Monday, February 22, 2016

A Challenge to the World

 In 1921, the book Contemporary Poetry of the Negro was published.  Its editor, R.T. Kerlin, wrote, “In the poetry which the Negro is producing today there is a challenge to the world….The World War, in which the Negroes gave liberally, patriotically, heroically, of their blood and treasure for democracy, quickened dying hopes and begot new aspirations.”  Kerlin included a poem written by Joshua Henry Jones, Jr. citing it as the best example of the “many poetic expressions of this reaction” to the war.

The Heart of the World*
--Joshua Henry Jones, Jr.

In the heart of the world is the call for peace.
Up-surging symphonic roar.
'Tis ill of all clashings; it seeks release
From fetters of greed and gore.
The winds of the battlefields echo the sigh
Of hero souls slumbering deep;
Who gave all they had and now dreamlessly lie
Where the bayonets sent them to sleep.

Peace for the wealthy; peace for the poor;
Peace on the hillside and peace o'er the moor.

In the heart of the world is the call for right;
For fingers to bind up the wound,
Slashed deep by the ruthless harsh hand of might
When Justice is crushed to the ground.
'Tis ill of the fevers of fear of the strong –
Of jealousies – prejudice – pride –
Is there no ideal that's proof against wrong?
Man asks of the man at his side.

Right for the lowly; right for the great.
Right all to pilot to happiness’ gate.

In the heart of the world is the call for love.
White heart – Red – Yellow – and Black.
Each face turns to Bethlehem’s bright star above,
Tho’ wolves of self howl at each back.
The whole earth is lifting its voice in a prayer
That nations may learn to endure,
Without killing and maiming, but doing what’s fair
With a soul that is noble and pure.

Love in weak peoples; love in the strong.
Love that will banish all hatred and wrong.

In the heart of the world is the call of God.
East – West – and North – and South.
Stirring, deep-yearning, breast-heaving call for God
A-tremble behind each mouth.
The heart’s ill of torments that rend men’s souls.
Skyward lift all faiths in hope.
Across all the oceans the evidence rolls
Refreshing all life’s arid slopes.

God in the highborn; God in the low.
God calls us, world-brothers.  Hark ye! and know.

*Inspired by the speech of President Woodrow Wilson at Boston on his return from the first sittings of the peace conference in 1919.

While Jones’ poem clearly responds to the First World War, its subtext also references the racist attacks that blacks confronted in America, the country that had vowed to fight “to make the world safe for democracy.”  Vivid images in the poem evoke not only the battlefields of France, but the lynchings and injustices that were common occurrences on the home front: the “fetters of greed and gore,” the “ruthless harsh hand of might,” the “fevers of fear of the strong,” and the “torments that rend men’s souls.”

Despite the blood and brokenness of the past, the poem optimistically envisions a new world emerging from the ashes, a world in which rights are granted to both the great and the lowly,  a world where love and acceptance for people of all colors is reborn “under the star of Bethlehem.”  In this new age that dawns at the close of the First World War, the whole earth lifts its voice in prayer, turns its back on the destructive wolf call of the selfish ego, and learns to do what is fair, without “killing or maiming.”  Jones’ poem affirms that the Great War was “the war to end all wars,” and that the peoples of the earth can walk together into a bright future as “world-brothers.”

The brave sacrifice of African American soldiers inspired many with hope for change.  In August of 1918, Isobel Field, writing for the African American magazine Vigilantes, was reprinted in The Crisis (founded in 1910, the official magazine of the NAACP), asserting, “There is a personage nearer home that we must be prepared to lose.  Mistah Johnston, the Darktown Coon.  He is no more.  Gradually there has appeared in his place a stern young American, trained and alert, musket in hand.  There is no hyphen to his name.  His forefathers were Africans, but he is loyal United States.”

Tragically, the sacrifices of those “stern young Americans” were not recognized, the peace did not last, and the name of Joshua Henry Jones, Jr. has been forgotten.  Although Jones wrote the lyrics to the city of Boston’s official song (“Dear Old Boston”), served as Boston’s poet laureate, and published several volumes of poetry, he is almost unheard of today, another of the lost voices of the First World War.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Song of Verdun

Tragic and symbolic -- it has been said that one cannot fully understand France without understanding the battle of Verdun.  The battle known as the "Mincer" or "Meat Grinder” was the German attempt to goad the French into a fight that was beyond the point of rational calculation, a battle that would “bleed France white.”

The German artillery barrage that marked the start of the battle of Verdun was unlike anything that had ever been seen before.  It began at 7:00 am on 21 February 1916, and over the next ten hours, an estimated one-million shells were fired into the French lines.  Soldiers who survived described a constant deafening rain of building blocks, paving stones, splintered trees, rocks, and dirt.  The shelling churned the ground into mud that mixed with dead bodies.  Lasting until 18 December 1916, the battle of Verdun produced horrific conditions that drove men mad.  Over forty-million artillery shells were fired; entire villages were destroyed forever; between 300,000 and 415,000 men were killed, and between 400,000 and 800,000 were injured.

