For life and death to me are so akin, So aptly one suggests the other’s being; So quickly treads behind existence fleeing The dark pursuer, sure at last to win; That when life’s frolics o’er the world begin, In the stern presence of my darker seeing, There moves a shadow, every way agreeing With each gay motion that he revels in. Even the sweet wonder of thy slender shape A graceful shade is haunting hour by hour; And in the future there begin to lower The signs that make the stricken household drape Their tearful faces o’er with sullen crape– Why should I trust in life’s unstable power?
Shiloh: A Requiem
by Herman Melville
Skimming lightly, wheeling still, The swallows fly low Over the field in clouded days, The forest-field of Shiloh— Over the field where April rain Solaced the parched ones stretched in pain through the pause of night That followed the Sunday fight A round the church of Shiloh— The church so lone, the log-built one, That echoed to many a parting groan And natural prayer Of dying foemen mingled there— Foemen at morn, but friends at eve— Fame or country least their care: (What like a bullet can undeceive!) But now they lie low, While over them the swallows skim, And all is hushed at Shiloh.
not. Progress is a comfortable disease: your victim (death and life safely beyond)
plays with the bigness of his littleness —electrons deify one razorblade into a mountainrange; lenses extend
unwish through curving wherewhen till unwish returns on its unself. A world of made is not a world of born—pity poor flesh
and trees, poor stars and stones, but never this fine specimen of hypermagical
ultraomnipotence. We doctors know
a hopeless case if—listen: there’s a hell of a good universe next door; let’s go.
Do wars ever come to an end? One side runs out of ammunition or conscripts or volunteers, or civilians are pummeled into subjugation, to the point they can no longer support the war effort, but is there really ever a victor? The current war sow’s the seeds for the next war and so on and so on. Veteran’s day is to honor those that served, but it’s also a reminder on how war is handed down generation after generation. One’s family’s liberation is another’s subjugation. One’s person’s defeat is another’s lifelong PTSD for the incalculable cruelty of victory. We survive them, outlast them and unfortunately repeat them.
The narrative of war is driven by the propaganda used to justify the expense in human lives and human capitol. Why do we fail to invest in diplomacy, honor carefully crafted accords, when it is more effective and less costly than conflict? Cummings catch-22 clunky use of language fits the inherent contradictions of war. War rarely make ssense but we all understand its consequence. Cummings lack of clarity in his word-hash feels like clarity, in the context of the longing left behind by the heroic happy dead….
next to of course god america
by e. e. cummings
“next to of course god america i love you land of the pilgrims’ and so forth oh say can you see by the dawn’s early my country ’tis of centuries come and go and are no more what of it we should worry in every language even deafanddumb thy sons acclaim your glorious name by gorry by jingo by gee by gosh by gum why talk of beauty what could be more beaut- iful than these heroic happy dead who rushed like lions to the roaring slaughter they did not stop to think they died instead then shall the voice of liberty be mute?”
if I had to give up the heavenly taste of Guinness dark, I couldn’t live another goddamn day. Darling, you can chisel that into my headstone.”
We Never Know
By Yusef Komunyakaa
He danced with tall grass for a moment, like he was swaying with a woman. Our gun barrelsHe glowed white-hot. When I got to him, a blue halo of flies had already claimed him. I pulled the crumbled photograph from his fingers. There’s no other way to say this: I fell in love. The morning cleared again, except for a distant mortar & somewhere choppers taking off. I slid the wallet into his pocket & turned him over, so he wouldn’t be kissing the ground.
By Yusef Komunyakaa
My black face fades, hiding inside the black granite. I said I wouldn’t dammit: No tears. I’m stone. I’m flesh. My clouded reflection eyes me like a bird of prey, the profile of night slanted against morning. I turn this way—the stone lets me go. I turn that way—I’m inside the Vietnam Veterans Memorial again, depending on the light to make a difference. I go down the 58,022 names, half-expecting to find my own in letters like smoke. I touch the name Andrew Johnson; I see the booby trap’s white flash. Names shimmer on a woman’s blouse but when she walks away the names stay on the wall. Brushstrokes flash, a red bird’s wings cutting across my stare. The sky. A plane in the sky. A white vet’s image floats closer to me, then his pale eyes look through mine. I’m a window. He’s lost his right arm inside the stone. In the black mirror a woman’s trying to erase names: No, she’s brushing a boy’s hair.
The dead are more real than the living because they are complete.
By Siegfried Sassoon (1886 – 1967)
I am banished from the patient men who fight. They smote my heart to pity, built my pride. Shoulder to aching shoulder, side by side, They trudged away from life’s broad wealds of light. Their wrongs were mine; and ever in my sight They went arrayed in honour. But they died,– Not one by one: and mutinous I cried To those who sent them out into the night.
The darkness tells how vainly I have striven To free them from the pit where they must dwell In outcast gloom convulsed and jagged and riven By grappling guns. Love drove me to rebel. Love drives me back to grope with them through hell; And in their tortured eyes I stand forgiven.
