Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Pictures from the Great War

Somewhere in a box I still have, I believe, a large format book of photos from what we now call World War I. Though its binding was long ago broken, and some of its pages long since drifted out of the signatures in which they were once sewn, it retains a special place in my remembered experience. It was titled Pictures from the Great War, and must have been published in the early nineteen twenties. It belonged to my father, and had probably belonged to his father. Whatever its provenance, it made an indelible impression on my young eyes when I came across it in my early teens. I borrowed its title when, in 1968, I wrote a poem grounded in my perceptions of the Vietnam War, and war in general. The poem was published in Lillabulero #7, Fall 1969.

Lillabulero was a great little mag with some very talented and ambitious editors, guys of large vision for grad students, among them Bill Matthews and Russell Banks. I was on staff for part of its run as "assistant poetry editor" (or something within shouting distance of that), after having served in a like capacity at the Carolina Quarterly. Great fun, and a wonderful introduction to the world of little mags. I remember Ray Kass, who had work in the same number, pointing out that someday guys doing research on Gary Snyder, who was featured in the issue, would dig up the magazine from dusty stacks and see our poems as well; there we'd be, awaiting discovery! Woohoo!

Anyway, here's the poem:

Pictures from the Great War

What an incredible book!
Pictures and facts
about an ancient war.
The paper airplanes,
the machines
whose horses seem to be absent.
These four human-
shaped lumps with snow
blooming on their last
tunics and glass eyes.
Wilfred Owen
dead in a trench.

The people with homes
only in their sapling carts,
or on their backs,
in exodus down the road
between the cold fields,
or rice paddies filled
with the rigid holes,
the ripples, frozen,
of explosions...

The shocked, scarred stumps
hunkering back
to suck for the marrow
they have lost, as they have lost
forever the shadow of their cool leaves
under the half track and chariot.

It's another one that didn't make it into NatureS, given its different voice; it'd be "juvenalia", I suppose. But here we are in another war, one even more crazy, more bankrupt in its premises, that's created more than three five million refugees, so far, and it once again has a certain sad timeliness.


Photo of "Serbian refugees fleeing with their belongings" from this site, which has some fine albums provided by soldiers among their collection of photos from the war.

Update: should you decide to track down that old issue of
Lillabulero, you'd find that I've changed a word or two here. Author's privilege, you know.

Further update 9/21/2007: I've revised the number of refugees created by our current war from two
million to three (damn), and made a couple of other stylistic edits. Having looked up a surviving copy of the issue, I've also corrected my reference to the other writers it published; I'd originally remembered that Ray had referred to Robert Creeley, as well as to Snyder, but I see that the Creeley material appeared in the next number; given my love of Creeley's work, I must have interpolated the reference to him on my own.

And furthermore: Changed the number of refugees once again to include the "internally displaced" - those who have had to leave their homes but are still in Iraq. Five million.

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