Wednesday, October 15, 2014

The floors are slippery with blood

"The floors are slippery with blood." These are the words Edith Sitwell uses to break the silence and begin her poem “The Dancers: During a Great Battle, 1916.”  The best-known WWI poems are written by “trench poets,” the term given to soldiers on the Western Front who wrote about the experience of war (such as Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon).  Not many know Sitwell’s poem: she was a woman whose brother Osbert (also a poet) fought in the trenches of France, and through him, she met and became friends with Sassoon.  After the war, Edith Sitwell remarked that the poetry of the war should be left to the men who fought there.  It’s interesting to note how her experience of the war, how women’s experience of the war, has been marginalized, even by the women themselves. 

The Great Battle she is writing of is most likely the battle of the Somme, and Fussell (The Great War and Modern Memory) states that the artillery fire prior to the first day of the battle could be heard in England, rattling windows (68).  Reading the poem, I wonder, Where is Sitwell’s narrator located?  Who is this person, and who is the “we” of the poem?  

The floors are slippery with blood:
The world gyrates too.  God is good
That while His wind blows out the light
For those who die hourly for us –
We can still dance, each night.

The music has grown numb with death –
But we will suck their dying breath,
The whispered name they breathed to chance,
To swell our music, make it loud
That we may dance—,  may dance. 

We are the dull blind carrion-fly
That dance and batten.  Though God die
Mad from the horror of the light—
The light is mad, too, flecked with blood,—
We dance, we dance, each night. 

Is the scene a society party, grotesquely out-of-touch with the sufferings of the soldiers in the trenches?  Sassoon wrote, “The man who really endured the War at its worst was everlastingly differentiated from everyone except his fellow soldiers” (Fussell 90).  Or is the dance closer to the front, just behind the lines in a staging town such as Poperinghe, where soldiers and nurses, ambulance drivers and VADs frenetically sought rest and diversion from the Front? 

Otto Dix, "Dance of Death"
The repetition of the phrase “we dance,” is chanted like a charm to stave off the horrors of the war.  Dancing itself seems an act of forgetting and pretending that life continues as normal, despite the world gyrating (the earth shook for miles during heavy shelling) and the blood that is everywhere, on the floors, and in the very light.   

The speaker names herself as separate from those who die, yet she is not distant:  she is the carrion-fly that crawls over corpses, dancing as she battens or prepares for the upcoming crisis by strengthening and fastening herself to the dance.  In fact, she names herself only as one who dances.  Whether the dance described is the slow spin of a waltz or a metaphorical account of the dizzying attempt to cope with the war, the poem gives voice to an aching and terrible beauty. 


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