By William Cullen Bryant (1794-1878)
So live, that when thy summons comes to join The innumberable caravan that moves To that mysterious realm, where each shall take His chamber in the silent halls of death, Though go not, like the quarry-slave at night Scourged to his dungeon, but sustained and soothed By an unfaltering trust, approach they grave, Like one who wraps the drapery of his couch About him, and lies down to pleasant dreams…
I feel that some of my work is OK. But if I had it to do over I would do better.
Soldiers Who Want To Be Heroes
by Rod McKuen
Come and take my eldest son, Show him how to shoot a gun Wipe his eyes if he starts to cry When the bullets fly. Give him a rifle, take his hoe, Show him a field where he can go To lay his body down and die Without asking why Soldiers Who Want To Be Heroes number practically zero But there are millions who want to be civilians Soldiers Who Want To Be Heroes number practically zero But there are millions who want to be civilians Sticks and stones can break your bones, Even names can hurt you But the thing that hurts the most Is when a man deserts you Don’t you think it’s time to weed The leaders that no longer lead From the people of the land Who’d like to see their sons again? Soldiers Who Want To Be Heroes number practically zero But there are millions who want to be civilians Soldiers Who Want To Be Heroes number practically zero But there are millions who want to be civilians God if men could only see The lessons taught by history That all the singers of this song Cannot right a single wrong Let all men of good will Stay in the fields they have to till Feed the mouths they have to fill And cast away their arms Soldiers Who Want To Be Heroes number practically zero But there are millions who want to be civilians Soldiers Who Want To Be Heroes number practically zero But there are millions who want to be civilians
In researching poetry of the Vietnam war, I was shocked to discover the following fact: Rod Mckuen remains to this day, the best selling American Poet in history, with more than 60 million books sold and 100 million records. Here is what makes that fact utterly preposterous in my mind; Rod McKuen’s poetry is insipidly awful. It is an indictment of American publishing and the American literary consumer that by 1972, one facillitated and the other lapped up his biggest hit “A Cat Named Snoopy.” The only explanation I can offer is that by 1972, Americans were so worn out from 30+ years of war, that they had completely surrendered their brain cells to not only unsupportable politics, but also spectacularly dismal poetry. There is a reason if you were born after 1980 that you have never heard of Rod Mckuen. Its because your parents are too embarrassed to admit that they still have multiple copies of their parents’ version of Rod Mckuen’s Greatest Hits in their basement. And down right ashamed that it’s the complete set, Volumes 1, 2, 3 and 4. Not even Bob Dylan had a greatest hits Vol 4. So, what gives?
I cannot offer any sane explanation. I think this is a case of mass hysteria sweeping the nation and deciding the only way to get rid of the influence of white, male, stupidity in American society at the time was to flog readers and listeners with Rod McKuen’s “genius,” hoping that eventually a younger generation would wake up and say, enough already and bury white, male poetry for good. You can find on YouTube old videos of McKuen on every talk show imaginable from the mid 1960’s until the late 1970’s. And in every single performance, whether he is singing a song he wrote the lyrics or voicing one of his poems, there is a cringe factor, that screams, “my god what was America thinking?” He has an unremarkable voice, his lyrics are simplistic, and the musical accompaniment is either rudimentary or overly strained with violins. It’s plain awful.
Even McKuen was baffled by his success. He is quoted as saying, “I am not sure why I am so popular, I guess they see in me, the everyman.” By that does he mean every man who has ever sung off key and croaked through a rendition of a terrible poem to their girlfriend?
The only insights I gained from this new knowledge of Rod McKuen’s superstardom is it how it explains why poetry publishing faded away and died after 1980 as part of mainstream American reading habits. I think both the reading public and publishers mutually decided after McKuen, enough already, let’s try something else. Let’s hope in a few years, Mary Oliver will overtake McKuen’s record for publishing, but unfortunately McKuen will likely continue to reign supreme as the American poet with the greatest record sales of all time, only because there is not a single poet who sells any records today. Maybe this is an example of the impact of war on society’s collective amnesia? An example of how we forget the worst of our decisions in supporting misguided earnestness in belief of a better tomorrow. My advice if you come across your parent’s tattered copy of a Rod McKuen’s Greatest Hits, forgive them and move on.
A Cat Named Sloopy
by Rod McKuen
For a while the only earth that Sloopy knew was in her sandbox. Two rooms on Fifty-fifth Street were her domain. Every night she’d sit in the window among the avocado plants waiting for me to come home (my arms full of canned liver and love). We’d talk into the night then contented but missing something, She the earth she never knew me the hills I ran while growing bent.
Sloopy should have been a cowboy’s cat with prairies to run not linoleum and real-live catnip mice. No one to depend on but herself.
I never told her but in my mind I was a midnight cowboy even then. Riding my imaginary horse down Forty-second Street, going off with strangers to live an hour-long cowboy’s life, but always coming home to Sloopy, who loved me best.
