Yoga and Animals: Inspiration for WWI Poetry
by Jane Satterfield
Ever since Jane Satterfield's father served in Desert Storm, she has felt drawn to explore the legacy of war and the ways that inheritance resonates well beyond the battlefield into our homes, our language, and the daily fabric of our lives. WWrite has the honor of posting two of her poems inspired by WWI: "Elegy with Trench Art and Asanas" and "Bestiary for a Centenary." Following the poems, Satterfield gives an insightful commentary on her creative process, yoga, and the importance of commemorating the Great War, which includes remembering animals:
Elegy with Trench Art and Asanas
The studio door swings shut and Emily instructs us
to begin in an easy seated position. Eyes closed, we begin
to check in, to be mindful of each feeling that rises. Time
to think of some intention, something as simple
as the reason that brought you to your mat—that, not the noise
rising up from Stoneleigh Lanes, the business at basement level—
thunderous, I think, though nothing next to the volley of
shellfire and mines going off in the front’s busier sectors—
strange sound track stuck in my hearing long after
I left the museum’s cool halls, since I walked the wood-
planked trench alleys of the Great War Exhibit. Overhead,
dangling on cables above us, the artifact highlights—Fokker,
Sopwith, and Albatross; a shiny Pfalz acquired as part of Allied
War reparations—great flying machines manned by pilots
in both strategic bombing and battlefield recon runs.
But I’m here, now, to take in and tune out the noise of summer
camp duckpin party cheers, the detritus that lingers
in modern memory from a war so literary, delousing
was known as reading one’sshirt…. Trikonasana’s next to
strengthen the core: your ribs drop into the body’s
fuselage. A deeper bend into the archival absence of cordite,
the scent of rust that still rises, post-rainfall, from the soil
of stricken villages across the French countryside.
In almost any of the English market towns I visited as a child,
my grandfather said to take notice when we reached the town
center—each marked by a concrete cenotaph, memorial
to lost fathers, sons, uncles, brothers, and fiancés. You might
find a stray paper poppy lifted, then dropped by the wind.
Emily advises us to find your edge. Boredom was just one of
many unspeakably awful trench conditions—and the lull
between morning stand-to and evening assaults meant anyone
might be taken out by a sniper’s precisely aimed bullet. The efficiency
of England’s postal service meant letters arrived with stunning ferocity,
making home seem distant yet paradoxically near. In situ,
soldiers chalked rocky outcrops; carved rings, crosses, or
pendants using spent bullet casings; lighters might be fashioned
from greatcoat buttons. In Tadasana, the yogi seeks strength
from the earth, each breath a means to recharge so long as
it’s kept as an active position. The more elaborate work that’s found
up for auction these days—a shell-casing vase with the image
of two wounded Tommies approaching Dover’s white cliffs
with the word Blighty hammered out gently beneath—would have
been the handiwork of blacksmiths or engineers in rear areas,
valuable based on who signed it, when, and where. The lamp
my daughter noticed displayed in the Believe Itor Not Odditorium,
(your “drop-by for a doseof weird”)—was probably scrap,
surplus repurposed post-battle or ready-made by locals (one man’s
meal ticket, another’s battlefield souvenir). My illustrated history
tells me each war is ironic because each oneis worse than expected, though
this does not explain why we sustain, every few years at a time,
a renewable fashion for military chic. Dad was what? Ten, maybe
twelve, playing ball, when he lost the ring his father brought home,
something carved from the wing of a downed Messerschmitt.
How did his old man get it and where? When pressed
for more info on souvenir swag, when asked to decipher the image
code of badges or slogans on t-shirts from Gulf One squadrons
my father passed on to his sons, there’s not one I remember.
My husband jokes that I’m either playing dumb or don’t
want to recall. To face the fear that darkens each day,
I’ve been told I need to learn, really, to breathe.
This studio runs sessions guaranteed to get me up off the ground.
Slung in a hammock over a mat—that’s one way
to target areas for maximum results. With an amazing
power to cleanse, this is something more than (though it
resembles) circus-based aerial art. Across generations, panic’s
rarely made pretty—but what of those vases, hammered
from artillery shells, the designs almost totally obliterated
thanks to assiduous dusting? In Shavasana, we seek sensory
withdrawal, an entry into deeper meditative states. After,
we must rise again to collect our things, walk past
the salons and boutiques that line this block, walk back
into our separate worlds. Sometimes we stop in the bakery
to pick up a coffee, trying not to flinch at the giant screen TV
with its flashing, disastrous crawl.
