Robert Merkin: "Returning, We Hear the Larks"

11 August 2003

RM: This issue's theme for Cordite is Zombie; and I have partially tried to drag it into matters regarding soldiers, and veterans who return home not yet dead but no longer fully alive. (An old student trick is to ignore any exam question you can't answer, and pretend you misunderstood the question, and merrily answer a different question that you can …

… In April, the Imperial War Museum in London ended a heartbreaking and magnificent exhibit, “Anthem for Doomed Youth,” about the lives and poems of twelve British soldier poets of World War I. (The title is from a Wilfred Owen poem.) The exhibit lingers in cyberspace and I strongly recommend it to you and Cordite's readers.

I went a step beyond and bought the hardback book of the exhibit — I was actually on the verge of running away from home to catch the exhibit while it lasted, but couldn't get away — and the book is a gorgeous, loving piece of publishing which wraps some magnificent poetry, a body of striking poems far beyond those we are all dutifully taught in high school.

Some of these soldier poets, like Graves, survived the Great War and lived to ripe old ages. Isaac Rosenberg, a working-class lad who aspired to be a painter, was not one of them. He was one of the few of these poets who were not of England's aristocracy; his was a brief, unlucky, toxic, undernourished and hardscrabble life. A short young man, he was assigned to some freakish outfit called The Bantam Battalion. After the War, Sassoon edited his poems and saw to their publication.

“Returning, We Hear the Larks”

by Isaac Rosenberg (1890 – 1918)

Sombre the night is.
And though we have our lives, we know
What sinister threat lurks there.

Dragging these anguished limbs, we only know
This poison-blasted track opens on our camp —
On a little safe sleep.

But hark! joy — joy — strange joy.
Lo! heights of night ringing with unseen larks.
Music showering on our upturned list'ning faces.

Death could drop from the dark
As easily as song —
But song only dropped,
Like a blind man's dreams on the sand
By dangerous tides,
Like a girl's dark hair for she dreams no ruin lies there,
Or her kisses where a serpent hides.

War is the wholesale theft not just of life, but of all beauty, the wholesale theft of pleasure and ease. The soldiering experience begins instantly with a monastic cloistering, the theft of sex and the theft of the company of women. The official culture hails and praises the great, special experience of being without sex and without intimacy and without women, and though surrounded by men, the absolute denial of men as partners in sex and intimacy. Very few young men enjoy this strange culture or are grateful for this great, special experience.

I think perhaps we are somewhat uncomfortable with Life. It is so noisy and messy and wet, it threatens to make us pregnant or give us parasites, it threatens to overflow our little souls with passion and jealousy and rapture, none of which we can control or keep clean and sanitary. And so we manufacture experiences that steer us away from too much Life; and safely steer us toward Death. The military is a celebration of Death, the May Day of young beautiful faces that have stopped breathing.

A lot of literature, unfortunately, tends to heap unique, exquisite beauty and virtue on Dying Young; impressionable young readers are encouraged to think they are missing something, and have failed Truth and Beauty somehow, if they reach age 30 with all their limbs. I personally detest the literary shortcut of killing off Billy Budd or some doomed neuresthenic young aristrocrat in a ball gown. I think the great problem a writer has to somehow illuminate is the problem of what happens, and what we should do, if we accidentally manage to live and survive; because most people do live and survive, so most people are stuck with this embarrassing problem. I think it is detestable to encourage young people to think that the Triumph lies in sudden beautiful death at 22, or at Romeo's 15. Our job is to cling to life, aesthetically icky as success at age 46 may appear.

Here, let me interrupt myself to display my pathetic knowledge of things Australian. Conversations I had with Ozzies when I visited in '86 (Alice Springs, to see Halley's Comet) acquainted me with the ghastly experiences of Australian veterans after they'd fought in Vietnam. That, and what little I learned of the treatment of Russian vets of the Afghan occupation, deepened my beliefs about the common experiences of veterans — that those who sent them to misbegotten wars are far more comfortable with the honored war dead than they are with living survivors. Probably because we choose, at our convenience, when to visit the graves of the dead, and we the living design our comforting rituals to remember them; but actual survivors are daily embarrassing and often uncooperative reminders of our social and political mistakes, and deeply unpleasant and disturbing reminders of our failures to adequately cherish and protect our young people.

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