Not One, But Two Years of WWrite in Review! January 2017 - January 2019.
Part 3: WWrite at Yale's Centennial Armistice Commemoration
With Benjamin Busch, Peter Molin, Adrian Bonenberger, and Brianne Bilsky
After almost two years of WWrite’s life, the blog had the opportunity to go from writing on the screen to live discussion at Yale University. Why Yale?
According to an article by Judith Anne Schiif in the Nov/Dec 2018 issue of Yale Alumni Magazine, nearly 10,000 Yale students served. The names of the 227 dead appear on the Honor Roll at Memorial Hall, which is covered from floor to ceiling with the names of men—all male Yale students, alumni, and faculty who served in United States wars from World War I through Vietnam. In addition to Memorial Hall, Yale has a World War Memorial in Beinecke Plaza featuring a cenotaph that reads “In memory of the men of Yale who, true to her traditions, gave their lives that freedom might not perish from the earth. 1914 -ANNO DOMINI -1918.”
“On November 11, 1918, the New York Times published the banner headline “ARMISTICE SIGNED, END OF THE WAR!” But no similar headline can be found in the archives of the Yale Daily News. The News had reported in its October 19 issue that it would be the last issue “for the duration of the war.” The article explained that “of the six editors . . . five are enrolled in military organizations, while the sixth is leaving to enlist in the Service.” The impact on the News editorial board was only a small example of how the war had turned Yale upside down.”
Not only was Yale the sole civilian university to provide artillery training during WWI, but it also became an officer’s training camp and a militarized facility. It would have been impossible for any student at Yale to ignore the impact of the Great War and the university’s Armistice Centennial commemoration attested to its importance. The centennial week hosted a diversity of talks, memorial services, and exhibitions in Yale’s stellar museums.
To mark the literary traces of the war, WWrite contributor and member of the Yale Veterans Association, Adrian Bonenberger, organized a panel for Yale’s WWI Armistice Centennial Commemoration called “The Literary Legacy of World War I: Screening of ‘Paths of Glory.’” Bonenberger, a veteran of Afghanistan, and the author of his memoir, Afghan Post, and co-author of the fiction anthology, The Road Ahead, invited fellow blog contributors, Peter Molin and Benjamin Busch, Yale Dean, Brianne Bilsky, and me, the WWrite curator. Adrian describes the panel structure and its outcomes:
“World War One left a huge impact on a generation of Yale students. To commemorate the centennial of Armistice Day, the day on which hostilities officially ceased in Western Europe, and which evolved into the current Veterans Day, Yale and the Yale Veterans Association held a series of events examining different aspects of the war. The final such event was a screening of the movie Paths of Glory, followed by a panel discussion by experts connected with reading and writing about war and its experience. Those experts were selected to give a breadth of perspectives on one of the best cinematic depictions of World War One, and they did so, capably; an hour was barely enough time for them to scratch the surface of the film, and the lively question-and-answer period afterward could have continued for hours.”
Peter Molin further explains in his summary, which appeared on his blog, Time Now:
“The set-up for the occasion was intriguing: We, along with our audience, were first to watch Stanley Kubrick’s 1957 movie Paths of Glory, about allegations of cowardice directed against French soldiers in World War I, and then discuss it in relation to the post-World War I artistic tradition. Next, we were to segue into discussion of World War I writing to which we felt personally connected. Finally, we hoped to suggest the wider impact of World War I writing on contemporary veteran-authors and culture-wide thinking about war.”
What follows are partial proceedings of the panel. First, the participants give their reactions to the Stanley Kubrick film, Paths of Glory. Afterward, they comment on a particular piece of WWI literature that they believe has influenced the war’s cultural and historical memory for 100 years. To see a trailor for the film, Paths of Glory, click here:
Paths of Glory Responses
Kirk Douglas (father of Michael). Stanley Kubrick. Two American names that have meant worldwide stardom and cinematic virtuosity across decades. But in France, the award-winning actor and director faced the opposite for almost twenty years. Made in 1957, Paths of Glory (adapted from the novel by Humphrey Cobb), the WWI film that chronicles the unjust deaths of three innocent soldiers accused of battlefield cowardice by corrupt leaders, was censored in France until 1975 due to its anti-war stance and criticism of France's military leadership. The film was also banned from American military bases in Europe.
