
To me for help and pity
That could not help at all.
Oh, never will I forget you,
My men that trusted me,
More my sons than your fathers’,
For they could only see
The little helpless babies
And the young men in their pride.
They could not see you dying,
And hold you while you died.
Happy and young and gallant,
They saw their first-born go,
But not the strong limbs broken
And the beautiful men brought low,
The piteous writhing bodies,
They screamed “Don’t leave me, sir”,
For they were only your fathers
But I was your officer.
[Source: Winter of the World]
Editor’s note: “Young officer-poets who wrote about their men often used the language of love poetry…. Mackintosh had carried the badly wounded Sutherland out of a German trench, pursued by the enemy, but the man had died before he could be got to safety.”
Here's my own take on that bloody year.
Days of 1917
On the eighth day God looked
and the world was mad.
He sent forth a pouter pigeon,
saying, Alight in a poor
out of the way place, maybe
then fly around the world,
flitting up and down,
and tell me if any cling
to tatterdemalion faith.
Shall I release the waters
of another flood?
Perched above brick-red plots
she sees men and women scratch
the dirt like hungry biddies, sees
drivers and wagons
hauling chestnut bark
lined up at a tannery,
a line of barefoot women
selling them apple brandy--
they call it corpse-reviver,
milk of the wild cow,
Pigeon calls it wife-beater
and bust-head. She takes flight,
the world below snorts
and bites its stall: fire coals
belch from sawmill boilers,
the bristling Atlantic scrapes
its tusks against Hatteras.
She flies eastward, over seas
spattered with white caps
and periscopes and bodies
of sailors who once swaggered
and cussed like gods.
She reaches a guarded mount,
turns inland, and skims over
Polygon Wood, racing ahead
of a creeping barrage
inundating no-man’s land
with fire. She hovers over Tommies
engulfed by mustard gas,
over Jerries out of sight
who suffocate in mud,
though once they could swim
the length of a pond
on one deep breath.
Here and there a comrade
dies to rescue one
he loves, a padre
breathes life into one
who is losing hope.
The pigeon looks up to heaven.
They’re drowning themselves
ready enough. You can hold off.
Write something about yourself. No need to be fancy, just an overview.