Archive for the 'Poetry' Category

“The Wife of Flanders” (1917), by G.K. Chesteron

February 11th, 2010

The Wife of Flanders

Low and brown barns, thatched and repatched and tattered,
Where I had seven sons until to-day,
A little hill of hay your spur has scattered….
This is not Paris. You have lost the way.

You, staring at your sword to find it brittle,
Surprised at the surprise that was your plan,
Who, shaking and breaking barriers not a little,
Find never more the death-door of Sedan—

Must I for more than carnage call you claimant,
Paying you a penny for each son you slay?
Man, the whole globe in gold were no repayment
For what you have lost. And how shall I repay?

What is the price of that red spark that caught me
From a kind farm that never had a name?
What is the price of that dead man they brought me?
For other dead men do not look the same.

How should I pay for one poor graven steeple
Whereon you shattered what you shall not know?
How should I pay you, miserable people?
How should I pay you everything you owe?

Unhappy, can I give you back your honour?
Though I forgave, would any man forget?
While all the great green land has trampled on her
The treason and terror of the night we met.

Not any more in vengeance or in pardon
An old wife bargains for a bean that’s hers. You have no word to break: no heart to harden.
Ride on and prosper. You have lost your spurs.

G.K. Chesteron (1917)

“Patterns,” by Amy Lowell

April 6th, 2009

Patterns

I walk down the garden paths,
And all the daffodils
Are blowing, and the bright blue squills.
I walk down the patterned garden paths
In my stiff, brocaded gown.
With my powdered hair and jewelled fan,
I too am a rare
Pattern. As I wander down
The garden paths.

My dress is richly figured,
And the train
Makes a pink and silver stain
On the gravel, and the thrift
Of the borders.
Just a plate of current fashion,
Tripping by in high-heeled, ribboned shoes.
Not a softness anywhere about me,
Only whale-bone and brocade.
And I sink on a seat in the shade
Of a lime tree. For my passion
Wars against the stiff brocade.
The daffodils and squills
Flutter in the breeze
As they please.
And I weep;
For the lime tree is in blossom
And one small flower has dropped upon my bosom.

And the plashing of waterdrops
In the marble fountain
Comes down the garden paths.
The dripping never stops.
Underneath my stiffened gown
Is the softness of a woman bathing in a marble basin,
A basin in the midst of hedges grown
So thick, she cannot see her lover hiding,
But she guesses he is near,
And the sliding of the water
Seems the stroking of a dear
Hand upon her.
What is Summer in a fine brocaded gown!
I should like to see it lying in a heap upon the ground.
All the pink and silver crumpled up on the ground.

I would be the pink and silver as I ran along the paths,
And he would stumble after,
Bewildered by my laughter.
I should see the sun flashing from his sword hilt and the buckles on his shoes.
I would choose
To lead him in a maze along the patterned paths,
A bright and laughing maze for my heavy-booted lover,
Till he caught me in the shade,
And the buttons of his waistcoat bruised my body as he clasped me,
Aching, melting, unafraid.
With the shadows of the leaves and the sundrops,
And the plopping of the waterdrops,
All about us in the open afternoon—
I am very like to swoon
With the weight of this brocade,
For the sun shifts through the shade.

Underneath the fallen blossom
In my bosom,
Is a letter I have hid.
It was brought to me this morning by a rider from the Duke.
Madam, we regret to inform you that Lord Hartwell
Died in action Thursday se’nnight.

As I read it in the white, morning sunlight,
The letters squirmed like snakes.
Any answer, Madam? said my footman.
No, I told him.
See that the messenger takes some refreshment.
No, no answer.

And I walked into the garden,
Up and down the patterned paths,
In my stiff, correct brocade.
The blue and yellow flowers stood up proudly in the sun,
Each one.
I stood upright too,
Held rigid to the pattern
By the stiffness of my gown.
Up and down I walked,
Up and down.

In a month he would have been my husband.
In a month, here, underneath this lime,
We would have broke the pattern;
He for me, and I for him,
He as Colonel, I as Lady,
On this shady seat.
He had a whim
That sunlight carried blessing.
And I answered, It shall be as you have said.
Now he is dead.

In Summer and in Winter I shall walk
Up and down
The patterned garden paths
In my stiff, brocaded gown.
The squills and daffodils
Will give place to pillared roses, and to asters, and to snow.
I shall go
Up and down,
In my gown.
Gorgeously arrayed,
Boned and stayed.
And the softness of my body will be guarded from embrace
By each button, hook, and lace.

