Poems of War in the March 2017 Poetry
The March 2017 Poetry roils with skirmishes—whether literal or metaphorical, here or abroad. The Syrian Civil War figures in Zeina Hashem Beck’s “Maqam”; in “Boy Goes to War,” the late Max Ritvo relates, in elliptical terms, the battle for his life. Rachel Galvin’s “After the War” shares the tale of a WWII soldier:
When he got to the farmhouse, he rifled through
the cabinets, drawers, and cupboards,
and his buddies did too. The place was abandoned,
or so he thought, and his buddies did too.
He tried to talk to people in town, and his buddies did too,
but he was the only one whose Yiddish made it
across into German. They took his meaning.
He, in the farmhouse, took a camera and a gun,
but his buddies, who knows. About the gun,
it’s also hard to say, but after the war he took up
photography, why not, and shot beautiful women
for years. Got pretty good at it, and how.
Won prizes and engraved plates, put them in a drawer, forgot
the war, forgot his buddies, forgot the women, forgot the drawer.
In this sonnet of gains and losses, words—like the objects the soldier takes—travel into new contexts, accruing resonances as they go. The soldier “got” to the farmhouse; the Germans “took” his meaning; he “took” a camera and a gun, then “took up” photography, at which he “got” good. It’s telling that his Yiddish is the only language the Germans can understand: those words, too, are crossing borders, operating in fresh (and, no doubt, tense) situations.
But by the end of the poem, “got” has transformed into “forgot,” and the soldier’s acquisitions—in terms of both items and experience—have eroded. The final line nearly unwrites the poem, at once conjuring and canceling the stuff of the previous stanzas: “war,” “buddies,” “women,” and “drawer” have vanished from memory, “abandoned” like the farmhouse where the soldier once discovered his plunder.
The poem’s form reflects its dual themes of preservation and loss. At first, Galvin establishes a pattern that sets old phrases in new places: “His buddies did too” completes the final line of the first stanza and the first line of the second, and “gun” completes the final line of the second stanza and the first line of the third. We might expect similar continuity between the third and fourth stanzas, but in an echo of the soldier’s losses, Galvin “abandons” the scheme.
It’s no coincidence that the soldier takes a camera and a gun: both “shoot” in different senses, but one records while the other destroys. Accordingly, the poem at once records the soldier’s experience and testifies to its erasure. In a sense, years after he encounters the abandoned farmhouse, he abandons himself.
Cortney Lamar Charleston’s “Devotion (‘I Am on the Battlefield for My Lord’)” describes another struggle that straddles the personal and political—yet it occurs entirely on American turf. Charleston opens with a scene in a black Baptist church: a “company of men / standing shoulder to shoulder in suits, tapping their toes, clapping / their hands, putting muscle to work in the making of praise music.” Like the line of men, the lines of poetry are rhythmically musical, buzzing with “shoulder to shoulder” and “tapping” and “clapping”; the word “company” might call to mind a company of singers.
Charleston goes on to interrogate the definition of “devotion”: perhaps it means “the commitment of black men to stand / with one another, form a barricade of soldiers against anything / as necessary, the Lord being the force holding them fast in line.” Their devotion, then, is not just to God but also to one another; they form a metaphorical army that protects, among other things, their own. Here, the musical turns figuratively military, and that word “company” comes to connote soldiers as well as singers.
It’s in good company: Charleston describes the godliness he finds in Martin Luther King, marching, positioned in the middle of a row of people; or in “a long line of youths” pulled “into the precinct for / photographs.” Like the churchmen, they stand “shoulder to shoulder,” and they are no less divine. The “long lines” of the poem echo the images they describe, as though the poem itself were an assembly of marchers—or of music-making worshipers.
Toward the end, the poem blurs together with that very music. Cortney quotes the gospel song “I Am on the Battlefield for My Lord,” a spiritual battle cry:
I am on the battlefield for my Lord
I’m on the battlefield for my Lord
and I promised Him that I
would serve Him till I die
till I die, till I die, till I die
“Till I die”: not necessarily from natural causes, but from the more malignant ones to which the poem alludes—police violence, gang violence, or any of the other lethal dangers lurking in a racist society. In addition to concluding with the song’s closing lyrics, the poem includes the song’s title in its own. The poet, too, is singing, joining ranks with the people his poem portrays. His is a rebellious “praise music”: in praise of arrested youth, or of the boy who, “when sound leaves his precious mouth,” makes people scatter, as though his words—choice weapons in any war—were bullets. The poet sings both of and with them.