The title of the novel and film comes from a stanza from the 1751 poem by Thomas Gray, "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard:"
The boast of heraldry, the pomp of pow'r,
And all that beauty, all that wealth e'er gave,
Awaits alike th'inevitable hour.
The paths of glory lead but to the grave.
Response from Brianne Bilsky
What stands out most to me about Kubrick’s Paths of Glory are the strategies that he seemingly uses to deconstruct values traditionally associated with warfare, such as duty, honor and heroism. For instance, there’s a disconcerting parallelism between the literal No Man’s Land of the battlefield and a kind of implied No Man’s Land during the court martial scene. While the former is a landscape riddled with the debris of war that separates opposing military forces, the latter is a lavish room riddled with the trappings of privilege that separates the enlisted from the officers. During the court martial, the accused soldiers sit in isolated chairs that pale in comparison to the ornate furniture occupied by the officers, while a sizable strip of marble floor tile separates the two sides. As the court martial proceeds, it’s clear that this strip of tile functions as a line that cannot be crossed, that the two sides (enlisted and officers) are in opposition to one another rather than part of the same unit. In this sense then, the officers become the “enemy” of the soldiers who are on trial not because of any specific action that these soldiers took but because the officers feel they need to set an example to deter what they believe to be cowardly behavior.
Additionally, Kubrick makes striking use of sound to create a similarly unnerving connection between the horrors of the battlefield and the presumably comfortable space of the inn at the end of the film. The scene where the soldiers go over the top during the failed attack on the Anthill is almost pure sound, with whistles blowing, bombs exploding and bullets cracking through the air at every turn. This type of sound naturally sets the audience on edge just as the soldiers who are coming over the top would be. While the inn that plays host to some of the film’s final scenes is far removed from the dangers of No Man’s Land, there is a similar sense of chaos created by the cacophony of soldiers’ whistles and catcalls as the German girl is brought forward. Clearly a captive, she seems terrified to be in this space with the soldiers and unsettled by all the noise. When she begins singing a folk song, the soldiers clearly and quickly shift from raucousness to sadness, as tears quietly stream down their faces. However, given the way the rest of the film deconstructs the values referenced above, one is left wondering why exactly the soldiers are crying. Is it because the girl’s sentimental folk song reminds them of home, or is it because a captive German girl singing at their pleasure perhaps reminds them of the humanity they have lost and that they, in a very real way, will never be able to “go home again” even if they survive the war?
Response from Jennifer Orth-Veillon
Several amazing WWI films documenting the terrible deplorable condition of trench warfare and criticizing a military that pushed young soldiers to their deaths without understanding the absurd nature of warfare in no man’s land precede Paths of Glory: J’accuse (1918), Les croix de bois (1932), The Big Parade (1925). , and ll Quiet on the Western Front (1930). Interesting films and performances made after WWII have addressed not just WWI but other wars and social situations; Joyeux Noel by Christian Carion (2005) is a film about the 1914 Christmas Truce that also reflected a necessity to keep the European Union together. While not a film, Yoshi Oida’s operatic staging of Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem from 1961 shows that it was composed as a reaction the nuclear arms race and the Vietnam War. Oida himself lived through WWII in Japan, experiencing the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Recently, the incompetence/cruelty of officers in WWI came back in 2017 with Dupontel’s film Au-revoir là-haut (The Great Swindle in English).
However, Kubrick’s film stands out for me as an exceptional instance of bringing all these elements together in not just beautiful, haunting cinematography, and the amazing performances of Kirk Douglas, Ralph Meeker, or George McCready –but also the complexity and non-complexity at work in the film in a brilliant way that highlights some of the questions I find so central in today in my personal and professional investment in WWI and contemporary veterans. The two main readings of the film say that it is (1) an anti-war film and (2) that Colonel Dax offers a viable moral alternative in an otherwise immoral world. I also think that there is a much less complex but also much more impactful meaning. In the film, there is little time or space for deep philosophy because the main theme is to keep the system in place and that the system is more important no matter what. Colonel Dax does offer an alternative, but that alternative doesn’t work.