French soldier and surrealist poet Benjamin Péret wrote of one man’s experience:

Little Song of the Maimed                                        Petit Chanson des Mutilés

Lend me your arm                                                     Prête-moi ton bras
To replace my leg                                                      pour remplacer ma jambe
The rats ate it for me                                                 Les rats me l'ont mangée
At Verdun                                                                  à Verdun
At Verdun                                                                  à Verdun

I ate lots of rats                                                         J'ai mangé beaucoup de rats
But they didn’t give me back my leg                        mais ils ne m'ont pas rendu ma jambe
And that’s why I was given the Croix de Guerre      c'est pour cela qu'on m'a donné la croix de guerre
And a wooden leg                                                      et une jambe de bois
And a wooden leg                                                      et une jambe de bois.
      -- Benjamin Perét                                                               -- Benjamin Péret
         Translated by David Gascoyne

Just a “little song” about a man who was maimed for life, this poem’s child-like repetitions and blunt directness mock the absurdity of war and the attempts to honor its soldiers.

French cubist artist Fernand Léger, nearly killed by a mustard gas attack at Verdun, described his impressions of Verdun: “I could see out over an area of ten square kilometers that had been turned into a uniform desert of brown earth.  The men were all so tiny and lost in it that I could hardly see them.  A shell fell in the midst of these little things, which moved for a moment, carrying off the wounded – the dead, as unimportant as so many ants, were left behind.  They were no bigger than ants down there.  The artillery dominates everything.  A formidable, intelligent weapon, striking everywhere with such desperate consistency” (Fernand Léger, 7 November 1916).

Both the surrealist poet and the cubist artist challenge us to think about the ways in which modern, industrial war strips us of our very humanity and to consider one of the primary lessons of Verdun: never again.  
The card party, Fernand Leger
Thanks to Mike Hanlon, editor of the blog Roads to the Great War and his magazine Over the Top: Why Verdun? (Feb 2016) for much of the historical background.  Any errors are my own.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

A Kiss

1916 postcard
Known as the “Canadian Rupert Brooke,” Bernard Freeman Trotter was a twenty-five-year-old graduate student at the University of Toronto when he volunteered for the Canadian Overseas Expeditionary Force in February of 1916.  Serving as a Second Lieutenant with the 11th Leicestershire Regiment, he trained as a Transport Officer on the Western Front.  He was happy with the assignment, assuring his parents back home, “I find shell fire far less trying on the nerves when on horseback in charge of a convoy than when crouching in a trench.” 

His letters home also reflected on the ways in which war changes a man: “One is inclined, I am afraid, to lose perspective very badly, and give no thought to what happens to anyone save your own little party,” he thoughtfully explained. “You watch shells bursting over other people’s areas with the most perfect equanimity. As for the poor Bosch, who gets regularly at least ten to one, he is entirely beyond the pale of sympathy except at odd and fleeting moments” (McMasterUniversity).

Although perhaps he lacked sympathy for the “poor Bosch,” Trotter’s war-time poetry reveals his optimism and faith, as well as his love of nature and high romance. In August of 1916 as he prepared to leave for France, Trotter composed a poem that tells of the sweet goodbye a soldier happily receives before leaving for war.  

A Kiss
--Bernard Freeman Trotter
She kissed me when she said good-bye— 
A child's kiss, neither bold nor shy. 
We had met but a few short summer hours; 
Talked of the sun, the wind, the flowers, 
Sports and people; had rambled through 
A casual catchy song or two, 
And walked with arms linked to the car
By the light of a single misty star.
(It was war-time, you see, and the streets were dark
Lest the ravishing Hun should find a mark.) 
And so we turned to say good-bye;
But somehow or other, I don't know why,
—Perhaps `t was the feel of the khaki coat 
(She'd a brother in Flanders then) that smote 
Her heart with a sudden tenderness 
Which issued in that swift caress— 
Somehow, to her, at any rate 
A mere hand-clasp seemed inadequate; 
And so she lifted her dewey face
And kissed me—but without a trace 
Of passion,—and we said good-bye… 
A child's kiss,…neither bold nor shy. 
My friend, I like you—it seemed to say— 
Here's to our meeting again some day! 
Some happier day…

The poem is saturated in hope and innocence.  The sun shines, flowers bloom, and the young couple “ramble through a casual catchy song or two,” perhaps joining together in “K-K-K Katy” or “She Wore it for a Lover Who Was Far, Far Away.” Her face is dewey, his coat is khaki, and as they linger for a last evening’s stroll, their arms linked under the light of a “single misty star,” the young woman is overwhelmed with “a sudden tenderness” that gives way to a swift, impulsive caress.  She quickly bestows upon the young soldier a kiss, “without a trace of passion.”  That impetuous kiss confirms a sweet friendship and promises a bright future meeting when the world has returned to peace and sanity.

