Monday, April 17, 2017

A good death

What is a good death? For soldiers in the First World War – for soldiers in any war -- the thought is never far away.  They have seen instant death as men disappear into a mist of blood at the burst of an artillery shell; they have witnessed men burned by flame, buried in underground tunnels, shot through the bowels, overcome by poisonous gas. 

Albert-Paul Granier was a French heavy artillery gunner at Verdun and the Somme. His poem “La Fièvre” (translated as “Fever” by Ian Higgins) is an account of one man’s delirious conversation with his own heart as he imagines his death. 


“Heartbeat, heartbeat, why the rush?
Whither the headlong dash,
where are you taking me,
where is this punishing mad gallop
dragging my disheveled life?”

My heart is racing off, up through the clouds,
over the mountains, across the plains –
not Pécopin* himself, on Satan’s thoroughbred,
flew as swift through all those haunted years
as me, on this runaway heart
careering like a wild stallion.

            “Where are you rushing me, heart?”
            “To a white hospital, in a quiet garden,
women softly rustling through the wards,
and, at nightfall, distant tranquil bells
murmuring a call to evensong;
to a white hospital, and a peaceful death,
a woman’s white hand on your pale brow,
and precious words of comfort on her lips.”
            “No, rampaging heart! No!”

French dead at Verdun
            “Fetch my horse!
-- Sooner the fierce alarm-cry of guns
announcing torrents of thunder-strikes;
and sooner than the nurses’ soft footsteps,
give me merciless flying splintered steel
whizzing invisible just above our heads!

No, heart…
                        Let me die beside rearing guns,
in the mad triumph of this great Epic,
die lying here, in the mud and the blood,
my eyes filled with sky, my heart with stars,
here, soothed by the moon’s affectionate caress,
with a great chunk of steel in my chest!
                        --Albert-Paul Granier, translated by Ian Higgins

Listening to the soldier’s inner dialogue, we experience the terror of his madly pounding heart. His life, already dirty and disordered, is recklessly dragged forward by the fevered racing of his pulse.  Like a powerless rider on a dangerous runaway horse, the man realizes he has lost all control of his future: “where are you taking me?” he asks the wild stallion that beats ferociously in his chest.

In his feverish imagination, his heart answers his query: his journey’s end will be a place of quiet and tranquility, of white stillness and calm. His runaway heart envisions the soldier’s “peaceful death” in a hospital, blessed by the comforting touch of a woman’s hand as he quietly breathes his last. 

And then the nightmare vision takes an unexpected turn: the soldier spurns the headlong gallop towards tranquility, shouting, “No, rampaging heart! No!” Instead, he recklessly embraces the messiness of death in the front lines of battle.  It is here, amid the mud, blood, and deafening roar of the guns, where the chaos of the Great War is transformed into the mad tragedy of “this great Epic.”  There is an honesty in this death of mutilation and gore – “with a great chunk of steel in my chest.” As unnatural as these battle deaths are, it is better that they not be sanitized. The soldier dies alone, but in his last moments, he is deeply connected to the natural world, his eyes “filled with sky,” his “heart with stars.” 

In December of 1916, Albert-Paul Granier volunteered for the air service as a reconnaissance pilot. His book of poems Les Coqs et les Vautours was published in Paris in 1917; he was killed on August 17, 1917 when his plane was shot down over Verdun. He has no known grave.

Forgotten for nearly 90 years, his poems were discovered in 2008 at a rummage sale in Brittany. The volume has been masterfully translated into English by Ian Higgins in Cockerels and Vultures (2013, Saxon books). In his Foreword to the book, Higgins attributes the power of Granier’s poetry to its “paradoxical child-like vulnerability and gritty toughness of a generous mind attempting to encompass and express the unimagined new sorts of nightmare that the war was flinging at ordinary people day by day” (9).

* Pécopin, a character in the Victor Hugo novel The Story of the Bold Pécopin, makes a deal with the Devil in hopes of returning to his lover.  The Devil keeps Pécopin from his lover for one-hundred years, compelling him to race around the world on a ghostly horse.   

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