This non-complexity is surprising to me given what I know about the complicated history of the film, especially for France.
In 1935, Humphrey Cobb, a Canadian veteran who fought in 1917, wrote his book, Paths of Glory, which was inspired by a real story. On March 17, 1915, in Souain, France, four corporals were shot as examples of punishment for war cowardice: Maupas, Girard, Lefoulon, and Lechat. They were rehabilitated posthumously in 1934. General Revilhac, who led the trial and execution, had originally intended to shoot his own regiment blocked in the trenches, but finally conceded that only four would be shot.
According to Lionel Lacour’s blog and website, Cinésium, Kubrick succeeded in buying the rights of Cobb’s book on the condition that he could introduce a love story. He was able to make the film mostly due to Kirk Douglas, the most bankable actor at the time. In an interview with the French cinema review, Cahiers du Cinéma, in 1957, Kubrick reported he had been impressed when he read the book by the tragic fate of innocent soldiers, accused of cowardice and mutiny and executed as an example. It must be remembered that Kubrick made this film in the heart of the Cold War. The Korean War had been over recently, decolonization was far from over, and class-struggle movements were developing everywhere, including in Western countries. As Lacour says, the film is a counterbalance to McCarthy's and Eisenhower's anti-intellectualism, conformism, and paranoia.
Kubrick chose to shoot in black and white in order to reinforce the documentary aspect. His point of view is clearly against the staff and not against the soldiers. He begins by presenting the “facts” through a denunciation of France. In the opening credits, he uses a partition of La Marseillaise, the French national anthem, in the less-traditional minor key, so that it appears less enthusiastic. Also, as Lacour points out, Kubrick overturns the conventional East-West code of cinema, especially that of propaganda prevailing in this Cold War period. East is traditionally placed to the right of the screen and west to the left. Thus, in films presenting the conflict between Germany and France, the Germans appear logically on the right and the French on the left, as on a geographical map. Except that in Kubrick's film, the attacks led by Colonel Dax played by Douglas are precisely from right to left, from East to West. Lacour says this reversal is not trivial. The villain until then always came from the right, and he was German - or Soviet for the Cold War movies. So, are the French no longer good simply because they are located on the side traditionally reserved for the bad guys? The effect is striking without resorting to any dialogue or complex special effect.
However, the final sequence doesn’t make the French bad guys, but that shows that in a war, there is no "nice" or "bad guy" among the soldiers. When the female German prisoner sings in front of French soldiers, it first seems silly and xenophobic, but we realize soon that the soldiers are about to be forced out in the trenches again to die.
On February 21, 1958, Brussels and Antwerp showed the film but France wouldn’t see it until 1975. Even in Brussels, the film posters came with a peremptory note that read:
"This is a story of the First World War, a story of the madness of some of those caught in a whirlwind. It is an isolated story, detached from that experienced by the vast majority of French people. fought in this war, and whose acts of courage as much as the attachment to the principles of liberty belongs imprescriptibly to history. Note from Jacques Flaud to the Ministry of Information, November 13, 1958, AN, F41 2382, information services, censorship of films.”
When the film was finally released in France, it came with similar warnings, but they were not, as Lacour argues, intended to reference only WWI. The French novelist of Jewish origin and winner of the Prix Goncourt, Romain Gary, fought in the French Resistance during WWII, was the Consul General of France living in Los Angeles. What he said about the film led to its French censorship;" the film depicts the French army a negative way and this same army was waging war in Algeria." He believed that the association between the army and the staff shown in the film was going be understood by the spectators as the army trying to quell the independence insurgency through violent and unjust means. The association between the criminal actions of Mireau and that of the army in Algeria would come amidst revelations of the torture committed by the French army against Algerians. Kubrick, shocked by France’s reaction, said:
"Maybe my conception of political freedom is a little naive, but I think it has to include an absolutely free expression of the arts."
