A poem about grief for American Memorial Day: June, 1915

This Monday is American Memorial Day, a day dedicated to remembering those that died in my country’s warfare. At its onset it was a solemn day for decorating graves, but over time it has lost some of that focus, with celebrations touching on generalized patriotism or military service. It’s also the calendar marker for the beginning of summer. In my youth it was celebrated on May 30th every year, but it’s now a Monday holiday that floats around a bit—but the reason it’s placed at the end of spring still goes back to the original purpose: it was set for a time of year when fresh flowers were in season across the United States, flowers for decorating those graves.

And so it is that this ambiguity makes it odd to wish someone rotely “Happy Memorial Day.”

The Parlando Project has marked Memorial Day with performances of poems over the years, but just as the reason for the holiday is somewhat problematic for mere celebration, it’s not easy to figure what poetry to mark it. Long time readers here will know that there is plenty of poetry that speaks honestly about the experience of warfare, and that WWI produced a great deal of it. But in its specific way, Memorial Day isn’t really about that. It’s about the mourners and their duty.

So, I cast about this week for a poem that spoke to that, and I found this poem by someone that this project has presented before: British poet Charlotte Mew. She was an unusual person when living, and the case of her poetic legacy is unusual too. Her poetry received some small amount of interest in the London scene around the time of WWI. Thomas Hardy, Walter de LaMare, Virginia Woolf, and even the American Ezra Pound recognized her work’s value, but this those-that-know praise never developed into any appreciable readership in her lifetime. Culture was still a bit of a boy’s club, and with the explosion of Modernism going on, you either planted the make-it-new bombs or faced being obliterated by them. Mew didn’t fit in any movement, and after her death, forgotten happened with efficiency.

Today a handful of scholars seek to make the case that she’s greatly underestimated and that her work needs to be reevaluated. They have a case which can be made with considered reading of her poetry. It doesn’t sound or work like anyone else’s.

young Charlotte Mew

Mew wasn’t just strikingly original in her poetry. Most pictures show her presenting androgynously.

 

So, here is one of her poems about the experience of mourning during wartime, written, just as it says on the tin, in June 1915 as the massive extent of the casualties and stalemate in World War I was becoming inescapably apparent in Britain. Here’s a link to the text of this short poem.

Recent readers have seen that I’ve been writing recently on how poets who write short lyrics sometimes get underestimated. We readers might flow through the poems like we would paragraphs of prose, appreciating perhaps a bit of the poetic rudiments of rhyme or meter. This can go by so fast that there’s no time for more than surfaces, but great lyric poems can have depths that ask us not only to read them, or even to say them or sing them once, but to consider them for longer than the minute it may take to get through them a single time. A lyric is portable. Carry one around for a day or so, and it may enlarge.

A lyric is portable. Carry one around for a day or so, and it may enlarge.

Many Modernists sought to slow us down deliberately to oppose this one-and-done tendency. Obscure imagery, typographical variations, or syntactical sabotage are deployed for this. Mew goes in only for a light touch of the last here, with complex sentences that seem to end up somewhere else from where they begin. Her language here is quite plainspoken. There’s some interesting choices being made in the music of thought, with simple words being repeated to depict the stuck-ness of grief. I like the powerful simplicity of the repeated word “broken” here. Also notice the concise depiction of grief is externalized, depicted to a large degree by the seeming opposite in the child and the spring scene. Though not a recognized, full-fledged member of the 20th century Modernist flock, Mew’s poem of mourning and grief is not done in the Victorian manner. Even when she uses explicit emotional words, something done but twice, they are “the face of grief” and “the face  of dread.” She may have rightfully believed that a contemporary British reader would understand the wartime context of this poem, but in the Imagist manner, “June, 1915”  doesn’t say “war,” instead choosing to drill down into the charged immediate moments.

There’s no showy “stop and see how clever” imagery here either, though do not rush through consideration of the line contrasting the springtime child whose sunny lane is “as far away as are the fearless stars from these veiled lamps of town.” This line worked powerfully for me early in my appreciation of this poem, yanking the alienation between the child’s state and the mourners state a distance of light-years apart. I’ll note that a specific of Mew’s London times in the spring of 1915 has become obscure to us, but the “veiled lamps” aren’t just misty eyes, for on May 31st of that year nighttime Zeppelin bombing raids on London had commenced and blackout precautions were being practiced.

