Strange Arts & Visual Delights
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.”
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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.
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 email@example.com.
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 ?
Write something about yourself. No need to be fancy, just an overview.