As I said earlier, the subject and message of the film is, as I read it, one that is less philosophically complex than seen by others, and this non-complexity brings a more impactful message. The great WWI literature critic, Paul Fussell, talked about irony as a feature of much WWI literature. But I see this film as having little irony at all. The complexity comes in how it was made and shown, and also in the cruel simplicity of the message, which is that the military, social, and political institutions must be preserved over the sense of the individual. This is a crushing realization especially since we so want those men to live and for Dax to succeed. It is perhaps this message that rendered its production and history so complicated, and why some people didn’t want other people to see it. The dominant, public narrative that we accept about war says we can all agree on a superficial level that it is right that to win a war, to beat the enemy, and the whole has to be put above the individual. That is what, as a society, we consider honorable and we might even say that this it is actually how we maintain the distance between the civilian understanding of war and a soldier’s. But a film like this one with its history of production shows what happens when we want to show this simple fact for what it is – this institutional character of the military can be corrupted easily and that’s what makes it hard to take.
The literary voices of WWI and of other wars help us see that war and institutions around war are full of all kinds of voices that express the military/war experience, both criticizing and supporting. We cannot let any of these voices fall silent or remain a too-silent subtext. These are the real, human voices, the voices of combat and the voices of peace. Ultimately we have wars to have peace, but peace is just as complicated as war, as this film shows us. It was about a finished war among some enemies, but the peace among these enemies meant war in other parts of the world. This is why we must be in dialogue with many wars, not just one that is past or present. They are all linked and the more we can see that perhaps the more we have a chance of figuring out why it happens and, in a very ideal world which is unfortunately not our own at present, find ways to stop it.
Response from Peter Molin
Watching Paths of Glory was galvanizing, as it offered a chance to admire of Kubrick’s superb direction and Kirk Douglas’s riveting acting, but the film is a bit of a counterpoint to the general trend of World War I art, in my opinion. Not so much concerned with the impact of war on individual soldiers as with the moral bankruptcy of the chain-of-command that keeps the war machine going, Paths of Glory is a late-stage addition to the Great War artistic legacy. Arguably, it is as much about the post-World War II Cold War cultural conformity as it is about the historical work performed by World War I in erasing 19th-century modes-of-thought and bringing our modern era into being. Still, discussion of Paths of Glory set the stage for a return to the canonical literary works of World War I, as well as new-old voices neglected by the decades but resonant now.
Responses to Literary Works
Brianne Bilsky - Siegfried Sassoon’s “Counter-Attack”
Like Paths of Glory, I see Sassoon’s poem, “Counter-Attack” (orig. 1916; revised August and November 1917), as attempting to deconstruct the positive values that often are associated with warfare. On the one hand, the title refers to a clash between opposing armies; in this case, British and German forces. On the other hand, as the poem unfolds, a second clash clearly emerges, this one an internal divide between soldiers and officers. The poem comprises three stanzas, and the beginning of each one clearly denotes the shift from unity to division. The first stanza begins with “We’d,” which establishes from word one a resounding sense of community. Stanza two begins with “A yawning soldier,” which highlights a single individual within the “We” of the first stanza. On its own, this diction isn’t necessarily noteworthy; however, when read against “An officer,” which are the first words of stanza three, a divide among the ranks clearly emerges. Furthermore, the officer of stanza three is described as “blundering down the trench,” phrasing that inspires anything but confidence. Every time I read this line, I cannot help but recall the following lines from Tennyson’s “The Charge of the Light Brigade”: “Not though the solider knew / Someone had blundered.” While Tennyson’s lines acknowledge a mistake was made that led to the disastrous and deadly charge during the Crimean War in 1854, he carefully tiptoes around calling out a specific individual within the chain of command, thereby preserving an overall sense of competence, duty, and honor within the ranks, quite typical of the nineteenth-century romanticized view of warfare. Sassoon’s speaker, on the other hand, goes to great lengths not only to call out a specific officer but also to lay bare for the reader just what kind of officer this man is. After he blunders down the trench, we find him “Gasping and bawling” as he attempts to issue orders. He also seems to have forgotten that he has a rifle at his disposal, and by the time he remembers, it’s too late. The last lines of the poem are tragic to say the least as the speaker recounts the officer’s fate:
… then a bang
Crumpled and spun him sideways, knocked him out
To grunt and wriggle: none heeded him; he choked
And fought the flapping veils of smothering gloom,
Lost in a blurred confusion of yells and groans …
Down, and down, and down, he sank and drowned,
Bleeding to death. The counter-attack had failed.