Note: Italics in lines 19 and 39 are drawn from Sterling’s 2009 illustrated version of Paul Fussell’s classic critical study, The Great War and Modern Memory.
Source: Apocalypse Mix (Autumn House, 2017)
Bestiary for a Centenary
Animals were used in World War I on a scale never before seen—and never again repeated.
–Alan Taylor, “World War I in Photos: Animals at War”
No one recruited them with posters
of trips abroad, obligations to protect
honor, or the “golden opportunity”
to “earn as you learn”—but
they also served in convoys &
calvalry, in pigeon schools & camel
corps; on land, in sky & sea, as
beasts of burden, scouts & spies,
mascots & more.
of boon companions—
unbudging stance midway
across a footbridge
signaled where a five-
nine shell lay ahead.
At signal corps’ command,
dispatch dogs with harnessed
spools of wire crossed ground
socked by autumn storms
& mortars’ unspeakable
rain, dodging craters
deep enough to swallow
men to laying lines for
point-to-point field telephones.
Others shouldered baskets
of carrier pigeons into
forward lines. Terriers,
shepherds, and bloodhounds
trained to search for wounded,
kitted out with Red Cross
gear in pouches on their backs,
heeled up with handlers
for inspection. Gas-masked,
outrunning sniper bullets, dogs
barreled through the lethal
fog of gas, that Yellow Cross
laid down by low-velocity shells
Doughboys & Tommies knew
as Whizz-Bangs, relaying
news through code notes
tucked in collars.
Some admirable combination
of compass sense & mapping
genius made carrier pigeons
ideal couriers for conveying
communiqués & maps
of enemy terrain. When field
telephone lines went dead
under heavy fire, their homing
skills could be counted on
to get a message through.
Set free from baskets & carrier
boxes in the trenches, they
raised alarms from scuppered
ships, or planes droning
on a death spiral, zeroing
back to where they’d first
been set to roost, guided
by signature designs painted
on the roofs of mobile lofts parked
behind busier battle sectors.
Of thousands employed
as urgent dispatchers in the age
before two-way radio broadcast
made mission tracking possible,
countless pigeons were intercepted,
shot, or shipped abroad, captives
paraded in home front streets.
Some were singled out for valor
& given medals with highest
honors. The last chance of a battalion
cut off in the Argonne, Cher Ami
flew through heavy fire, arriving
at his loft with a bullet in his breast,
message capsule dangling from
an injured leg. Today he stands
on one good leg, attentive as if
alive, poised in place among
entrenching tools, stick grenades,
prosthetic arms—museum memorabilia.
After battle rained down
grenades & gas in rounds
Yanks dubbed Evening Hate &
Enemy’s Delight, one soldier’s pet pit
bull, a stray smuggled from a shipyard
in the States, learned to track
no man’s land for wounded men,
guiding the lost & disoriented
back to safety behind the line.
One day his bark alerted his unit:
an interloper sat trench side,
sketching, mapping out
the whereabouts of gunners,
ammo & supplies. Given rank,
“Sergeant” Stubby survived
seventeen battles & shrapnel
in his chest & leg, living on
to boost the morale of men
lodged in Red Cross recovery.
The litany of what newfangled
combat wrought for horses
is a history itself; their cries
at night etched the air worse
than that of wounded men.
One veteran recalled that sound
troubled him more than cries
from fellow men: Because we knew—well
we presumably knew—what we were there for,
but them poor devils didn’t, did they? No,
scores and scores of ’em fell to barbed wire,
to bullets in the brain & worse
when mounts turned meals
for dogs & men. What to make of war’s
strange economy: deep in combat zones,
glow worms, gathered in jars, gave off
reading light; even rafter rats crawled down
for crumbs of cheese, befriending
men in farmhouse billets lying doggo
before zero hour & Imperial sergeants
quipped that silly blighters came for
free while horses cost good money?
A hundred years: in farmlands,
forests & cratered ground, munitions
& the bones of missing men
keep turning up; honorary mayors
serve the memory of villages wiped
off the map. We have no name
for the scale of pain. A photo
shows the redolent sadness
of a draft horse hitched to post
moments after its partner perished
from a round of shrapnel; podcasts
bring other accounts to life—standing,
waiting, a shield, a spot of shade
against desert sun, these & others
also served: comrades & battle kin.
