The Playground

The chubby boy points his toy gun at another boy
His great grandfather fought in the war.
This is not a guess. I am sure.
His great grandmother was maybe a comfort lady to the invaders.

But his gun is only made of plastic. He will be forgotten.

I look at the boys.
I see an army of deserters, an anarchist army.
They charge at the playground castle
that is always taken and held at the same time.

The Playground was originally published on Meandering home


Reading: A Dirge by Thomas Merton

Thomas Merton (1915-1968) was an American poet and Trappist monk in Kentucky who published over 70 books including a very popular autobiography. I selected a poem about the victims of war (Merton was a social activist) because I like its powerful language:

A dirge
Some one who hears the bugle neigh will know
How cold it is when sentries die by starlight.

But none who love to hear the hammering drum
Will look, when the betrayer
Laughs in the desert like a broken monument,
Ringing his tongue in the red bell of his head,
Gesturing like a flag.

The air that quivered after the earthquake
(When God died like a thief)
Still plays the ancient forums like pianos;
The treacherous wind, lover of the demented,
Will harp forever in the haunted temples.

What speeches do the birds make
With their beaks, to the desolate dead?
And yet we love those carsick amphitheaters,
Nor hear our Messenger come home from hell
With hands shot full of blood.

No one who loves the fleering fife will feel
The light of morning stab his flesh,
But some who hear the trumpet’s raving, in the ruined sky,
Will dread the burnished helmet of the sun,
Whose anger goes before the King.

I’ve read the graphic and concise World War One poems by Sassoon and Owen. Here is something else, something that feels like Ginsberg, expressionist, intangible. When those veterans where in the trenches, Mr. Merton lied in diapers. Still, his dirge is haunting. I like the opening sentences that strikes me like something translated from old Latin. To hear the bugle neigh, the Bard would be proud.

The structure of the poem is obvious: Each stanza begins with a sound and the final lines are an exception. The sky is ruined and the sun is a helmet, or, war is everything. And who is the King? It must be God, or His reincarnation after He died a few stanzas up. The angry sun, the natural world, must answer to the King. There is still some higher principle, some sense of right and wrong, although we can’t be sure about which is which. Anyway, I find this a difficult poem to dissect.

The betrayer is ignored by the faithful marching soldiers. Who cares about his flagness? Perhaps the betrayer is left to die in the desert and every stanza describes a different death to go with its opening sound?
The earthquake victims’ temples are still haunted by the treacherous wind. God died ‘like a thief’ reminds me of the great earthquake of Lisboa and its effects on the theodicy (Voltaire’s Pangloss).

We don’t hear our Messenger come home from hell? Hello, Jesus with your hands full of blood. I have the feeling that I am still missing something here. What could it be?

Reading: A Dirge by Thomas Merton was originally published on Meandering home

Reading: Winged And Acid Dark by Robert Hass

Robert Hass (b. 1941) is another famous American poet who served as Poet Laureate of that immense country and won a Pulitzer prize. I read one of his poems today that I think is representative. In other words: vintage Hass:

Winged and acid dark
A sentence with “dappled shadow” in it.
Something not sayable
spurting from the morning silence,
secret as a thrush.

The other man, the officer, who brought onions
and wine and sacks of flour,
the major with the swollen knee,
wanted intelligent conversation afterward.
Having no choice, she provided that, too.

Potsdamerplatz, May 1945.

When the first one was through he pried her mouth open.
Bashō told Rensetsu to avoid sensational materials.
If the horror of the world were the truth of the world,
he said, there would be no one to say it
and no one to say it to.
I think he recommended describing the slightly frenzied
swarming of insects near a waterfall.

Pried her mouth open and spit in it.
We pass these things on,
probably, because we are what we can imagine.

Something not sayable in the morning silence.
The mind hungering after likenesses. “Tender sky,” etc.,
curves the swallows trace in air.

Hass observes the limitations of language before giving us an incomprehensive fragment. Who is the other man and what about the supplies, the wounded major wanting conversation, and why did she have no choice? In the next sentence, the entire scene becomes clear. Potsdamerplatz, May 1945. Hitler is dead, his Reich has surrendered. The officer and the man are allied forces, making themselves comfortable on the rubble of Berlin. Wine and conversation, what more does a man need?