No longer are we in a world where “Theirs [is] not to make reply, / Theirs [is] not to reason why, / Theirs [is] but to do and die” (Tennyson, “The Charge of the Light Brigade”). Instead, Sassoon’s harshly realistic poem, like Kubrick’s Paths of Glory, reveals a world replete with failure: the unit failed to gain its objective; the officer failed to competently lead his men; and those men failed in their humanity as “none heeded” one of their own in his final moments of life.
Jennifer Orth-Veillon – Ernest Hemingway’s Farewell to Arms
I chose a paragraph from A Farewell to Arms that I read to my students at the beginning of my most war and literature classes. The book is about an American volunteer with the Allies for the Italian army, Frederic Henry – he is lieutenant serving in the ambulance corps – and the story takes us through the Battle of Caporetto. The main plotline revolves around Henry’s involvement with an English nurse, Catherine Barkley. Henry eventually deserts the army and hides with Catherine, who becomes pregnant and tragically dies, along with the baby, in childbirth. This passage comes from Chapter 27 during the retreat- Henry is talking with a patriot Italian – Gino – who has just said that most of the Italian army was not well-fed, only the ones at the front – and refuses to talk about losing
"We won't talk about losing. There is enough talk about losing. What has been done this summer cannot have been done in vain." (GINO says this) I did not say anything. I was always embarrassed by the words sacred, glorious, and sacrifice and the expression in vain. We had heard them, sometimes standing in the rain almost out of earshot, so that only the shouted words came through, and had read them, on proclamations that were slapped up by billposters over other proclamations, now for a long time, and I had seen nothing sacred, and the things that were glorious had no glory and the sacrifices were like the stockyards at Chicago if nothing was done with the meat except to bury it. There were many words that you could not stand to hear and finally only the names of places had dignity. Certain numbers were the same way and certain dates and these with the names of the places were all you could say and have them mean anything. Abstract words such as glory, honor, courage, or hallow were obscene beside the concrete names of villages, the numbers of roads, the names of rivers, the numbers of regiments and the dates.”
This passage is crucial what I see as the competing registers of language surrounding war. There is a public, official language that always seems to stay the same. It’s usually just that – official and expected. This language is by no means unimportant. But before WWI, large numbers of people did not hear not much language about war publicly contradicting the military. Literature’s main war function involved encouraging appreciation for the hero or country. Literary language in WWI changed and fell into ruins. Language emptied itself. Words like “sacred, glorious, sacrifice, in vain” still existed, but the unprecedented horrors of WWI, and the unprecedented way of writing about WWI and about war in general changed the way the world understood this language. As Hemingway seems to say in this passage, in going into war, he had a certain idea of what glorious meant in the context of war – victory, a flag rippling in the wind – but what he saw and what was called glory become another thing, a thing so different and so ghastly that he could only compare them to burying rotten, useless, ruined meat in a Chicago stockyard. Language emptied itself, and it changed with war. For example, take the word “hungry” – before war hungry may have meant a stomach rumbling between breakfast and lunch. In war, it means being asked to fight relentlessly, to endure the inhuman conditions of the trenches without sustainable nourishment. Cold maybe used to mean what happened when you forgot your gloves on a sub-zero day. With now, it means fingers and legs amputated due to things like frostbite and trench foot. We can see language coming apart when Hemingway writes that the soldiers only heard these words in fragments – through the rain, out of earshot, slapped on billboards on top or under other proclamations. These words fell apart, as many others did by this war. Can you call bodies shredded to pieces left to rot and sink in the mud in no-man’s land sacrifice? Glory? Hemingway thought not. Not at least in the way he used these words before war.