Although Bernard Trotter wrote “The Kiss” while stationed in England and preparing for war, the poem makes only the briefest nod to the conflict.  Within the boundaries of this verse, even the Hun seems to join in conspiring to support romance, for thanks to the threat of German attack, the streets are lit only by stars.  Poetry was able to provide both an emotional and imaginative escape from the war for both soldiers and civilians.

Bernard Freeman Trotter
Bernard Trotter had been at the front less than six months when he was killed May 7th, 1917.  His commanding officer wrote to Bernard’s father that the young lieutenant “was out with the Transport last night and had just completed his journey and was returning to the stables when a High Explosive Shell burst quite close to him. It must have killed him instantaneously as he dropped off his horse and was past all help when one of his corporals went over to him about half a minute afterwards.  The accident happened about 12 midnight.  They brought him back to the Town where the Headquarters and Transport Stables are and came and reported it to me. On their arrival, I at once got up and got our Medical Officer up to see him, but it was as I feared from the first.  He was past all human aid.  We buried him here in the Military Cemetery alongside two of his brother officers who have been killed quite recently here….We are putting up a simple oak cross and a wooden curb on his grave and shall get it planted with violets and other flowers, and in due course of time you will receive a photo of it….I should like to remark how very much we all regret his loss and all the officers including myself do grieve with you in his sudden death and offer you all our deepest sympathies….He was one of the coolest men I have ever seen under shell fire and I am sure you will be proud of this….I am afraid this is a very incomplete sort of letter to write but we get very hard hearted and rough with these constant casualties (I have lost eight officers this month alone), so I must ask you to excuse it, I and all the officers do feel your son’s loss very much and we offer you and his mother our deepest sympathies.”

His father chose as the inscription for his son’s headstone, “How, dying, smotest thou the one full chord ere thy lute broke.”

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

I really can't shoot a man with a cold

Stars and Stripes, February 1918
It’s a dark night, the moon hasn’t yet risen, and in No Man’s Land, a British soldier is playing a deadly game of cat-and-mouse with his German counterparts.  And then a man muffles a sneeze.

In No Man's Land
(Hammerhead Wood, Thiepval, 1915)
by Ewart Alan Mackintosh

The hedge on the left, and the trench on the right,
And the whispering, rustling wood between,
And who knows where in the wood to-night
Death or capture may lurk unseen.
The open field and the figures lying
Under the shade of the apple trees —
Is it the wind in the branches sighing.
The Front Line at Night, JA Churchman
Or a German trying to stop a sneeze ?

Louder the voices of night come thronging,
But over them all the sound is clear.
Taking me back to the place of my longing
And the cultured sneezes I used to hear.
Lecture-time and my tutor's " handkerchief "
Stopping his period's rounded close,
Like the frozen hand of the German ranker
Down in a ditch with a cold in his nose.

I’m cold, too, and a stealthy snuffle
From the man with a pistol covering me,
And the Bosche moving off with a snap and a shuffle
Break the windows of memory —
I can't make sure till the moon gets lighter —
Anyway shooting is over bold.
Oh, damn you, get back to your trench, you blighter,
I really can't shoot a man with a cold.

Mixing horror and the commonplace, the poem shows us the absurdity of war. The dangers of the situation in No Man’s Land are very real as snipers stalk one another in the night, and men with loaded pistols seek enemy targets in the dark.  This tension is both heightened and broken by the most ordinary of moments:  a man sneezes.

A common misery joins the enemy soldiers.  Cold, wet, dirty, and exhausted, they fight not only one another, but the nagging maladies of their situations: dysentery, trench foot, and the common cold. As the poem makes clear, a head cold is likely to get a soldier killed if he can’t stop his sneezes and sniffles from revealing his position. But the very absurdity of it – being killed because of a sneeze – takes the British soldier back to his childhood, to the place of his “longing,” and he remembers with silly fondness the “cultured sneezes” he used to hear as his tutor attempted to stifle them in a handkerchief.

I’m fascinated by these “out-of-place-and-time” moments that so many war poems record – soldiers who stop in the midst of their battle duties to contemplate the fields of home, to recall a piece of music, to remember a girl in a garden, or to wonder if the old cow has died.

Waking from his brief reverie, the British Tommy reflects on their shared misery and holds his fire, neglecting his duty: that of killing the German.  There’s a bit of name calling as the Bosch is damned back to his own trench:  he’s called a “ranker,” (an enlisted man of the lower classes) and a “blighter” (a man who’s contemptibly unlucky), but this is a night of live and let live -- until the next time orders come to maim, kill, and destroy.

Ewart Alan Mackintosh, author of “No Man’s Land,” enlisted in the Seaforth Highlanders in December of 1914.  Embracing his Scottish heritage, he played the pipes, spoke Gaelic, and was nicknamed “Tosh.”  Wounded and gassed at the Somme in August of 1916, he was sent back to England to recover, and while serving as a training officer outside Cambridge, he became engaged to Sylvia Marsh, a Quaker VAD. Mackintosh returned to France in October of 1917 and was shot and killed on November 21, 1917.
Ewart Alan Mackintosh