In light of the near-universal consensus about the justice of the Allies’ cause in “The Good War,” I’m a little surprised at the tone of the World War II poetry I found. Is there, for instance, no poem that triumphantly celebrates the achievement at Normandy despite the horrific loss of life? Has no poet dared to attempt in words what the famous photo on Iwo Jima captured for the world?
Louis Simpson’s “Carentan O Carentan” focuses more on the other side of the equation:
Carentan O Carentan
by Louis Simpson (b. 1923)
Trees in the old days used to stand
And shape a shady lane
Where lovers wandered hand in hand
Who came from Carentan.
This was the shining green canal
Where we came two by two
Walking at combat-interval.
Such trees we never knew.
The day was early June, the ground
Was soft and bright with dew.
Far away the guns did sound,
But here the sky was blue.
The sky was blue, but there a smoke
Hung still above the sea
Where the ships together spoke
To towns we could not see.
Could you have seen us through a glass
You would have said a walk
Of farmers out to turn the grass,
Each with his own hay-fork.
The watchers in their leopard suits
Waited till it was time,
And aimed between the belt and boot
And let the barrel climb.
I must lie down at once, there is
A hammer at my knee.
And call it death or cowardice,
Don’t count again on me.
Everything’s all right, Mother,
Everyone gets the same
At one time or another.
It’s all in the game.
I never strolled, nor ever shall,
Down such a leafy lane.
I never drank in a canal,
Nor ever shall again.
There is a whistling in the leaves
And it is not the wind,
The twigs are falling from the knives
That cut men to the ground.
Tell me, Master-Sergeant,
The way to turn and shoot.
But the Sergeant’s silent
That taught me how to do it.
O Captain, show us quickly
Our place upon the map.
But the Captain’s sickly
And taking a long nap.
Lieutenant, what’s my duty,
My place in the platoon?
He too’s a sleeping beauty,
Charmed by that strange tune.
Carentan O Carentan
Before we met with you
We never yet had lost a man
Or known what death could do.
John Ciardi seems to say that memorials for the dead place burdens on the living. That sounds about right to me. Thanks to all the veterans out there.
A Box Comes Home
by John Ciardi (1916-1986)
I remember the United States of America
As a flag-draped box with Arthur in it
And six marines to bear it on their shoulders.
I wonder how someone once came to remember
The Empire of the East and the Empire of the West.
As an urn maybe delivered by chariot.
You could bring Germany back on a shield once
And France in a plume. England, I suppose,
Kept coming back a long time as a letter.
Once I saw Arthur dressed as the United States
of America. Now I see the United States
of America as Arthur in flag-sealed domino.
And I would pray more good of Arthur
Than I can wholly believe. I would pray
An agreement with the United States of America
To equal Arthur’s living as it equals his dying
At the red-taped grave in Woodmere
By the rain and oakleaves on the domino.