Places Never Explained

Colm Tóibín

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In January 1945, as she was preparing her collection North & South for publication, Elizabeth Bishop wrote to her publishers to say she was worried that she had written nothing about the war:

The fact that none of these poems deal directly with the war, at a time when so much war poetry is being published, will, I am afraid, leave me open to reproach. The chief reason is simply that I work very slowly. But I think it would help some if a note to the effect that most of the poems had been written, or begun at least, before 1941, could be inserted at the beginning, say just after the acknowledgments.

Bishop’s war effort was brief. In August 1943 she worked in a navy optical shop in Key West, taking binoculars apart to clean them, but eyestrain made her sick and the acid used to clean the lenses caused eczema. After five days she was honourably discharged.

Bishop did accept that ‘Roosters’, written in Key West and first published in 1941, was a war poem, or at least a poem about the warlike instinct:

The crown of red
set on your little head
is charged with all your fighting blood.

‘I want to emphasise,’ she wrote to Marianne Moore, ‘the essential baseness of militarism’, and the poem is filled with images of questionable military might:

Deep from protruding chests
in green-gold medals dressed,
planned to command and terrorise the rest

The poems Bishop wrote between her arrival in Key West in 1938 and her move to Brazil more than a decade later are laced with images of violence and warfare. ‘Florida’ begins as though she is writing a breezy travel guide (‘The state with the prettiest name’), but quickly the images darken. Mangrove roots, ‘when dead’, ‘strew white swamps with skeletons’, and turtles ‘die and leave their barnacled shells on the beaches,/and their large white skulls with round eye-sockets/twice the size of a man’s’. In the poem’s second half, there are buzzards ‘drifting down, down, down’, and slowly ‘the state with the prettiest name’ becomes ‘the careless, corrupt state’ and the alligator’s calls include ‘war, and a warning’. Not being in the war, not seeing any violence first-hand, offered Bishop an oblique angle from which to take in what was happening. The heightened images of tension and disruption in her poems of the 1940s may have had other sources too, but the war made its way into the nervous system of her poems indirectly and mysteriously.

Robert Lowell was a high-profile conscientious objector, writing to Roosevelt in September 1943 with a ‘Declaration of Personal Responsibility’ which objected to the mining of the Ruhr Dams and the bombing of Hamburg. He concluded:

In 1941 we undertook a patriotic war to preserve our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honour against the lawless aggressions of the totalitarian league: in 1943 we are collaborating with the most unscrupulous and powerful of totalitarian dictators to destroy law, freedom, democracy, and above all, our continued national sovereignty.

With the greatest reluctance, and with every wish that I may be proved in error, and after long deliberation on my responsibilities to myself, my country, and my ancestors who played responsible parts in its making, I have come to the conclusion that I cannot honourably participate in a war whose prosecution, as far as I can judge, constitutes a betrayal of my country.

Many of Lowell’s war poems are driven as much by his fervid Catholic faith and devotion to the Virgin Mary as by his anti-war sentiments. The diction is clotted and dense; the tone is earnest and overwrought. ‘The Dead in Europe’ begins:

After the planes unloaded, we fell down
Buried together, unmarried men and women;
Not crown of thorns, not iron, not Lombard crown,
Not grilled and spindle spires pointing to heaven
Could save us. Raise us, Mother, we fell down
Here hugger-mugger in the jellied fire:
Our sacred earth in our day was our curse.

It is clear from this poem that wherever Lowell was when the bombs fell, he wasn’t close by. His best poem about the war, ‘Memories of West Street and Lepke’, came later, appearing in Life Studies in 1959; it dealt with his imprisonment for being a conscientious objector. In the relaxed metre he found congenial for his personal poems he looks back with calm irony at his old fiery self:

I was a fire-breathing Catholic C.O.,
and made my manic statement,
telling off the state and president, and then
sat waiting sentence in the bull pen
beside a Negro boy with curlicues
of marijuana in his hair.

Randall Jarrell’s five-line poem ‘The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner’ must be one of the best-known American poems about the war:

From my mother’s sleep I fell into the State,
And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze.
Six miles from earth, loosed from its dream of life,
I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters,
When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.

Jarrell was drafted late in 1942. ‘Being in the army,’ he wrote, ‘is like being involved in the digestive process of an immense worm.’ In Bomber County: The Poetry of a Lost Pilot’s War, Daniel Swift writes about the strangeness of Jarrell’s war: ‘No one was ever so far from the war as Randall Jarrell, deep in Texas.’ He started training as a pilot. ‘Flying is pretty dull,’ he wrote to Edmund Wilson, ‘and I’m bad at it.’ At the beginning of 1943 he was moved to an air force training base near Wichita Falls, where, as Swift writes, ‘he worked in the mail room and was later transferred to the Interviewing and Classification Department. It was hardly a heroic war.’

