A great many countries have holidays honoring their nation’s soldiers, often with an emphasis on memorializing the dead of past wars. The United States has two such holidays, a Veteran’s Day on the date of the WWI Armistice and the one that arrives this weekend, Memorial Day.
Long time readers here will know I’ve presented a lot of soldier’s poems in this Project, and poems otherwise about wars. This is fitting, war as a poetic subject matter goes back to Homer and further.
Many soldiers’ poems are at least ambiguous about the worth of war, some are outright harrowing. But that’s poets. Outside of poetry, many in the US have developed a particular carefulness in speaking of our wars, a hesitancy to speak honestly about those ambiguities mixed with a deadened obligatory reverence for veterans — a reverence with no other required obligation or attention. Yet we have these two holidays.
Well, do we have such an obligation to remember the horrors of war and the hard-won realities the warriors helped enforce? Asked this way the answer is suggested: yes, we do. For this year’s Memorial Day, I’m going to present two poems that suggest something else in addition.
The first one is by poet Kevin FitzPatrick, who I’ve been memorializing since his death in late 2021. Kevin was not a vet, but he helped with the arrangements that led to his father Bernard FitzPatrick’s memoir, A Hike Into the Sun, about his WWII experience as a prisoner of war in the Bataan Death March. Let me briefly summarize that, for those for whom this is ancient or foreign history: In the early days after Japan declared war on the US, the Philippines came under attack. The fighting was fierce, with Americans and Filipinos resisting without anything like sufficient logistical support to hold out very long.
After they surrendered the near 70 mile march began, with brutal mistreatment and wanton execution of captives adding to the suffering of the weakened and injured soldiers. Forced labor for the duration of the war followed for those who survived the early days. Death counts vary, ranging from 5600 to over 10,000, continental American soldiers and their Filipino comrades. WWII had many accounts of human depravity. This was one of them.
Kevin’s father survived the march, survived the years as a POW doing forced labor, and then wrote his book about it in the 1990s. That’s only background, this isn’t what today’s poem is about. “Survivor” is about his son Kevin visiting his dad in the 21st century while the infirm father in his late 80s was in a care home. How much can someone like myself know about Bernard FitzPatrick’s experience?
It just happens that one of the Parlando Project’s mottos is “Other Peoples’ Stories.” That motto also admits, understands that I (and you) can only partially understand others’ experiences, even if poems and performances might inform us somewhat.
I’m not going to spoil the ending of the poem, you’ll need to listen to my performance in order to hear it. Without spoilers I can say that when I first heard Kevin’s poem, when he read it in draft form, his tale of a chair transfer reminded me of my time working in nursing homes and like Ray was performing those kinds of tasks, but the ending took it another place I didn’t expect the poem to go. You can hear my performance with the audio player below. If you don’t see that player (some ways of reading this blog hide it), this highlighted link will open a new tab to play it.
Knowing how Filipinos and US troops suffered in the hands of the Japanese, what does the ending say? There’s no secret right answer, this isn’t a pop quiz. Instead of defining a clear answer, let me supply another poem in a performance I shared here many years ago before some of you followed this Project. I think of it as a great Memorial Day poem because for it to achieve its greatness you need to think about it, think about what it implies in the compressed story it tells. The poem is Carl Sandburg’s “Grass.” Coincidentally, Sandburg was a veteran of the Spanish-American war, the conflict that made the Philippines an American Commonwealth up until independence just after the ending of WWII around 50 years later. Sandburg as a soldier wore Civil War era heavy woolen uniforms while stationed in tropical Puerto Rico, and his commander was a Civil War officer. That’s how close his time was to the bloody American Civil war whose battles are mentioned. “Grass” was written when the bloody battles of WWI, also mentioned, were contemporary events.
Kevin FitzPatrick and Carl Sandburg. A couple of poets imply some things you’re not likely to hear elsewhere this Memorial Day
Sandburg’s poem in its short duration reminds of the costs of war — but what does his ending mean? Does it mean it will be best all-tolled when we have the option to forget their sacrifice? Does it simply observe that time passes, and we will forget, eventually? Is he saying that more wars, more bloody battles, obscure the dead of past wars? Chances are you won’t hear any of those statements in any Memorial Day commentary or post — but you will hear about Memorial Day discount savings, and rote uncomplicated praise for service.
Here’s the audio player for The LYL Band performing Carl Sandburg’s poem “Grass” live several years back. And here’s the backup link for it.
More of Kevin FitzPatrick’s poetry is available at this link. His father Bernard’s book is linked here.