What about the prying open of the mouth? Looking for gold crowns? And why the Japanese names? The Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings occured on August 6 and 9, 1945. Do the frenzied swarming of the insects near a waterfall refer to the nuclear event? I try to imagine, but I fail to understand why they spit in the woman’s mouth. You?

Hass seems to agree with me. He returns to the sayableness of tender sky and the curves we so easily imagine after swallows. This poem is a smart and gripping way of denoting what is unsayable about the war, and the fact that I might have completely missed what that unsayable thing is, well, that is precisely the point.

Reading: Winged And Acid Dark by Robert Hass was originally published on Meandering home

Reading: Anthem for doomed youth by Wilfred Owen

English war poetry from the trenches. After Sassoon I read a poem from the pen of remarkable Wilfred Owen (1893-1918), one great poor soul from the culled generation of World War I:

Anthem for doomed youth
What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
____Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
____Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries for them; no prayers nor bells,
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs, —
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.
What candles may be held to speed them all?
______Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes
__Shall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes.
______The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall;
__Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
__And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.

Did the soldiers of the first world war die as cattle? The metaphor is sometimes invoked for the horrors of the shoah, the lurid invention of manslaughter on an industrial scale, and by animal right activists PETA who like the holocaust to factory farming. To die as cattle: anonymously, murdered by a machinery that lies beyond your imagination. The sound of the angry guns and rifles are all they have for their orisons (hasty prayers). But these don’t compare to real prayers or real bells, or real mourning.

After likening the sound of rattling gunfire with church bells and farewells, Owen goes further and makes the wailing shells a choir (shell shock…) with bugle horns (here is a bugle from world war I). He asks about the candles, but there is no time. He stretches his poetic imagination to give the boys at least the dignity of a funeral service. There are no candles, so they make do with the holy glimmer of goodbyes in their eyes. There are no shrouds, so they use the fading memory of their girls als a pall. And for flowers there’s the tender patience of their pals.

This is one of the most heart wrenching war poems I know. What do you think?

Reading: Anthem for doomed youth by Wilfred Owen was originally published on Meandering home

The Next World War

This rant sprouts from the documentary film “Supermarket Secrets“, a strong piece of investigative journalism concerning the UK food retail industry that came out a few years ago. I watched it with disbelief and tears in my eyes, disgust, then anger. This poor little apple that is not perfectly symmetrical like the snobby faces of its sick consumers and the supermarketeers who rationalize their system by pointing at the “demand” of these consumers. This one misshapen apple, thrown to the pigs or left to rot while a billion people are starving, should enrage billions. And once they are enraged they might start to see that it is not only this apple. It’s everything. The entire food production and the entire non-food production. Wasteful, environmentally disastrous, unsustainable, disgustingly “efficient”. The whole system should be taken down. Not “dismantled” but blown up, carpet bombed, nuked into oblivion.

Two misshapen apples, courtesy of
This is a somewhat emotional reaction.
What would that world war look like? Let’s try and imagine. One fine day one of us consumers is indeed so appalled by the sight of an apple like this that in his mind, a tipping-point is reached. He declares war (let’s assume it is a male consumer as they tend to be more easily enraged and have more aggression in their toolbox of conflict resolution). This apple, he feels, is reason enough for all-out war. No more questions, no more considerations. He reproduces the photograph of the little apple and distributes it to millions of people, who are all equally in dismay and desire to strike. The picture of the apple is forbidden by governments around the world but it’s too late. Wikileaks and similar public services step in and it spreads like a wildfire. Soon, a billion people are mobilized and awaiting the command of our initial outraged consumer. And the command comes. Supermarket windows are smashed. Massive strikes, complete disruption of air traffic, power plants, mines, factories, dams, roads, trains, stores, military bases quickly ensues. The world economy grinds to a complete halt. The apple people have won, the system is down.
The initial outraged consumer, let’s call him Adam, walks the scorched earth and sighs at the sight of the destruction. He doesn’t feel as certain about the apple war as before. Was it the right thing to do? He feels a little bit guilty. Or had he been seduced by some dark force that had used the apple to spark his rage? He is confused and goes to the site where the supermarket once stood, the place where he had seen the misshapen apple being thrown away. Ironically, the name sign was among the few items not devoured by the fire and the looting. “Paradise Whole Foods Ltd.” it read. Adam sits down next to it and…and…and…and let the poor feller just sit there dammit.