TCS: Braver Still – Poems for Veterans Day, 2019

Good Morning!

________________________________

Welcome to The Coffee Shop, just for you early risers on Monday mornings.
This is an Open Thread forum, so if you have an off-topic opinion burning
a hole in your brainpan, feel free to add a comment.

________________________________

I was a soldier . . . It was on the battlefield
that I pledged myself to the cause of peace.

– Ernesto Teodoro Moneta,
   Italian war veteran, 1907 Nobel Peace Prize winner


________________________________

In the United States, November 11 is Veterans Day. Originally, it was a legal federal holiday called Armistice Day, in honor of the official end of the first World War on November 11, 1918. But after World War II and the Korean War, in 1954, it was renamed, and became a day to honor American veterans of all wars.  It is no longer a day off for most American workers, so for many of the veterans it was intended to honor who are still living, it is just another work day.

________________________________

Our first poem is from Joy Harjo, the new U.S. Poet Laureate, but it is not a poem about war, it is about the difficult path toward peace.


This Morning I Pray for My Enemies

by Joy Harjo

And whom do I call my enemy?
An enemy must be worthy of engagement.
I turn in the direction of the sun and keep walking.
It’s the heart that asks the question, not my furious mind.
The heart is the smaller cousin of the sun.
It sees and knows everything.
It hears the gnashing even as it hears the blessing.
The door to the mind should only open from the heart.
An enemy who gets in, risks the danger of becoming a friend.


‘This Morning I Pray for My Enemies” from Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings: Poems; © 2015 by Joy Harjo – W. W. Norton & Company

Joy Harjo (1951 – ) was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma and is a member of the Mvskoke Nation. She says the name Harjo means ‘so brave you’re crazy.’ Harjo is a poet, musician, playwright, a Native American rights activist as well as a women’s rights activist, and a gifted teacher. Harjo is now serving as the U.S. Poet Laureate for 2019-2020, the first Native American to be appointed to the position. Her books include She Had Some Horses, Crazy Brave, The Woman Who Fell from The Sky and An American Sunrise. Among her many honors and awards are the 1990 American Indian Distinguished Achievement in the Arts Award, the 1991 Delmore Schwartz Memorial Award, the 2015 Wallace Stevens Award in Poetry by the Academy of American Poets, and the 2017 Ruth Lily Poetry Prize.

________________________________

World War I was a long and horribly bloody war – it’s estimated that between 15 and 19 million soldiers and civilians died during the war – but it produced a remarkable body of poetry. This poem was written by Winifred Letts, a nurse who cared for the wounded. Though not as well-known as the poetry of soldiers like Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owens, she offers a different point of view of bravery from those in combat.


To a Soldier in Hospital

by Winifred M. Letts

Courage came to you with your boyhood’s grace
Of ardent life and limb.
Each day new dangers steeled you to the test,
To ride, to climb, to swim.
Your hot blood taught you carelessness of death
With every breath.

So when you went to play another game
You could not but be brave:
An Empire’s team, a rougher football field,
The end—perhaps your grave.
What matter? On the winning of a goal
You staked your soul.

Yes, you wore courage as you wore your youth
With carelessness and joy.
But in what Spartan school of discipline
Did you get patience, boy?
How did you learn to bear this long-drawn pain
And not complain?

Restless with throbbing hopes, with thwarted aims,
Impulsive as a colt,
How do you lie here month by weary month
Helpless, and not revolt?
What joy can these monotonous days afford
Here in a ward?

Yet you are merry as the birds in spring,
Or feign the gaiety,
Lest those who dress and tend your wound each day
Should guess the agony.
Lest they should suffer—this the only fear
You let draw near.

Greybeard philosophy has sought in books
And argument this truth,
That man is greater than his pain, but you
Have learnt it in your youth.
You know the wisdom taught by Calvary
At twenty-three.

Death would have found you brave, but braver still
You face each lagging day,
A merry Stoic, patient, chivalrous,
Divinely kind and gay.
You bear your knowledge lightly, graduate
Of unkind Fate.

Careless philosopher, the first to laugh,
The latest to complain.
Unmindful that you teach, you taught me this
In your long fight with pain:
Since God made man so good—here stands my creed—
God’s good indeed.