Bestiary for a Centenary: Useful sources included: Alan Taylor’s ten-part series “World War I in Photos,” which appeared online at The Atlantic; the Imperial War Museum’s “Voices of the First World War” recordings; Richard Ben Cramer’s “They Were Heroes Too” (Parade Magazine); Jasper Copping’s “Honoured: the WWI pigeons who earned their wings” (The Daily Telegraph); Mike Dash’s “Closing the Pigeon Gap”(Smithsonian Magazine) and Time’s “Top Ten Heroic Animals.”
Like so many readers, I first encountered war poetry in the classroom—through the lens of Wilfred Owen’s “Dulce et Decorum Est.”* In its unflinching gaze and brutal indictment of the gulf between public rhetoric and battlefield realities, it was completely different from anything I’d ever read. I’d go on to read more WWI and WWII soldier-poets over the years, sometimes in class, sometimes on my own—each encounter a powerful reminder of the way art provides a lens of witness across generations.
I did not expect to contribute to the conversation as a poet. But in 1991, on the advent of Operation Desert Storm, my father, an Air Force veteran and reservist, was called up for active duty. (He served as a quartermaster with the Congressional Airlift Wing). I watched—we all watched—tracers flare across the sky announcing the start of battle and bringing seemingly distant conflicts directly into our living rooms. Over the next decade, as I read the work of veterans and civilians whose lives were touched by violent conflicts, I felt drawn to explore the legacy of war and the ways that inheritance resonates well beyond the battlefield into our homes, our language, and the daily fabric of our lives.
“Elegy with Trench Art and Asanas” began in a yoga studio with the yogi’s invitation to be “mindful of each feeling that rises”—an invocation that prompted the unexpected memory of a childhood visit to the Great War exhibit at the Smithsonian and my British grandfather’s attentiveness to the WWI memorials in towns he took me to during a summer visit to his home in Corby, Northamptonshire, the town where my mother and I were born. In writing the poem, I allowed myself to “dive deeper” into personal and cultural memory, lingering over the artifacts that serve as touchstones and memorials for civilians as well as soldiers, in particular, an example of “trench art”—art assembled from wartime memorabilia, found objects, scrap metal, even bullets—that my daughter and I ran across at Ripley’s “Believe It or Not” Museum in Baltimore.
In the summer of 2014, I ran across Alan Taylor’s essay in The Atlantic, “World War I in Photos: Animals at War.”** I was fascinated to learn about the many creatures pressed into service and, at the same time, how their presence provided the welcome companionship we experience with pets at home; this article was the inspiration for the sequence “Bestiary for a Centenary,” which comprises the second section of my most recent book, Apocalypse Mix.
The practice of yoga—like poetry—is not a means of escape: it provides, instead, a space of healing, consolation, renewal; it deepens our connection to the world.
* For more WWrite posts on Wilfred Owen's "Dulce e Decorum Est," see Phil Metres' "I Never Saw Him Drowning: Great-Uncle Charlie and the Great War" and Seth Brady Tucker's "Discovering WWI Poetry in an Iraqi Foxhole." Tucker is also a Gulf War veteran.
**For more information on animals and WWI, see WWrite contributor Stéphanie Trouillard's articles "The Great War's unsung four-legged heroes" and "Sergeant Stubby: The dog that fought to liberate France in WWI"
Jane Satterfield has received awards in poetry from the NEA, Bellingham Review, Ledbury Poetry Festival, Mslexia, and more. Her books of poetry are Her Familiars, Assignation at Vanishing Point, Shepherdess with an Automatic, and Apocalypse Mix, winner of the 2016 Autumn House Poetry Prize selected by David St. John. Satterfield’s poetry and prose have appeared in American Poetry Review, Antioch Review, The Common, Crazyhorse, North American Review, Notre Dame Review, Pleiades, and many more, as well as on Verse Daily and Poetry Daily. The daughter of an American airman and a British mother, she grew up near Andrews Air Force Base in suburban Maryland. She is married to poet Ned Balbo and lives in Baltimore where she is an associate professor at Loyola University Maryland. Visit her website by clicking here.