Aline Kilmer: When the War Poet’s Wife is a Poet, Too
by Peter Molin
Jehanne Dubrow, Elyse Fenton, Amalie Flynn, and Lisa Stice, as well as fiction authors such as Siobhan Fallon and Andria Williams, all spouses of military men, portray the contortions on domestic life and feminine sensibility wrought by war. The possibilities for pride and happiness are real, but tenuous, infused everywhere by the realities of separation, divided loyalties, fear, and mortality. Dubrow’s, Fenton’s, Flynn’s, Stice’s, Fallon’s, and Williams’ words convey the urgency and nuance of a war wife’s uncertainty as she finds her tranquility and self-worth vexingly dependent on her husband. Writing openly about self and marriage requires enormous courage. Perhaps it was ever so, or even more so 100 years ago.Today, poets such as
Aline Murray Kilmerwas the wife of American poet Joyce Kilmer, most famous for his poem “Trees.” Joyce’s status as a World War I poet is secured by poems such as “Rouge Bouquet” and “The Peacemaker,” both written shortly before his death in 1918 at the Second Battle of the Marne. The fact that Aline was also a poet is not well-known, and the possibility that her work addressed or was impacted by the Great War even less considered. Was Aline Kilmer a war poet? And how are her poems war poems? And what are the threads that connect her to today’s military spouses?
Aline, born in 1888 in Norfolk, Virginia, first met Joyce in high school in New Brunswick, New Jersey. Aline and Joyce married in 1908, and together they had five children, one of whom, Rose, died just before Joyce deployed to France. Aline published three volumes of poetry and an essay collection by 1925, plus two volumes of children’s poetry and an edition of selected poems before the end of the decade. Many of her poems and essays were first published in prominent magazines of the day such as, among others, Harper’s, Good Housekeeping, and The Smart Set. But after 1929, there were no more books before Aline died in 1941. Today, none of Aline’s books are in print, and though many of her poems can be found on the Internet, they have not attracted scholarly appraisal or popular acclaim.
Exploration of Aline’s life—particularly her relation with Joyce—and her poetry—especially its reference to war—is difficult, for very few of her poems refer explicitly to Joyce or war. Aline never wrote a memoir nor did she publish reminiscences of her late husband, who was famous for “Trees” and a nationally-known literary critic before joining the Army in 1917. For reasons unknown, she destroyed the letters she and Joyce traded while he was in France, and in her poetry, Aline often mentions her children by name, but never Joyce’s, though a vaguely-defined and occasionally recurring “you” suggests that at least some of them were aimed at her husband. The poems aren’t biography, but still, it’s hard to read them and not speculate how they helped Aline manage the fear, doubt, grief, and confusion occasioned by war and her husband’s death.
Aline’s first published volume of poetry, Candles That Burn, appeared in 1919. Many of its poems, all short lyrics expressed in conventional verse forms, had previously appeared in magazines, some predating Joyce’s military enlistment. Published within two years of the deaths of Joyce and daughter Rose, Candles That Burn contains many obvious references to Rose but remarkably few to Joyce. The poem, “I Shall Not Be Afraid,” provides one striking exception; Aline may have written it after Joyce deployed, but before he died:
I shall not be afraid any more,
Either by night or day;
What would it profit me to be afraid
With you away?
Now I am brave. In the dark night alone
All through the house I go,
Locking the doors and making windows fast
When sharp winds blow.
For there is only sorrow in my heart;
There is no room for fear.
But how I wish I were afraid again,
My dear, my dear!
“In Spring” may be addressed to either Joyce or Rose or both, and it may, like “I Shall Not Be Afraid,” be about physical distance, rather than separation by death:
I do not know which is worse when you are away:
Long grey days with the lisping sound of the rain
And then when the lilac dusk is beginning to fall
The thought that perhaps you may never come back
Or days when the world is a shimmer of blue and gold,
Sparkling newly all in the dear spring weather,
When with a heart that is torn apart by pain
I walk alone in ways that we went together.
Only in “Christmas” are Aline’s two recent losses specifically mentioned:
I shall sit alone by the fire and see
Ghosts of you both come close to me.
For the dead and the absent always stay
With the one they love on Christmas Day.