“To a Soldier in Hospital” from Hallowe’en and Other Poems of the War, which was originally published in 1916. A facsimile reproduction was printed by Kessinger Publications in 2010.

Winifred M. Letts (1882-1971) was born in England, but lived most of her life in Ireland. She was a novelist, playwright, and poet. She began her career writing one-act plays for the Abbey Theatre, and a short story which was published in The Irish Review. Six of the poems from her first collection, Songs from Leinster, were set to music, most notably as the song, “A Soft Day.” In 1916, she was working as a nurse tending wounded soldiers when Hallowe’en and Other Poems of the War was published.  Her books of poetry include More Songs from Leinster (1926), and The Spires of Oxford and Other Poems (1918).

________________________________

Sometimes the worst experiences for a soldier in a war far from home come not from the war itself, but from the shock of another culture.


Why I Don’t Mention Flowers When Conversations
with My Brother Reach Uncomfortable Silences

by Natalie Diaz

 Forgive me, distant wars, for bringing
flowers home. —
Wisława Szymborska

In the Kashmir mountains,
my brother shot many men,
blew skulls from brown skins,
dyed white desert sand crimson.

What is there to say to a man
who has traversed such a world,
whose hands and eyes have
betrayed him?

Were there flowers there? I asked.

This is what he told me:

In a village, many men
wrapped a woman in a sheet.
She didn’t struggle.
Her bare feet dragged in the dirt.

They laid her in the road
and stoned her.

The first man was her father.
He threw two stones in a row.
Her brother had filled his pockets
with stones on the way there.

The crowd was a hive
of disturbed bees. The volley
of stones against her body
drowned out her moans.

Blood burst through the sheet
like a patch of violets,
a hundred roses in bloom.


“Why I Don’t Mention Flowers When Conversations with My Brother Reach Uncomfortable Silences” from When My Brother Was an Aztec, © 2012 by Natalie Diaz  – Copper Canyon Press

Natalie Diaz was born in the Fort Mojave Indian Village in Needles, California. She is a Mojave American poet, language activist, former professional basketball player, and educator. She is enrolled in the Gila River Indian Community. She has worked with the last speakers of the Mojave language while directing a language revitalization program. In 2007, she won a Pablo Neruda Prize in Poetry. Her debut poetry collection, When My Brother Was an Aztec, was a 2012 Lannan Literary Selection, and was on the 2013  PEN/Open Book Award shortlist. Many of the poems in the book are about her brother’s struggles with crystal meth addiction. Her poems have appeared in Poetry magazine, and several other literary journals.

________________________________

Robert Frost on the silences that say more than words.


Not to Keep

by Robert Frost

They sent him back to her. The letter came
Saying… and she could have him. And before
She could be sure there was no hidden ill
Under the formal writing, he was in her sight—
Living.— They gave him back to her alive—
How else? They are not known to send the dead—
And not disfigured visibly. His face?—
His hands? She had to look—to ask,
“What was it, dear?” And she had given all
And still she had all—they had—they the lucky!
Wasn’t she glad now? Everything seemed won,
And all the rest for them permissible ease.
She had to ask, “What was it, dear?”
“Enough,
Yet not enough. A bullet through and through,
High in the breast. Nothing but what good care
And medicine and rest—and you a week,
Can cure me of to go again.” The same
Grim giving to do over for them both.
She dared no more than ask him with her eyes
How was it with him for a second trial.
And with his eyes he asked her not to ask.
They had given him back to her, but not to keep.


Robert Frost (1874-1963), though regarded as the quintessential New England American poet, he was born in San Francisco, California, and his poems were published in England before they were published in the U.S. He is the only poet to receive the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry four times: in 1924, for New Hampshire: A Poem With Notes and Grace Notes; in 1931 for Collected Poems; in 1937 for A Further Range; and in 1943 for A Witness Tree. Frost was the first Poet Laureate of Vermont (1961-1963)

________________________________

Yusef Komunyakaa expresses his feelings about all the narrow misses he survived during the Vietnam War.