For the man who should loose me is dead,
Fighting with the Duke in Flanders,
In a pattern called a war.
Christ! What are patterns for?

from Amy Lowell (1916), Men, women and ghosts

“How Could I Ever Forget That Flash,” by Mitsuyoshi Toge

November 29th, 2007

How could I ever forget that flash of light!
In a moment, thirty thousand people ceased to be,
The cries of fifty thousand killed
At the bottom of crushing darkness;

Through yellow smoke whirling into light,
Buildings split, bridges collapsed,
Crowded trams burnt as they rolled about
Hiroshima, all full of boundless heaps of embers.
Soon after, skin dangling like rags;
With hands on breasts;
Treading upon the broken brains;
Wearing shreds of burn cloth round their loins;
There came numberless lines of the naked,
all crying.
Bodies on the parade ground, scattered like
jumbled stone images of Jizo;
Crowds in piles by the river banks,
loaded upon rafts fastened to the shore,
Turned by and by into corpses
under the scorching sun;
in the midst of flame
tossing against the evening sky,
Round about the street where mother and
brother were trapped alive under the fallen house
The fire-flood shifted on.
On beds of filth along the Armory floor,
Heaps, and God knew who they were …
Heaps of schoolgirls lying in refuse
Pot-bellied, one-eyed, with half their skin peeled
off bald.
The sun shone, and nothing moved
But the buzzing flies in the metal basins
Reeking with stagnant ordure.
How can I forget that stillness
Prevailing over the city of three hundred thousands?
Amidst that calm,
How can I forget the entreaties
Of departed wife and child
Through their orbs of eyes,
Cutting through our minds and souls?

—Mitsuyoshi Toge

Mitsuyoshi Toge (February 1917–March 1953) was a Japanese Catholic poet, born in Osaka in 1917 to a successful brick manufacturer. He began writing poetry as an adolescent; by 1945 he composed three thousand tanka and even more haiku. A mistaken diagnosis of tuberculosis in 1938 kept him mostly bed-ridden throughout World War II. Toge was living in Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, when, at 8:15 in the morning, Thomas Ferebee, the bombadier for the American B-29 bomber Enola Gay, dropped an atomic bomb over the city center, under orders from his commanding officer, Paul Tibbets, and at the behest of the General Curtis LeMay, U.S. Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson, and ultimately Harry S. Truman, the President of the United States of America. The bomb burned alive over one third of the population of the city, and its effects killed a total of about 140,000 people — over half of Hiroshima’s population — by the end of 1945. In addition to the unspeakable mass death, Hiroshima was shattered and decimated, with nine-tenths of all the buildings in the city reduced to ruins by the combination of the heat, the shockwave, and the outbreak of fires throughout the city. Toge witnessed the explosion and its effects on his home first hand. After the war was over, Toge began to write new poetry that was strikingly different his earlier lyric poetry, haiku, and tanka. His first collection of poems about the atomic bomb, Genbaku shishu (Poems of the Atomic Bomb), was published in 1951. He died young–only 36 years old–in 1953. This poem is reprinted from a 1978 anthology, Hiroshima-Nagasaki: A Pictorial Record of the Atomic Destruction.

A Wobbly loves his flag

September 6th, 2007

I love my flag, I do, I do,
Which floats upon the breeze.
I also love my arms and legs,
And neck and nose and knees.
One little shell might spoil them all
Or give them such a twist,
They would be of no use to me;
I guess I won’t enlist.

I love my country, yes, I do,
I hope her folks do well.
Without our arms and legs and things,
I think we’d look like hell.
Young men with faces half shot off
Are unfit to be kissed,
I’ve read in books it spoils their looks;
I guess I won’t enlist.

Anonymous, Industrial Worker (April 14, 1917).

Disabled, by Wilfred Owen

September 4th, 2007

Disabled

He sat in a wheeled chair, waiting for dark,
And shivered in his ghastly suit of grey,
Legless, sewn short at elbow. Through the park
Voices of boys rang saddening like a hymn,
Voices of play and pleasure after day,
Till gathering sleep had mothered them from him.

About this time Town used to swing so gay
When glow-lamps budded in the light blue trees,
And girls glanced lovelier as the air grew dim, –
In the old times, before he threw away his knees.
Now he will never feel again how slim
Girls’ waists are, or how warm their subtle hands.
All of them touch him like some queer disease.

There was an artist silly for his face,
For it was younger than his youth, last year.
Now, he is old; his back will never brace;
He’s lost his colour very far from here,
Poured it down shell-holes till the veins ran dry,
And half his lifetime lapsed in the hot race
And leap of purple spurted from his thigh.

One time he liked a blood-smear down his leg,
After the matches, carried shoulder-high.
It was after football, when he’d drunk a peg,
He thought he’d better join. – He wonders why.
Someone had said he’d look a god in kilts,
That’s why; and maybe, too, to please his Meg,
Aye, that was it, to please the giddy jilts
He asked to join. He didn’t have to beg;
Smiling they wrote his lie: aged nineteen years.

