Thursday, July 7, 2011

52 Poems (week 17)

I was pulling together images from the Vietnam War and the Invasion of Iraq for a lecture, images of brutality, of innocent deaths and wailing mourners, of destruction and horrific injuries, of smiling torturers who we claim are the good guys. So this week I've been looking for war poetry, thinking vaguely of poems we studied in the final years of school describing bodies on beaches and the strange, strangling deaths from mustard gas.

I'm sure some of the poems belonged to Wildred Owen, who was killed on the Sombre Canal in France a week before the Armistice was signed. 'I Saw His Round Mouth's Crimson' seems to have that same sentiment, that same observer's eye as the poems I remembered.

And then this one, 'Insensibility', makes me think of the General shooting the suspected Vietcong in the head, the women smiling over a pyramid of naked prisoners, and the secrets kept in the heads of return servicemen that only come out of their mouths at night when they scream.
Happy are men who yet before they are killed
Can let their veins run cold.
Whom no compassion fleers
Or makes their feet
Sore on the alleys cobbled with their brothers.
The front line withers,
But they are troops who fade, not flowers
For poets' tearful fooling:
Men, gaps for filling
Losses who might have fought
Longer; but no one bothers.

And some cease feeling
Even themselves or for themselves.
Dullness best solves
The tease and doubt of shelling,
And Chance's strange arithmetic
Comes simpler than the reckoning of their shilling.
They keep no check on Armies' decimation.

Happy are these who lose imagination:
They have enough to carry with ammunition.
Their spirit drags no pack.
Their old wounds save with cold can not more ache.
Having seen all things red,
Their eyes are rid
Of the hurt of the colour of blood for ever.
And terror's first constriction over,
Their hearts remain small drawn.
Their senses in some scorching cautery of battle
Now long since ironed,
Can laugh among the dying, unconcerned.

Happy the soldier home, with not a notion
How somewhere, every dawn, some men attack,
And many sighs are drained.
Happy the lad whose mind was never trained:
His days are worth forgetting more than not.
He sings along the march
Which we march taciturn, because of dusk,
The long, forlorn, relentless trend
From larger day to huger night.

We wise, who with a thought besmirch
Blood over all our soul,
How should we see our task
But through his blunt and lashless eyes?
Alive, he is not vital overmuch;
Dying, not mortal overmuch;
Nor sad, nor proud,
Nor curious at all.
He cannot tell
Old men's placidity from his.

But cursed are dullards whom no cannon stuns,
That they should be as stones.
Wretched are they, and mean
With paucity that never was simplicity.
By choice they made themselves immune
To pity and whatever mourns in man
Before the last sea and the hapless stars;
Whatever mourns when many leave these shores;
Whatever shares
The eternal reciprocity of tears.

Photo source: Owen; poem

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