Mew could have chosen to make this poem itself as specific as its title. She didn’t. While I find it very appropriate for Memorial Day, the complex moment of this poem, so starkly told, is not even limited to the wartime dread and sorrow that engendered it.

How about the ending? I sensed an undercurrent, even an intent, the first time I read this that the child’s small eager hand isn’t just thinking of the first June rose, but is about to pick it, to turn if from a living, pollinating plant to decoration—that he innocently is aping the harvesting of souls in The Great War. If I may own the poem, I still want that there; but upon further review I don’t currently believe that was Mew’s intent.

Mourning. Grief. Dread. Part of the borderless human condition. Timeless because of its forever, returning briefness. To know this is a bare consolation, as memory is.

You can hear my performance of Charlotte Mew’s “June, 1915”  with the player gadget below.

 

 

Beach Burial

In the United States this is a long holiday weekend, ending with Memorial Day, a day set aside to remember those who died in wars. Other countries have similar days, but in the US it has largely become the embarkation point for the joys of summer. Yes, oh yes,  there are those who have specific and somber memories in Memorial Day, but despite our generally observed notion of honoring all who fought in our wars on our side, whatever the war, for whatever the reasons, this day, set aside for those who gave their lives, may include only brief offerings to them.

Intentional death, for whatever reason, is a complex subject. Perhaps it’s best if we don’t think about this unless we’re really ready to think about it. There are so many questions, some of which I have no answers for even after a long life, and even if I did have answers, what matters more (if you are younger than me) is your  answers—and what you do while waiting for answers.

Is it always “Sweet and proper to die for one’s country?” Note, we know that phrase from Latin, written as it was by Ovid. It’s used in several English-language poems, often still in Latin, as it is engraved over an entrance to the U. S. Arlington National Cemetery: “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.”  So, it’s not an American phrase,* not even written knowing what America was!

Oddly Memorial Day comes out of Decoration Day when the graves of the dead from both sides of the American Civil War were visited and decorated by those who lived through that war, honoring those who, as in all civil wars, were seeking to kill their own countrymen.** That’s a complicated act, is it not?

So, it’s perhaps understandable that for many of us our outdoor grilling, our sports and play of summertime, our readying for graduations and vacations are not deeply troubled by the Memorial in Memorial Day, as huge and final as those sacrifices are, for those sacrifices are both simply total—and complicated.

Today’s piece doesn’t use words by an American either, it’s by Australian Modernist poet and journalist Kenneth Slessor, and it comes from observations he made while serving as a war correspondent accompanying Australian ground troops during the battle of El Alamein during WWII.***  I believe it to be a masterful poem by a writer too-little known outside of Australia.

Kenneth Slessor war corespondent

Kenneth Slessor as the official Australian WWII war correspondent

 

I could go into it line by line and point out what Slessor does that makes this poem work, but I also believe “Beach Burial”  needs only your attention to make itself felt.

I’ll add only one thing, though I’ve long lost the notes to where I found it. Some other explications of “Beach Burial”  are puzzled or make out the nakedness of the bodies as only metaphorical. The account that I read said that the sea-torn bodies from the burned and sunk ships that were washing up were indeed naked or nearly so, and that this was part of the effect Slessor chose to make with his poem and account, that the men doing the hasty burials in the midst of battle could not tell friend from foe from non-combatant.

Still they probably understood, as Slessor did, that some of those they were burying were their mortal enemies. It they, or you, were to think about the moment in Slessor’s poem, it’s complicated. This is an example of the sort of act I speak of above, things you might do while you are waiting for answers.

As it happens, today’s audio piece is an older live LYL Band performance recording from before the Parlando Project got underway. I hear some imperfections in it that are different than the imperfections I still hear in more recent pieces, but perhaps a different sort of imperfection will seem fresh to you. The player gadget to hear the LYL Band performance of Kenneth Slessor’s “Beach Burial”  is below. The text of the poem, for those that want to read along is here.

 

 

 

*One American phrase, made famous in the movie Patton  as spoken by the titular general is “No bastard ever won a war by dying for his country. He won it by making the other poor dumb bastard die for his country.”

**I’m sorry, but I must add that one side was fighting of course for the chattel slavery of other of their countrymen. This doesn’t make the acts of these early Decoration Days less complicated, only more so.

***And I point out, one side in this battle was aligned with the cause of an odious tyranny that sought to extract via meticulous death and slave labor the lives of many, due to some crackpot racist nationalism. That doesn’t make this poem less effective, it makes it more so.