One of the most interesting poem from Candles That Burn is “To a Young Aviator”:
When you go up to die
Some not far distant day,
I wonder will you try
To tear your mask away,
And look life in the eyes
For once without disguise?
Behind your mask may hide
What treacherous, covered fires!
What hidden, torturing pride!
What sorrows, what desires!
Whatever there may be
There will be none to see.
Yet I think when you meet
Death coming through the skies,
Calmly his face you’ll greet,
Coldly, without surprise;
Then die without a moan,
Still masked although alone.
The poem suggests the aviator’s bravado is a mask covering not cowardice—for the aviator is clearly brave—but loneliness. It also suggests that loneliness is not as important as the fact that the aviator dies without letting his true self be known. Joyce Kilmer served on the ground as an intelligence analyst in an infantry regiment and not in the air, so he cannot literally be the “young aviator” whom Aline addresses, but her description of the airman’s death possibly alludes to Joyce, who had pined to fight for his country on the front-lines instead of working behind the scenes. Was this pilot like the Joyce that Joyce wanted to be but feared he wasn’t? Is Aline saying that her husband died “still masked although alone”?
Even before Joyce joined the Army, Aline might have resented the prescribed social roles that kept her at home while Joyce traveled the country giving lectures on poetry after the success of “Trees.” It’s not impossible to imagine that Aline was unhappy with Joyce’s decision to join the Army at age 30 at a lower salary than he was making as an author and speaker, not to mention leaving her at home with five children. When Joyce was asked how his wife felt about his decision to leave his career and family to fight in France, he reportedly replied “She’s game.” In light of Rose’s death and Joyce’s imminent one, Aline’s feelings must have been more complex. It’s also hard to ignore another biographical source of tension: Aline and her mother-in-law, Annie Kilmer, who wrote three memoirs about her son, appear to have not gotten along well. In her memoirs, Annie Kilmer’s references to Aline are infrequent and terse. In turn, Aline’s poems and essays never mention Annie.
Though addressed indirectly, tense currents animate the poems in 1921’s Vigils. In “Light Lover,” for example, Aline appears to accuse Joyce of abandoning her:
Take your restless heart to the restless sea,
Your light, light love to a lighter lass
In “If I Had Loved You More,” however, Aline indicts herself:
If I had loved you more God would have had pity;
He would never have left me here in this desolate
For you were always the lover and I the friend.
Joyce, in a letter, echoed nearly the same sentiment, that his ardor for Aline outpaced hers for him. Though expressed light-heartedly, perhaps it was true. Or was it perhaps Aline who did something awful to ruin the marriage? She appears to say so in the ominously-titled “Shards”:
I can never remake the thing I have destroyed…. I did a terrible thing.
Anguish and guilt pervade “Atonement,” another Vigils poem:
I wake in fear and put out my hand to find you
With your name on my lips.
This should atone for the hours I forget you.
Take then my offering, clean and sharp and sweet,
An agony brighter than years of dull remembrance.
I lay it at your feet.
Whether it was Rose’s death or Joyce’s death that pained Aline more is unclear. What is clear is that Aline’s sense of herself as marked by evil is profound. She also reiterates a belief that her sins, crimes, or even simple knowledge of life’s dark side is relational, caused by and manifested in mutual misunderstanding with someone close. The sentiment is stated most directly in “Perversity”:
All my life I have loved where I was not loved,
And always those whom I did not love loved me.
Only the God who made my wild heart knows
Why this should be.
Oh, I am strange, inscrutable, and proud;
You cannot prove me though you try and try
I’ll keep your love alive and wondering
Until you die.
It’s also reflected in “Bound”:
If I had loved you, soon, ah, soon I had lost you.
Had I been kind you had kissed me and gone your
The kiss that I would not give is the kiss that
your lips are holding:
Now you are mine forever, because of all I have
You think that you are free and have given over your
You think that from my coldness your love has
But mine are the hands you shall dream that your
own are holding,
And mine is the face you shall look for when you are dying.
Two short lyrics depict stunning images of Aline’s peculiar sense of her damnation:
“Tour de Force”
Smilingly, out of my pain,
I have woven a little song;
You may take it away with you.
I shall not sing it again,
But when you have learned it through
It will keep you brave and strong.
I wove it out of my pain:
There is not a word of it true.