A dozen summers we lived against the world. An island on an island. She’d comfort me with purring I’d fatten her with smiles. We grew rich on trust needing not the beach or butterflies I had a friend named Ben Who painted buildings like Roualt men. He went away. My laughter tired Lillian after a time she found a man who only smiled. Only Sloopy stay and stayed.
Winter. Nineteen fifty-nine. Old men walk their dogs. Some are walked so often that their feet leave little pink tracks in the soft gray snow.
Women fur on fur elegant and easy only slightly pure hailing cabs to take them round the block and back. Who is not a love seeker when December comes? even children pray to Santa Claus. I had my own love safe at home and yet I stayed out all one night the next day too.
They must have thought me crazy screaming Sloopy Sloopy as the snow came falling down around me.
I was a madman to have stayed away one minute more than the appointed hour. I’d like to think a golden cowboy snatched her from the window sill, and safely saddlebagged she rode to Arizona. She’s stalking lizards in the cactus now perhaps bitter but free.
I’m bitter too and not a free man any more. Once was a time, in New York’s jungle in a tree, before I went into the world in search of other kinds of love nobody owned me but a cat named Sloopy. Looking back perhaps she’s been the only human thing that ever gave back love to me.
We’ve been looking for the enemy for several days now, we’ve finally found them. We’re surrounded. That simplifies our problem of getting to these people and killing them.
Attributed to Colonel Lewis B. “Chesty” Puller during the Chosin Reservoir campaign in Korea, November 1950.
Sonnet for 1950
By Jack Agueros
All the kids came rumbling down the wood tenement
Shaky stairs, sneakers slapping against the worn
Tin tread edges, downhall came Pepo, Chino, Cojo,
Curly bursting from the door like shells exploding
Singing “I’m a Rican Doodle Dandy” and “What shall
We be today, Doctors or Junkies, Soldiers or Winos?”
Pepo put a milk crate on a Spanish Harlem johnny pump
And drops opened like paratroopers carrying war news.
Then Urban Renewal attacked the pump, cleared the slums
Blamed Puerto Rico and dispersed the Spies, blasting
Them into the Army or Anywhere Avenue in the Bronx.
And nobody, but nobody, came back from that summer.
Just as Korea was death in service to the warring Nation
The Bronx was death in service to the negligent Nation
by John Buxton
I saw men’s homes burst into sudden flower . . Of crimson petals round each golden shell. . . I listened to the whining bombs that fell And felt the hard earth tremble at their power. I saw bewildered eyes that hour by hour . . Had peered through the rifle sights. I heard men tell . . How many rounds they fired. I learned the smell Of cattle burning in the byres is sour. So much war taught me. And, when I return, . . Because I did not cower nor shirk the fight, . . But took a little part in this mad play, Because I too have helped to kill, wreak, burn — “You did your duty, helped defend the right, . . You too were brave,” some poor, blind fool will say.
These are the weathered shoes worn by the Jew,
So cracked from all the miles walked since he fled.
These are the slave’s strong legs like trunks that grew
And worked so hard until he’s beaten dead.
This is the heart of Christians who’re hemmed in
by beasts, while Romans laugh at them and yell.
These poisoned lips of Socrates destined
To die, and yet in virtue ever dwell.
This banner is the shield of Spartan men
Outnumbered by a thousand foes to one;
Its moral words in Chinese, Zhen-Shan-Ren,
Are spears of truth that no one can outrun.
The Falun Gong man now before you stands,
A hero for all times and for all lands.
Once again, I am going to explore the poetry of war during November. This year I will be highlighting poetry from conflicts from around the world and across time. If you are in the camp that you only partake of positive poetry as defense to the insanity of the current state of things, then you may want to just take November off from Fourteenlines and come back in December. Part of me is tempted to do the same….
I have often contemplated whether the gravity of a war poets words are weighted by whether they died in the conflict? If you revisit prior November posts, there are many examples where the tragedy of the poetry is heightened because it is underpinned by the tragedy of the poet’s senseless death. However, there is hope hidden in many of those words as well. Poetry can be as effective in creating political change as guns, even when it is at its most raw. Poetry is an instrument of change that endures if enough people take the time to be challenged by words meant to inflame peace with as much conviction as the cacophony of the clever profiteers of war.
Unlike in years past, I will not be adding commentary this year to the poems I post. I am having a hard time finding much meaningful to say at the present. I choose instead to do what I can do, keep showing up, keep sharing poems I find interesting, hoping that some of the poems resonate with readers in ways that spark an interest in some shape or fashion. I wish you well this month of November. In the modest intent of zen tradition, may each of us find a future that is workable. May we all find a path that we can walk this November, even among the bomb craters, to come out the other side, into a more peaceful December.
by Yacheslav Konoval
Once on Thursday, I woke up weak,
having been covered with a warm quilt,
with a merciless temperature,
I am dying, and I am bleak.
Like a pendulum,
hearing the run of strikes in the clock’s click.
Laying in bed, I had exhausted from the undead,
I am similar to a sickly chick.
Contemplate on the white pills,
that had become the color of capitulation.
Please, God, stop all human ills,
overcome the pains, and be a healthy nation.