after the painting by Stanley Spencer
Even washing is a task, in war and daily
life. The warm and pour, the fresh linen,
the hourglass of soap in its melt telling
us how our tired flesh gleams to fiction
renewal. Time is at war. We are meant to lose
that we may grasp what we know: the waste
of passioned effort. The soldier nearest to us
dunks his face in the bowl, a murky foretaste
of baptismal death. This halo we discover
from which he’ll surely rise, suspender cords
rhyming the sink. Next to him another
wrings the towel and turns his head toward
Bellona. Not incongruous. The patroness,
too, of the trench of days and the hearth’s duress.
There is a different feel to Memorial Day this year, a bit more melancholy, like there is a collective mourning that goes far beyond remembrances of veterans in our families and communities, but an appreciation and sorrow for the disconnect from the recent past to our current present. Grief is a part of life, loss is a part of life, and allowing ourselves to feel the full range of our emotions is an important part of mental health.
I picked the poem Soldiers Washing by Pau-Llosa because of how the act of washing has taken on a different meaning since the pandemic. A habit I have gotten into is washing my hands as I enter the house. The act of hand washing has started to take on a new ritual, a chance to pause, reflect and be grateful. It is an opportunity to be in the present.
The poem above makes more sense if you have a proper context for the word Bellona as the ancient Roman goddess of war. On this memorial day, are you reflecting? Where are your thoughts? What are you mourning? What are you celebrating? For what are you grateful?
by Edgar Albert Guest (1881 – 1959)
IF no one ever went ahead,
If we had seen no friend depart
And mourned him for a while as dead,
How great would be our fear to start.
If no one for us led the way,
No loved one, garbed in angel white
Stood there, a welcome word to say,
Then we should fear the Heavenly flight.
If we should never say ‘good bye,’
Should never shed the parting tear,
We’d face the journey to the sky
In horrible despair and fear.
It is because our friends have gone
And left us in this vale of breath,
Because of those who’ve journeyed on,
That we can bravely smile at death