Some learn it in their youth,
Some after bitter years:
There is no escape from the truth
Though we drown in our tears.
Many die when they see
That the terrible thing is true
But it was always easy for me:
I always knew.
Aline’s 1925 The Poor King’s Daughter and Other Verses doesn’t feature the intense self-laceration of the best poems in Vigils. Instead, its poems suggest that Aline had become more resigned, her fascination with herself as stained by darkness more subdued, and her contemplation of mortality formerly centered on others now directed at her own:
“To Aphrodite: With a Mirror”
Here, Cyprian, is my jewelled looking-glass
My final gift to bind my final vow;
I cannot see myself as I once was;
I would not see myself as I am now.
“You Asked Me Not to Die”
…Nay, Sweet, to-morrow
Your flower-like beauty may have failed and fled,
And I shall weep you dead;
Then rise to face the grim and hooded years,
Each with his vase of tears,
That moves majestically by;
Till the little I had of beauty will be but a withered mask,
And the little I had of wit will be bitter and dry.
Dear, you do not know what it is that you ask.
How can you love me and bid me not to die?
References to Joyce, Rose, and her other children fade, and in “Tournament” Aline portrays herself locked in a titanic-but-doomed battle with the elements:
I have fought with stars in their courses
and dreamed I have won,
I have charged full tilt with my levelled lance
straight into the flaming sun
And because of the darkness that swallowed me I
have dreamed that the fight was done.
In 1923 came Hunting a Hair Shirt, and other Spiritual Adventures, a volume of essays and articles that look, contra its forbidding title, light-heartedly at middle-class domestic and literary foibles without mentioning war or Joyce. After 1925, there were only two volumes of children’s poetry, as yet unexamined, and a collection of selected poems, so it is on Candles That Burn, Vigils, and The Poor King’s Daughter that a critic’s judgments must primarily be made. It’s not impossible to imagine that after her husband’s death Aline’s emotions encompassed more anger than grief, or that that they combined grief with feelings of being cheated and abandoned. Aline was religious, and her poems often express spiritual longing. Both Aline and Joyce converted to Catholicism before the war, which helps explain the Manichean cosmology that runs through Aline’s poems. She saw her soul, and perhaps her behavior, as the site of conflict between good and evil, or, perhaps, between the emotions she felt and those she felt comfortable expressing. The best poems are not shaped by a heaven-or-hell binary, however. Instead, they are inwardly-rooted in a complex and ambiguous psychology, grounded in a perverse image of herself as different, haunted, and doomed. They may not entirely escape self-pity or other forms of melodramatic representation, but their striking words and images ensure that once read, they are not soon forgotten.
How to understand Aline Kilmer as a war poet herself? Not easily and not clearly, but not impossibly, either. Aline’s vague and ambivalent allusions to her husband Joyce complicate the traditional notion of the dutiful soldier’s wife who dedicates all thoughts to her husband’s valor even after he has died. Had our contemporary military spouse poets lived in a different time of war, say 100 years ago, and been forced to contemplate their husbands’ deaths, who knows that they wouldn’t have used the tactics of oblique reference and suggestiveness that generates the impressive power of Aline Kilmer.
The last 2 photos come from John E. Lovell’s book, Joyce Kilmer: A Literary Biography, published by Write-Fit Communications in 2000.
Peter Molin is a former US Army infantry officer who now teaches at Rutgers University in New Jersey. While in uniform, Molin taught English at the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York, for ten years, serving as first-year composition course director for four. In 2008-2009, he deployed to Afghanistan, where he served as an advisor to Afghan National Army units in Khost and Paktya provinces. Molin also served overseas in South Korea; the Sinai, Egypt; and Kosovo. The holder of degrees from Indiana University (PhD), the University of California-Berkeley (MA), and the University of Virginia (BA), he has published in academic journals and presented at conferences in the fields of contemporary war literature, American antebellum literature, and composition and rhetoric. Molin blogged about his Afghanistan deployment at 15-Month Adventure (petermolin.wordpress.com) and currently blogs about contemporary war literature, photography, art, and film at Time Now (acolytesofwar.com). You can follow him on Twitter at @TimeNowBlog (war art-and lit-related) and @PeteMolin (everything else).