Nocturne Militaire

By Thomas McGrath 1916–1990 Thomas McGrath

Miami Beach: wartime

Imagine or remember how the road at last led us
Over bridges like prepositions, linking a drawl of islands.
The coast curved away like a question mark, listening slyly
And shyly whispered the insomniac Atlantic.
But we were uncertain of both question and answer,
Stiff and confused and bemused in expendable khaki,
Seeing with innocent eyes, the walls gleaming,
And the alabaster city of a rich man’s dream.

Borne by the offshore wind, an exciting rumor,
The legend of tropic islands, caresses the coast like hysteria,
Bringing a sound like bells rung under sea;
And brings the infected banker and others whose tenure
Is equally uncertain, equally certain: the simple
And perfect faces of women—like the moon
Whose radiance is disturbing and quite as impersonal:
Not to be warmed by and never ample.

They linger awhile in the dazzling sepulchral city,
Delicately exploring their romantic diseases,
The gangster, the capitalist and their protegs
With all their doomed retainers:
                  not worth your hate or pity
Now that they have to learn a new language—
And they despise the idiom like an upper class foreigner:
The verb to die baffles them. We cannot mourn,
But their doom gives stature at last, moon-dazzled,
                  silhouette on the flaming Atlantic.

Something is dying. But in the fierce sunlight,
On the swanky golf-course drill-field, something is being born
Whose features are anonymous as a child’s drawing
Of the lonely guard whose cry brings down the enormous night.
For the sentry moonlight is only moonlight, not
Easy to shoot by. But our devouring symbols
(Though we walk through their dying city
                  and their moonlight lave us like lovers)
Are the loin-sprung spotlight sun and the hangman sack-hooded

                  *    *    *

Now in the east the dark, like many waters,
Moves, and uptown, in the high hotels, those few
Late guests move through their remembered places
But their steps are curiously uncertain, like a sick man’s
                  or a sleepwalker’s.
Down the beach, in rooms designed for their masters,
The soldiers curse and sing in the early blackout.
Their voices nameless but full of fear or courage
Ring like calm bells through their terrible electric idyll.

They are the nameless poor who have been marching
Out of the dark, to that possible moment when history
Crosses the tracks of our time. They do not see it approaching,
But their faces are strange with a wild and unnoticed mystery.
And now at the Casino the dancing is nice and no one
Notices the hunchback weeping among the bankers,
Or sees, like the eye of an angel, offshore, the burning tanker,
As the night patrol of bombers climbs through the rain and is gone.

Thomas McGrath, “Nocturne Militaire” from Movie At The End of the World. Copyright � 1972 by Thomas McGrath. Used by permission of Swallow Press/Ohio University Press.

Source: Selected Poems 1938-1988 (1988)

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Poet Thomas McGrath 1916–1990

Subjects Social Commentaries, War & Conflict

 Thomas  McGrath


For some fifty years, the late Thomas McGrath produced a prolific array of titles, encompassing poetry, novels, books for children, and several documentary film scripts, including uncredited work on the eloquent and exhilarating Smithsonian film about the history of flight, To Fly. But McGrath is primarily a poet, and although "important contemporary poets . . . proclaim him as a major voice in American poetry in the last three . . .

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SUBJECT Social Commentaries, War & Conflict

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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