Germans he scarcely thought of; all their guilt,
And Austria’s, did not move him. And no fears
Of Fear came yet. He thought of jewelled hilts
For daggers in plaid socks; of smart salutes;
And care of arms; and leave; and pay arrears;
Esprit de corps; and hints for young recruits.
And soon, he was drafted out with drums and cheers.

Some cheered him home, but not as crowds cheer Goal.
Only a solemn man who brought him fruits
Thanked him; and then enquired about his soul.

Now, he will spend a few sick years in institutes,
And do what things the rules consider wise,
And take whatever pity they may dole.
Tonight he noticed how the women’s eyes
Passed from him to the strong men that were whole.
How cold and late it is! Why don’t they come
And put him into bed? Why don’t they come?

Wilfred Owen (1917)

Water Lilies: Claude Monet, 1917, by Peter Filkins

March 20th, 2007

Water Lilies

Claude Monet, 1917

Meanwhile he painted them–water lilies
floating on the surface of a pond
he’d constructed for the pleasure of the eye
and motifs to paint
at the century’s end,
the new one begun with multiple explosions
of red, of pink, white fleshy flowers
against the backdrop of a subsurface blue

with distances, the sky itself reflected
in the watery calm where a cloud adrift
would later be captured by his brush
in motion, each day in the studio
another one spent to the echo of guns
bombarding the trenches, pummeling the Some
erupting in billows of acrid black smoke

upon a horizon no longer present
but subsumed, erased, immersed as he was
in the flux of light on water, flowers
afloat on the air beneath a willow
and its weeping, our only perspective
in a lost world lost to bottomless translucency,
the eye that sees it, and the intractable sun.

Peter Filkins (2007)

Read the rest of this entry »

Learning, by Utah Phillips

October 6th, 2006

Standing in the alleys of Yongsan,
I wonder if Pyongyang looks the same:
everything broken, endless mud,
children, searching for someone.
Tomorrow the looking will end,
and the begging will begin.

Soldiers move briskly, confidently,
among the ruins
of what we have done to each other.
We did it,
not because wanted to,
but because we were told to.

Well, it’s done now.
Tomorrow I’ll go home
to where the tellers are.
If there’s any purpose
to what I’ve done here,
it is the certainty
that I will never again
do what I am told.

Utah Phillips, Learning, on I’ve Got To Know (1992)

Read the rest of this entry »

Babi Yar

September 29th, 2006

Babi Yar is a ravine outside of Kiev, in the Ukraine. Sixty-five years ago yesterday, the German occupying forces in Kiev posted signs throughout the city reading:

All Jews living in the city of Kiev and its vicinity are to report by 8 o’clock on the morning of Monday, September 29, 1941, to the corner of Melnikovsky and Dokhturov Streets (near the cemetery). They are to take with them documents, money, valuables, as well as warm clothes, underwear, etc. Any Jew not carrying out this instruction and who is found elsewhere will be shot. Any civilian entering flats evacuated by Jews and stealing property will be shot.

At the time, there were about 175,000 Jews living in Kiev and its suburbs. Sixty-five years ago today, on September 29, 1941, thousands of Jewish men, women, and children reported as ordered, expecting to be taken onto trains and deported. At the meeting-place they were surrounded by German soldiers and local collaborators from the Ukrainian auxiliary police, who drove them into small groups of ten, forced them to the edge of the gorge, and then opened fire with machine guns. The mobile killing unit Einsatzgruppe C, which kept records of the massacre, reported that they systematically killed 33,771 Jews from Kiev in two days, on September 29th and September 30th.

Here is a photograph of German soldiers, stepping through a landscape completely covered with fallen bodies at Babi Yar gorge.

After the end of World War II, Stalin’s regime became increasingly anti-Semitic, and the Soviet government refused repeated demands to build a memorial to the dead. This is a poem that the Ukrainian poet Yevgeny Aleksandrovich Yevtushenko wrote twenty years after the massacre, in 1961. The poem became widely known through recitations and samizdat circulation, but could not be published through the State-controlled press until 1984.

BABI YAR

No monument stands over Babi Yar.
A steep cliff only, like the rudest headstone.
I am afraid.
Today, I am as old
As the entire Jewish race itself.

I see myself an ancient Israelite.
I wander over the roads of ancient Egypt
And here, upon the cross, I perish, tortured
And even now, I bear the marks of nails.

It seems to me that Dreyfus is myself.
The Philistines betrayed me – and now judge.
I’m in a cage. Surrounded and trapped,
I’m persecuted, spat on, slandered, and
The dainty dollies in their Brussels frills
Squeal, as they stab umbrellas at my face.

