The Return

As the retreating Bructeri began to burn their own   
possessions, to deny to the Romans every sustenance but   

          a flying column sent by Germanicus   
commanded by Lucius Stertinius

routed them;
                   and there, discovered amid plunder and the dead,

was the Eagle of the nineteenth   
legion, lost with Varus.


The Romans now
brought to the land of the Bructeri,—to whatever lay   
between the river Ems and the river Lippe,
to the very edge of their territory,—   

until they reached at last

the Teutoburgian Wood,
                                  in whose darkness

Varus and the remains of his fifteen thousand men,   
it was said, lay unburied.


Germanicus then conceived a desire
to honor with obsequies these unburied warriors whose
massacre once filled Augustus himself with rage and   
          with hope or fear every corner of the Empire,—   

while the least foot soldier, facing alien   
terrain, was overcome with pity when he

thought of family, friends, the sudden   
reversals of battle, and shared human fate.


First Caecina and his men   
             ordered to reconnoitre the dismal

treacherous passes, to attempt to build bridges and   
causeways across the uneven, sodden marshland,—   

then the rest of the army, witness to scenes   
rending to sight and memory of sight.


Varus’ first camp, with its wide sweep and deployment   
of ordered space in confident dimension,   
testified to the calm labors of three legions;—   

then a ruined half-wall and shallow ditch   
showed where a desperate remnant had   
been driven to take cover;—   

                                        on the open ground between them

were whitening bones, free   
from putrefaction,—   

                            scattered where men had been struck down   
fleeing, heaped up

where they had stood their ground before slaughter.

Fragments of spears and horses’ limbs lay   
intertwined, while human

                                     skulls were nailed   

like insults to the tree-trunks.

Nearby groves held the altars   
on which the savage Germans
sacrificed the tribunes and chief centurions.


Survivors of the catastrophe slowly began, at last,   
to speak,—
               the handful who had escaped death or slavery

told their fellow soldiers where the generals
fell, how the Eagles and standards were seized;—   

one showed where Varus received his first wound, and   
another, where he died by his own melancholy hand;—

those thrown into crude pits saw   
gibbets above them,
                              as well as the platform from which Arminius

as if in delirium harangued   
his own victorious troops,—   

fury and rancor so joined to his
joy, the imprisoned men thought they would soon be butchered,—
until desecration of the Eagles at last satisfied   
or exhausted his arrogance.


And so, six years after the slaughter,   
a living Roman army had returned
to bury the dead men’s bones of three whole legions,—

no man knew whether the remains that he had
gathered, touched perhaps in consigning to the earth, were

those of a stranger or a friend:—   
                                                 all thought of all   
as comrades and
bloodbrothers; each, in common rising

fury against the enemy, mourned at once and hated.   


When these events were reported to Rome

Cynics whispered that thus the cunning State   
enslaves us to its failures and its fate.—

Epicureans saw in the ghostly mire
an emblem of the nature of Desire.—

Stoics replied that life is War, ILLUSION
the source, the goal, the end of human action.


At the dedication of the funeral
mound, Germanicus laid the first earth,—

thereby honoring the dead, and choosing to demonstrate   
in his own person his
heartfelt share in the general grief.

He thereby earned the disapproval of Tiberius,—   

perhaps because the Emperor interpreted
every action of Germanicus unfavorably; or he may have felt

the spectacle of the unburied dead
must give the army less alacrity for battle and more   
respect for the enemy—
                                 while a commander belonging to

the antique priesthood of the Augurs   
pollutes himself by handling   
objects belonging to the dead.

                            on the open ground

whitening bones scattered where men had been struck down   

            heaped up

where they stood their ground

Varus’ first camp with its   
wide sweep

                across the open ground

the ruined
half-wall and shallow ditch

                                          on the open ground between them
whitening bones scattered where men had been struck down   

            heaped up

where they stood their ground

I have returned here a thousand times,   
though history cannot tell us its location.


Arminius, relentlessly pursued by   
Germanicus, retreated into pathless country.

(After Tacitus, Annals, 1, 60—63)

Frank Bidart, “The Return” from Desire. Copyright © 1997 by Frank Bidart. Used by permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, LLC, All rights reserved.
Source: Desire (Farrar Straus and Giroux, 1997)
More Poems by Frank Bidart