I love poetry, but find that the public poems associated with Armistice Day, are the sort that cause the hearers no trouble, leaving them with a vague sense of heroism and sacrifice, rather than anything that might give awkward glimpses of the reality of war. The poets of the 2nd World War are less celebrated than those of the 1st War, perhaps because their response to its horrors is less horrified and more experienced than their predecessors’. There is nothing in their works like the astonished anger of Wilfrid Owen but sometimes their laconic acceptance of the nature of war is itself their most powerful protest against it.
Here is a poem by Keith Douglas who fought in the North African desert battles and was killed in Normandy.
“Three weeks gone and the combatants gone
returning over the nightmare ground
we found the place again, and found
the soldier sprawling in the sun.
The frowning barrel of his gun
overshadowing. As we came on
that day, he hit my tank with one
like the entry of a demon.
Look. Here in the gunpit spoil
the dishonoured picture of his girl
who has put: Steffi. Vergissmeinnicht.
in a copybook gothic script.
We see him almost with content,
abased, and seeming to have paid
and mocked at by his own equipment
that’s hard and good when he’s decayed.
But she would weep to see today
how on his skin the swart flies move;
the dust upon the paper eye
and the burst stomach like a cave.
For here the lover and killer are mingled
who had one body and one heart.
And death who had the soldier singled
has done the lover mortal hurt.”
This poem is from the desert where, as in the case of the first Iraq war, the remains of arms and men are preserved long after in the hot dry air. The poet pays attention to an enemy, without prejudice or sentimentality. He was a killer who had tried to kill the poet, but failed and persished.
The real emotion of the poem is conjured by the picture of the dead man’s girlfriend, stuck in the gunpit, with her message, “Steffi, Vegissmeinnicht.” Steffi ForgetmeNot. Well now he has forgotten her, as his decaying corpse is mocked by the pristine state of his weapons. His humanity is recognised by the stroke of genius in which the poet imagines how his girl would feel if she saw him now:
“how on his skin the swart flies move
The dust upon the paper eye
and the burst stomach like a cave.”
The insult to his body along with the thought of his girl, move the reader to grief and recognition of what war does.
The final verse sums up by stating that this man was both a lover and a killer, a life-giver and a death-giver, and that in this case, death has wiped out life and loving. This dead foreigner is given his dignity by the poet, but only as part of a sad acceptance that war puts in question the dignity of all its participants. It is not a loud and angry poem, nor does it preach a message, but once you read it you know that remembrance has to be more than poppies.