Thanks

by Yusef Komunyakaa

Thanks for the tree
between me & a sniper’s bullet.
I don’t know what made the grass
sway seconds before the Viet Cong
raised his soundless rifle.
Some voice always followed,
telling me which foot
to put down first.
Thanks for deflecting the ricochet
against that anarchy of dusk.
I was back in San Francisco
wrapped up in a woman’s wild colors,
causing some dark bird’s love call
to be shattered by daylight
when my hands reached up
& pulled a branch away
from my face. Thanks
for the vague white flower
that pointed to the gleaming metal
reflecting how it is to be broken
like mist over the grass,
as we played some deadly
game for blind gods.
What made me spot the monarch
writhing on a single thread
tied to a farmer’s gate,
holding the day together
like an unfingered guitar string,
is beyond me. Maybe the hills
grew weary & leaned a little in the heat.
Again, thanks for the dud
hand grenade tossed at my feet
outside Chu Lai. I’m still
falling through its silence.
I don’t know why the intrepid
sun touched the bayonet,
but I know that something
stood among those lost trees
& moved only when I moved.


“Thanks” from Dien Cai Dau, © 1988 by Yusef Komunyakaa – Wesleyan University Press

Yusef Komunyakaa (1947 – ) was born in Bogalusa, Louisiana. His introduction to poetry came from his grandparents, who were “church people,” and “the sound of the Old Testament informed the cadences of their speech.” Komunyakaa was a correspondent during the Vietnam War, a managing editor of the Southern Cross, for which he received a Bronze Star.  His poems are a combination of personal narrative, jazz rhythm and vernacular language. His 1988 book, Dien Cai Dau, about his experiences in Vietnam, won the Dark Room Poetry Prize.  Komunyakaa is a member of the Fellowship of Southern Writers.

________________________________

Amorak Huey’s poem is about deflection as protective coverage for the ones who did make it home from the war.


We Were All Odysseus in Those Days

by Amorak Huey

A young man learns to shoot
& dies in the mud
an ocean away from home,
a rifle in his fingers
& the sky dripping
from his heart. Next to him
a friend watches
his final breath slip
ragged into the ditch,
a thing the friend will carry
back to America—
wound, souvenir,
backstory. He’ll teach
literature to young people
for 40 years. He’ll coach
his daughters’ softball teams.
Root for Red Wings
& Lions & Tigers. Dance
well. Love generously.
He’ll be quick with a joke
& firm with handshakes.
He’ll rarely talk
about the war. If asked
he’ll tell you instead
his favorite story:
Odysseus escaping
from the Cyclops
with a bad pun & good wine
& a sharp stick.
It’s about buying time
& making do, he’ll say.
It’s about doing what it takes
to get home, & you see
he has been talking
about the war all along.
We all want the same thing
from this world:
Call me nobody. Let me live.


“We Were All Odysseus in Those Days” from Boom Box, © 2019 by Amorak Huey – Sundress Publications

Amorak Huey was born in Kalamazoo, Michigan, but grew up in a small town in Alabama. After nearly 15 years as a reporter and editor, he left the newspaper business in 2008. He is the author of three books of poetry: Boom Box, Seducing the Asparagus Queen, and Ha Ha Ha Thump. He teaches writing at Grand Valley State University and lives in East Grand Rapids, Michigan. Huey describes himself as “a poet and professor, a writer and sometime journalist, a decent dad and a mediocre slow-pitch softball player.”

________________________________

Visuals 

  • Header:  Attic Vase – Hoplite fight  (Athens Museum)
  • Coffee Mug: Honoring All Who Served
  • Sunlight through open door
  • WWI hospital ward
  • Rose petals on paving stones
  • New England farm in autumn
  • Vietnam War era U.S. Army helmet
  • The Ship of Odysseus by François-Louis Schmeid

 

About wordcloud9

Nona Blyth Cloud has lived and worked in the Los Angeles area for the past 50 years, spending much of that time commuting on the 405 Freeway. After Hollywood failed to appreciate her genius for acting and directing, she began a second career managing non-profits, from which she has retired. Nona has now resumed writing whatever comes into her head, instead of reports and pleas for funding. She lives in a small house overrun by books with her wonderful husband.
This entry was posted in Poetry, The Coffee Shop and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.