Thursday, August 26, 2010

"Casualty," a new poem by Melissa Green

Melissa Green's posting for this week's Tuesday Poem, "Casualty," is stunning. A soldier, who knows his condition, is lifted on his shield and carried away from where he fell by a party of unnamed stretcher-bearers. They might be medics, or psychopomps, or Valkyries; her poem encompasses both the real and the mythic.

The perpetual journey of those who bear the dead is chilling; a retreat from war that doesn't deny but rather speak truth against war. As they march, or more likely stagger grimly, through the surf and mud and campaign fields, Green names the places they have walked before, are walking, will walk perpetually as long as war is waged: "Bosworth Field, Bull Run, Crécy," "The Siege of Acre, the Siege of Austerlitz." There is something of Isaac Rosenberg's pathos here -- his "Earth has waited for them" ("Dead Man's Dump") her "murmuring of cypresses urging them on" -- and of his stillness -- his "None saw their spirits' shadow shake the grass," her "They followed the snowy lanes through sleepy villages." I hear also Wilfred Owen's theatrical outrage -- his "each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds" ("Anthem for Doomed Youth"), her "incarnadine clotting the water."

Also David Jones, Yeats, and Whitman. Not that I see Green's poem as a verbal child of that prior art; her language is her own, and if she has woven in phrases from other sources I do not recognize them. But then, a poem needn't bring in literal allusions to the works that went into its composition, in order to claim its place among the. The peculiar color mixed from a particular integrity of emotion and the particular verbal texture, too, should be considered allusion, as much as a borrowed phrase. Or more so; often an appropriated is re-colored by its inclusion in a non-native context. Whereas a particular moral seriousness will remain recognizable (palpable, audible) in any number of differing phrasings. Call it "family resemblance."

The battles -- so many -- are listed alphabetically in harrowing abecedary. What happens in her listing is both geological and archeological: the solemn digging into history and self that reveals stratum upon stratum of conflict each laid over the one before, the graves deepened and widened to accommodate new bodies before the grass has had time to soften the earth pushed hastily into the trench. A catalog not of ships, but of the dead that were borne by those ships to their death.

"Casualty" is not just an alphabetical exercise. The poem is free of the battlefield tabering that can sometimes he heard when war is depicted in anti-way poetry. It is appropriate that we learn nothing about the soldier being carried, or what he was fighting against or for or why. Bombardment and the tread of vehicles and men create the universal, landscape of war: featureless, empty, squalid, boundless.

Beneath the gross burden of these wars and their dead, we would be right to feel while reading this as if we too were struggling with the weight of a fallen soldier, trying to reach some safer place behind the front line; as if, struggling, we'd fallen to our knees in that clammy Asia Minor mud she writes about, amid the stink and clamor and "crimson chorus of the guns."

[Cross-posted from The Wonder Reflex blog by Zachary Bos]