I see myself a boy in Belostok
Blood spills, and runs upon the floors,
The chiefs of bar and pub rage unimpeded
And reek of vodka and of onion, half and half.

I’m thrown back by a boot, I have no strength left,
In vain I beg the rabble of pogrom,
To jeers of Kill the Jews, and save our Russia!
My mother’s being beaten by a clerk.

O, Russia of my heart, I know that you
Are international, by inner nature.
But often those whose hands are steeped in filth
Abused your purest name, in name of hatred.

I know the kindness of my native land.
How vile, that without the slightest quiver
The antisemites have proclaimed themselves
The Union of the Russian People!

It seems to me that I am Anna Frank,
Transparent, as the thinnest branch in April,
And I’m in love, and have no need of phrases,
But only that we gaze into each other’s eyes.
How little one can see, or even sense!
Leaves are forbidden, so is sky,
But much is still allowed — very gently
In darkened rooms each other to embrace.

They come!

No, fear not — those are sounds
Of spring itself. She’s coming soon.
Quickly, your lips!

They break the door!

No, river ice is breaking…

Wild grasses rustle over Babi Yar,
The trees look sternly, as if passing judgement.
Here, silently, all screams, and, hat in hand,
I feel my hair changing shade to gray.

And I myself, like one long soundless scream
Above the thousands of thousands interred,
I’m every old man executed here,
As I am every child murdered here.

No fiber of my body will forget this.
May Internationale thunder and ring
When, for all time, is buried and forgotten
The last of antisemites on this earth.

There is no Jewish blood that’s blood of mine,
But, hated with a passion that’s corrosive
Am I by antisemites like a Jew.
And that is why I call myself a Russian!

Y.A. Yevtushenko (1961), translated by Benjamin Okopnik (1996)

A memorial to the dead was finally placed at Babi Yar in 1991, fifty years after the massacre.

Victory Stuff

August 19th, 2006

What d’ye think, lad; what d’ye think,
As the roaring crowds go by?
As the banners flare and the brasses blare
And the great guns rend the sky?
As the women laugh like they’d all gone mad,
And the champagne glasses clink:
Oh, you’re grippin’ me hand so tightly, lad,
I’m a-wonderin’: what d’ye think?

D’ye think o’ the boys we used to know,
And how they’d have topped the fun?
Tom and Charlie, and Jack and Joe —
Gone now, every one.
How they’d have cheered as the joy-bells chime,
And they grabbed each girl for a kiss!
And now — they’re rottin’ in Flanders slime,
And they gave their lives — for this.

Or else d’ye think of the many a time
We wished we too was dead,
Up to our knees in the freezin’ grime,
With the fires of hell overhead;
When the youth and the strength of us sapped away,
And we cursed in our rage and pain?
And yet — we haven’t a word to say….
We’re glad. We’d do it again.

I’m scared that they pity us. Come, old boy,
Let’s leave them their flags and their fuss.
We’d surely be hatin’ to spoil their joy
With the sight of such wrecks as us.
Let’s slip away quietly, you and me,
And we’ll talk of our chums out there:
You with your eyes that’ll never see,
Me that’s wheeled in a chair.

Robert Service (1921)

Read the rest of this entry »

Mental Cases

August 10th, 2006

Who are these? Why sit they here in twilight?
Wherefore rock they, purgatorial shadows,
Drooping tongues from jaws that slob their relish,
Baring teeth that leer like skulls’ teeth wicked?
Stroke on stroke of pain,–but what slow panic,
Gouged these chasms round their fretted sockets?
Ever from their hair and through their hands’ palms
Misery swelters. Surely we have perished
Sleeping, and walk hell; but who these hellish?

–These are men whose minds the Dead have ravished.
Memory fingers in their hair of murders,
Multitudinous murders they once witnessed.
Wading sloughs of flesh these helpless wander,
Treading blood from lungs that had loved laughter.
Always they must see these things and hear them,
Batter of guns and shatter of flying muscles,
Carnage incomparable, and human squander
Rucked too thick for these men’s extrication.

Therefore still their eyeballs shrink tormented
Back into their brains, because on their sense
Sunlight seems a blood-smear; night comes blood-black;
Dawn breaks open like a wound that bleeds afresh.
–Thus their heads wear this hilarious, hideous,
Awful falseness of set-smiling corpses.
–Thus their hands are plucking at each other;
Picking at the rope-knouts of their scourging;
Snatching after us who smote them, brother,
Pawing us who dealt them war and madness.

Wilfred Owen (1917–1918)

Read the rest of this entry »