Another important thing about this passage is that it talks about numbers, numbers that take the place of words. Place names overtake words like glory, sacrifice. In this specific war, numbers talk and what they say make us fall silent. Technologies newly developed for mass killing increased, the number of people mobilized skyrocketed. Here are a few: total war dead and causalities = close to 40,000,000 people in 4 years. 20,000,000 deaths. 21,000,000 wounded. You can’t just say “half and half” – you have to say the numbers to get the sense; 9.7 million military personnel deaths. 10 million civilian deaths. It’s not “half and half.” The Allies lost 5.7 million soldiers and the Central Powers lost about 4 million. In France, 1,500,000 soldiers and other service members were killed. 340,000 civilian deaths. A population loss of over 4%. 1 in 20 people died in France during WWI. If you walk into a school, it’s like one child dying from each classroom inside. Imagine if we replaced the words “WWI” with 40,000,000 dead and wounded. This conference would be called “Literature and the Legacy of 40,000,000 dead and wounded.” The Centennial Commission would be called “The Official United States 40,000,000 dead and wounded Centennial Commission.” The numbers tell the essential, stripped down version of what war did WWI. They are almost performative. And perhaps that’s why Hemingway says that they have dignity.
Finally, this passage brings up another interesting point about war language. When he says words like sacrifice or glory were obscene next to “concrete names of villages, the numbers of roads, the names of rivers, the numbers of regiments and the dates,” he is also talking about the exclusivity of language for only those who were there. This exclusivity becomes important when we look at this mass of numbers and ask, what about these individual experiences? When I say Verdun to myself or to students or other people, I can talk about the horrors, the cemetery, the trench warfare because I’ve done the research. However, if I say this and I am a French soldier who fought in Verdun saying this to another French soldier who fought in Verdun, there’s nothing else that needs to be said. And, in fact, it is as if nothing else can be said or be written. This experience, in many ways, extends beyond language as we know it and belongs only the realm of a shared experience. It’s a way of saying that no words can fully capture this and that language is not fully adequate. The unprecedented experience of war has rendered traditional uses of language inadequate. In the introduction to her work, The Forbidden Zone, American WWI nurse Mary Borden dedicates her work to the Poilus. She writes “I have dared to dedicate these pages to the Poilus who passed through our hands during the war, because I believe they would recognise the dimmed reality reflected in these pictures. But the book is not meant for them. They know, not only everything that is contained in it, but all the rest that can never be written.”
Only literary language can come close to capturing it, but it’s a language whose form must be played with. For Hemingway, this meant repetition, wearing out words to show that they have little meaning, stamping out phrases, smashing, words. While the WWI literary canon has moved beyond Hemingway, he still gives us a vital way to talk about war’s effect on language in any context.
Peter Molin – Aline Kilmer’s “To a Young Aviator”
These are just some ideas, surely there are others. But not every aspect of contemporary war-writing need have an antecedent in World War I, and the World War I canon is not beyond criticism—in fact, it badly cries out for “problematizing,” to use academic-speak, on several grounds. Still, it would be a foolish contemporary war-writer who set pen to paper without first reading the works authored by World War I combatants and non-combatants touched by the war, and it would be a very good one who surpasses or transforms the marks they established.
A very positive development of the World War I centennial retrospective is the rediscovery of long-overlooked voices, including combatant-authors from countries other than England and the United States and women who either participated in military endeavors or who observed the war from the home front. The WWrite Blog has been a great forum for this trend by featuring posts about many neglected writers. I wrote about one such woman, Aline Kilmer, the wife of the far-better-known Joyce Kilmer, the American poet killed in France in 2017. Aline was a poet herself who achieved some prominence in her time, but whose books have been out-of-print for decades. Rereading them, I was struck by her stunning imagery and keen perception as she wrote in bleak, sometimes cryptic ways about her fears that her husband would be killed in France and her sense of loss after learning that he had, in fact, died there. Though most of the poems are personal, the one I wanted to share at the panel was about fighter pilots. Fighter aces were the glamor-boys of World War I and were often celebrated in popular culture. But Kilmer’s poem explores what she seems to feel is a perverse psychology of the male warrior spirit. It’s hard not to think that she was thinking of her husband, too, who was age 30 and a well-to-do author and literary critic when he left Aline and their five children to enlist in the ranks and volunteer to fight on the front-lines:
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.
