Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Their Strange Eyes

AEF soldier of the 319th 

In October of 1918, the First World War was entering its fifth year and the influenza pandemic was killing millions. The October issue of Poetry magazine, edited by Harriet Monroe, published numerous war poems and a tribute to dead soldier poets (Lola Ridge’s “The Song,” shared earlier on this blog, also appeared in the October 1918 issue.)

One poem, with the haunting title “Their Strange Eyes Hold No Vision,” wrote of the toll that the war was taking not only on bodies, but on minds.

Their Strange Eyes Hold No Vision

Their strange eyes hold no vision, as a rule;
No dizzy glory. A still look is theirs,
But rather as one subtly vacant stares,
Watching the circling magic of a pool.
Blown Up by William Orpen
© IWM ART 2376

Now when the morning firing becomes tame,
Out in the warming sun he tries to guess
Which battery they’re after. “Let me see;
Which battery is there? which battery?
I wonder which…..” Again, again, the same
Returning question, idle, meaningless.
Startled, he sighs—or laughs—or softly swears;
Mutteringly something of dear names declares
In the bitter cruelty of tenderness.

The planes drift low, circling monotonously,
Droning like many a drowsy bumble-bee
Some summer morning. Only now and then
A whining shell, the mere formality
Of stupid war, calls back his thoughts again.

Suddenly near the unseen death swoops low,
Laughing and singing; and full pitifully
The startled eyes stare wide, but do not see
The whirling features of the genie foe,
Safe in his summoned cloud. The quiet skies
Tell not his surest comings. With waved wands
A mist springs from the earth, and swaying stands
A veiling moment ….. sinks …..
And there he lies
Face down, clutching the clay with warm dead hands.
            —Howard Buck

Howard Buck, a volunteer with the Norton-Harjes ambulance corps in France, describes the detachment of a desensitized and confused soldier. The man’s attempts to determine the enemy’s firing range are framed as meaningless, dreamy questions, far out of the soldier’s control. He can only stare vacantly at the “stupid war,” hypnotized by the drone of unseen circling planes that appear as “genie foe,” unaware that he will soon lie dead, “clutching the clay with warm dead hands.”
Howard Buck

Howard Buck was an eyewitness to the ghastly effects of war. He was awarded the French Croix de Guerre for his actions on 7 September 1917, when he and fellow ambulancier Donald Jordan rushed to where “a shell had claimed many victims” and “resolutely came to the aid of the wounded who were brought back to the aid station under the continuing violent bombardment.”* In his poem “September 7,” Buck writes,

We lifted them, the broken, moaning men,
And those that never spoke,
And staggered back that glaring way again.

A bleeding brother ever, ever nigh,
Days, days and nights. The curious gold ring;
His hand’s strange warmth: until the day I die
I know I shall remember everything.

Howard Buck returned to his literature studies at Yale in 1918. His war poems were awarded the Albert Stanburrough Cook Prize and were published as the first volume in the Yale Series of Younger Poets (1919), titled The Tempering.
*Frederick Sumner Mead, ed., Harvard’s Military Record in the World War, Harvard Alumni Association, 1921, p. 520.