The sun comes up tarnished brass and sheets a shadowed world, frosted cold. The grass is ochre, leaves are gone. The world is stripped, burned by cold.
Today is Veteran’s Day in the States and Remembrance Day in Canada. I think I will take the occasion to talk about the terrible beauty of death and destruction in time of war and the wrenching truths of poetry that speaks of tragedy remembered. Maybe I can make a case for the aesthetics of devastation and why we want to look and look and yet hate to look at the work of war photographers. Beyond that, I want to point to poetry that is confessional, murderous, despairing and — because of that — transformative.
Yesterday I got into trouble with a correspondent for saying in an essay, “Now Tim writes poetry, nothing like the wildly purple erotica of his early poetry. Now it is stripped, burned, influenced by several poets on Facebook.” The reader, who is admittedly from a different culture as defined by both nationality and class, but not very aware of what that means, thought that I was condemning Barrus’ poetry and the other poets, whom she knows and likes and features on a website dedicated to raising awareness of AIDS. However, she represents (without knowing it) a culture that has been labeled bourgeois, based on the harmony and security that money can provide, regardless of where on the planet you are. The overwhelming guide is what is pretty, comfortable, happy. The emotional style is a child’s successful birthday party, provided by loving parents. To her credit (maybe), she wants everyone’s life to be like that.
This is hardly the world of Barrus, whose life was broken open like a dropped melon when he was still small, his very body split like a peach in the hands of a strong hungry man. Ease and plenty do not mark the work of the poets he has found on Facebook. They are not organized into something named, but have gravitated together like the formation of comets. Aad de Gids in the Netherlands; Carolyn Srygley-Moore in Albany, New York; Sanctus Paulus somewhere in America; Dom Gabrielli somewhere on the planet. Others. There’s no directory. They post their poems to each other, then respond. Tim writes small poems as comments. Some write child’s naive comments, admiring all the wrong things.
These are people writing out of pain, loss, confession of sins, the world’s injustice and destruction; which can yet be transformed by understanding — either a calm regard or a raging condemnation — something that says THIS was real and I alone escaped to tell you. I’m not very good at knowing the proper literary genres, tropes and conventions of confessional poetry, because they don’t let high school English teachers talk about such things. The convention, at least in Montana, is that the high school years are the happiest years of your life, in spite of everyone in the room knowing about the deaths, tortures, starvations, addictions and abortions of the students who have still somehow managed to make it to the classroom. Half the spectrum of human experience is denied.
It didn’t used to be like this. I first learned about war poetry my sophomore year in high school in Portland, Oregon. “The Death of the Ball Gun Turret” — “they washed him out with a hose.”
Wilfred Owen: “What passing bells for these who die as cattle?/ Only the monstrous anger of the guns, Only the stuttering rifles rapid rattle/ can patter out their hasty orisons.”
He was killed in WWI, along with a whole school of poets: anti-romantic, bitter, cynical. No video contact with family. No R&R. No medi-vac. My generation came to awareness in WWII. We felt guilty that we didn’t suffer like those in Europe or Russia where homes were reduced to rubble and children starved. We were reminded daily that our lives were bought with the blood of our fathers — the real ones who came back mutilated and refusing to talk about it — and that this obligated us.
By the time of Vietnam the horror of war had gone so far beyond what people could bear, so over the limits of perception, so beyond even the loudest rock-n-roll, that the only possible reaction became a kind of maniacal giggle. For American Indians the prairie clearances were reawakened by heads on stakes in “Indian country.” Since then war means predator drones in lands marked off by stone mountains and ochre sand, shadeless places where people go draped in tragedy and have for millenia. Sterile killing, seen on screens, controlled by button triggers operated by young gamers in Indiana. They will not lose limbs unless they drink too much and drive. We speak of religion in a political world that dares not mention even the sacrifice of lambs in a culture gone vegan.
A trace left from Israel in the American series, “In Treatment,” is spoken by the psychiatrist. He says that the success of Christianity is due to the shift from thinking of the terrible punishing Jehovah of the Old Testament, who rained judgment on an innocent if chosen people, to the Good God of the New Testament trying to redeem wicked Caesar-driven masses. Without much success, I might note. The shrink says, “We’d rather believe that we are evil than think the world is controlled by monstrous gods — and even worse parents.”
I suppose you think Elizabeth Barrett Browning is one of those sentimental bourgeois poets reclining and sighing about love.
Consider this: “I tell you, hopeless grief is passionless;/ that only men incredulous of despair,/ Half-taught to anguish, through the midnight air/ Beat upward to God’s throne in loud access/ Of shrieking and reproach. Full desertness,/ In souls as countries, lieth silent bare/ Under the blanching, vertical eye-glare/ Of the absolute Heavens. Deep-hearted man, express/ Grief for thy Dead in silence like to death — / Most like a monumental statue set/ In everlasting watch and moveless woe/ Till itself crumble to dust beneath./ Touch it; the marble eyelids are not wet: / If it could weep, it could arise and go.”
The title is simply “Grief.”
Now I’ll shut up and go. I think of the formal beauty of Brady’s Civil War photos of war dead. So still.