WWI Literary Legacy in 2018: Armistice 1918 Poem by Adrian Bonenberger
Literary legacy doesn’t just refer to the past; it refers to the present and the future. Legacy is that which is passed down from history and remains relevant. The etymology of the word “legacy” brings us back to Latin meaning "body of persons sent on a mission," or "an ambassador, envoy, deputy." As such, the legacy of literature doesn’t just arrive from the past and stand still. It has a mission to accomplish.
For Adrian Bonenberger, veteran of the Afghanistan War, WWI literary legacy is a literature that regenerates and reinvents itself with the march of time. This is why it seems fitting to end the summary of the panel, “Literary Legacy of WWI,” held during the Yale Armistice Centennial Week with a new poem by its organizer, Adrian Bonenberger:
The Hundred-Year Itch, or Remembering the Great War
Here are some facts about
The Great War. It started in 1913.
We know that from books.
and the scarred nobles
grandma met in the deli
off 23rd and 8th,
Ich hätte gerne eine Bratwurst
they’d say, eyes scared red.
It was my fault; I must admit,
quanta exist in different places and
in different times;
some have been in my brain,
and also in Hitler’s old brain
the war’s most famous vet.
Not quite Afghanistan; still, his war
and my war was the same,
A vicious trick,
made disasters, it’s true,
walk with me here:
the Soviets invade in 1979.
Great Britain joins France
as the Marne collapses,
a wet snowdrift, over-heavy
in 1914. Add the numbers.
We surround ourselves with stories,
these fluid lines always converge.
Remember that line, the human
marching through town, shrive-faced,
boots laced tight, cap perched on his
kiss-me forehead, rifle shouldered,
we’re gonna beat the Hun—
there’s another line, now, 451AD,
Attila plundering across the plain,
stopped by whom? The Roman? No—
Aetius heads a motley crew of Frank
and Gaul, Suebi, Goth and Visigoth,
and Saxon! Yes, the Germans saved
the West from Hunnic rule!
Until—it always comes around to this,
that boy marched home again
some years after the great siege,
at Verdun, Ypres, or Somme;
really it doesn’t matter.
Siege used to mean sit, but he won’t;
not without his boots and cap,
all that chipper stuff gone,
he’s been unseated, the siege lifted
his mien took on a leaner slant,
suspicious eyes for prying words
could not prepare a waiting world
for what came next.
Plenty! Champagne avec vous
on all the quays and ways
of Venice, Paris, Bruges;
Sur la table, Monsieur?
If you weren’t there, you can’t know,
and he wasn’t. All there.
When will war weary of me. Woeful wight,
wailing across the width of destiny,
I sprawl comfortless in a rancid hole,
a thick cloth great-coat stiff with sweat and grist
my second skin, then, for a skull, some tin
riddle: helmet, brain-pan, will you sit still?
The unfrozen mud’s alive, the stench, strong,
rat I’d say, someone’s let them in. Writhing,
muse for a Rosenberg, a whole den’s worth:
and that’s a good day, without bullets, bombs,
or the whistling artillery storm—
the rain of steel shrapnel, cutting like wind
across Europe’s newly irreligious plain—
flesh, it seems, has a its breaking point, splits wide
the human spirit spills, squandered, betrayed
amid the great gulf between my chilled hand
and the quiet, marble hand of German kin;
or British, or French—what odd clay. The flesh
grieves, parted by that vast, pitted waste,
unshrivened the filthy flesh yearns to be
whole again; compartmented, sufficient,
Unified. one man, one nation—one God.
A great civilizing wind stirs on the plains.
Leaves cast off the towns, like trees,
the Supple young men march in step
all balled fists, full of boasting oaths
they stride, ennobled by a promise
of liberation, plunder, and rape.
The best of the land! This lot’s the best!
But someone’s pulled a cruel prank.
At the front, the sergeant calls time
with a note pinned to his back. It reads:
“Take my wife, she’s free.”
Below, a crude sketch.
On a computer or smartphone,
an educated citizen
has just checked the market. It’s up,
cause for optimism, and sun,
and a feast fit for all the hounds
who prowl our sordid memory,
just looking for some sad excuse
to get me back out in the fury
Poem first published in The Wrath-Bearing Tree on November 6, 2018. Reprinted with the permission of Adrian Bonenberger.