But he did write heroically. William Pritchard, in his biography of Jarrell, says that ‘in letter after letter, Jarrell turned the routine, the boredom, the loneliness and the wastefulness of army life far from the zones of combat into the figures of something like art.’ In February 1943, Jarrell wrote to his wife, Mackie, from Wichita Falls:

The cowpasture in the afternoons is a wonderful sight. Imagine a perfectly flat, perfectly barren and desolate plain, the soil is a kind of loess – it’s one tremendous dust-pile; on this plain, for as far as you can see, there are men running, doing calisthenics, and playing rough children’s games – tens of thousands of men. Tremendous clouds of dust hang over the field all afternoon; when the wind rises there is a dust storm so extreme that you can’t see men fifty or a hundred yards away.

A few months later he wrote to a friend about his living conditions:

I sleep in a double-deck bed with a cowboy from Texas, a nice boy who never finished the third grade, just below me; if I stretch out my left hand I can touch a small dark pleasant Italian, about five feet high; with my right hand I can touch somebody who came from I don’t know where, but he’s just been here two weeks while his wife had a baby boy.

‘In the evenings,’ Jarrell added, ‘I mostly write poetry or letters to Mackie.’ From feeling at the beginning that he would not be able to write poetry, Jarrell by August 1944 was writing to Oscar Williams: ‘If anybody can write a good poem about anything, he ought to do it about a war he’s in.’ Two months later, in Tucson, Arizona, he wrote to a friend:

I’ve been wonderfully lucky for the past six months – my job and Tucson are swell, Mackie has an awfully nice Red Cross job (so we’ve enough money), I live off post and get to play tennis, I like the people in my department, I’m even writing poems. My two subjects are: bombing Hamburg and bombing crews – I feel sympathetic and sorry for both of them.

Jarrell wrote to his wife about Allen Tate’s ‘Ode to Our Young Pro-Consuls of the Air’, a poem which ends with the Dalai Lama being exterminated from the air, saying it was ‘certainly poor and annoying … I thought the Dalai Lama almost the only touch of imagination.’ When he wrote to Tate on the same subject he left out his view that it was ‘poor and annoying’, telling him instead: ‘I thought the part when they kill the Dalai Lama wonderful, and even more wonderfully characteristic.’ This may seem hypocritical or merely polite, but it is significant that the first letter was written in April 1943 and the second in May 1945. In those two years, Jarrell had undergone a change in his attitude towards war poetry and the poems he himself could write.

Jarrell paid close attention to what other writers were doing about the war. In 1943, after reading a story about the army by John Cheever in the New Yorker, he wrote to Mackie: ‘The trouble with writing a story about the army is this: people expect something to happen in a story (Cheever supplied things, lots of things); but the whole point of the army is that nothing ever does happen, and putting the things in falsifies everything.’ In a review of a book by Marianne Moore in 1945, Jarrell was ready to attack the celebratory war poem. Moore’s ‘In Distrust of Merits’ ended:

            If these great patient
dyings – all these agonies
    and wound bearings and bloodshed –
can teach us how to live, these
    dyings were not wasted.

Moore, he wrote, ‘does not understand that they’ – the war dead – ‘are heroes in the sense that the chimney sweeps, the factory children in the blue books, were heroes: routine loss in the routine business of the world … She does not remember that most of the people in a war never fight for even a minute.’

Jarrell later attacked Auden for recommending that parents read Grimms’ Fairy Tales to their children, the better to banish such bogeys as, in Auden’s words, ‘the Society for the Scientific Diet, the Association of Positivist Parents, the League for the Promotion of Worthwhile Leisure, the Co-operative Camp for Prudent Progressives’. Jarrell responded: ‘Were these your enemies, reader? They were not mine.’ He took Auden to task for not responding to the war: ‘This was written … within the months that held the mass executions in the German camps, the fire raids, Warsaw and Dresden and Manila; within the months that were preparing the bombs for Hiroshima and Nagasaki; within the last 12 months of the Second World War.’ Those last ten words arrive with an earnest, clanging sound. They suggest a seriousness about large matters that may be present in Jarrell’s thinking about the war, but are notably absent from his letters from this period, which are about the dullness of what he is doing, or filled with small needs and requests, such as asking his wife in November 1943: ‘If you go into our boxes of clothes at Austin bring my white tennis trousers and two good sweaters.’

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