Scanning the horizon

I’ve been reading poetry from the Second World War, mainly as part of the preparation for my talk on “The natures of war” tonight.  My main focus for the last several weeks has been on the sand and dust of the Western Desert but my eyes kept straying.

I’ve been moved by the work of Keith Douglas, amongst several other ‘desert poets’, but his “How to kill” captures the impersonality-intimacy of the killing space better than almost anything I know and has a relevance far beyond its time and place:

‘Now in my dial of glass appears

the soldier who is going to die.

He smiles, and moves about in ways

his mother knows, habits of his.

The wires touch his face: I cry

NOW.  Death, like a familiar, hears

and look, has made a man of dust

of a man of flesh…’

Here is a virtualized reading of the poem (more details of what that means here)

The poems of Keith Douglas edited by Ted Hughs for FaberDouglas’s body of work is remarkable.  He’s often described as one of the finest poets of the war; he served as a tank commander in the Western Desert and was subsequently killed in Normandy in June 1944.  There’s a compelling combination of the theatrical with the documentary (what Douglas called ‘the extrospective’) in his writing: you can see it in his poetry but also in his prose account of the desert war, From Alamein to Zem Zem (newly available in a Kindle edition), and this prompted Owen Sheers to put Douglas on the stage in a one-man play at the Old Vic, Unicorns, Almost, with Joseph Fiennes (‘Who then can live among this gentle/obsolescent breed of heroes and not weep/Unicorns almost’).  Sheers also developed a documentary for BBC4, Battlefield Poet.

There’s an excellent discussion of ‘The vision of Keith Douglas’ in Tim Kendall’s Modern English war poetry (2009; available online if your library has a copy), another by Adam Piette on ‘Keith Douglas and the poetry of the Second World War’ in Cambridge’s Companion to twentieth-centuy English poetry (2007; also available online, same conditions apply) and a very good open access essay by Costas Evangelides, ‘Keith Douglas: Death’s several faces’, here.

I’ve found it hard to leave Douglas’s work alone, along with other ‘desert poets’, but this poem by Barry Conrad Amiel took me away from the sand and dust to my Killing Space project on bombing.  It’s called “Death is a matter of mathematics” (Amiel was an artilleryman but there too death came from above).

Death is a matter of mathematics

It screeches down at you from dirtywhite nothingness
And your life is a question of velocity and altitude,
With allowances for wind and the quick, relentless pull
Of gravity.

Or else it lies concealed
In that fleecy, peaceful puff of cloud ahead,
A streamlined, muttering vulture, waiting
To swoop upon you with a rush of steel.
And then your chances very as the curves
Of your parabolas, your banks, your dives,
The scientific soundness of your choice
Of what you push or pull, and how, and when.

Or perhaps you walk oblivious in a wood,
Or crawl flat-bellied over pockmarked earth,
And Death awaits you in a field-gray tunic.
Sights upright and aligned. Range estimated
And set in. A lightning, subconcious calculation
Of trajectory and deflection. With you the focal pont,
The centere of the problem. The A and B
Or the Smith and Jones of schoolboy textbooks.

Ten out of ten means you are dead.

Belatedly, I discovered that passages from both poets appear in Christopher Coker‘s The future of war: the re-enchantment of war in the twenty-first century.  Coker argues that the poets of World War II ‘have far more to tell us about the future face of conflict than their World War I predecessors’ because they address so directly the ways in which military technology was effacing the human…  This is the right time of year in many universities for me to add just one word: “Discuss”.

5 thoughts on “Scanning the horizon

  1. A very moving ‘blog’ about Keith Douglas and refreshing too to hear a WW2 artist getting some due recognition in the long shadow of WW1. I re-read bits of ‘Alamein to Zem Zem’ regularly: it is poignant but purposeful, wry and raw but also sensitive and thoughtful, which being the son of a WW2 Desert Rat I know is the authentic voice of the Western Desert soldier. The book ends thus:
    ‘And Guy, lying under the flowers in Enfidaville cemetery, Piccadilly Jim, buried miles behind us, Tom, and all the others, back to the first casualties, during Rommel’s attempt to break through to Alexandria; they didn’t make it, but it is over for them too. And tomorrow, we said, we’ll get every vehicle we can find, and go out over the whole ground we beat them on, and bring in more loot than we’ve ever seen’.
    That style, which Douglas called ‘extrospective’ because it looked outwards for expression as opposed to ‘introspection’ like the WW1 poets, has been criticised for being callous: surely that is barking up the wrong tree. Maybe you could say that Douglas was the artistic bridge between WW1, the dark humour of ‘Slaughterhouse Five’ and ‘Catch 22’ and onto the Vietnam war of ‘Despatches’ and Tim Page’s pictures in ‘Life magazine.
    To demonstrate my point here is the last verse of another Douglas favourite, the poem ‘Cairo Jag’:

    ‘But by a day’s travelling you reach a new world
    the vegetation is of iron
    dead tanks, gun barrels split like celery
    the metal brambles have no flowers or berries
    and there are all sorts of manure, you can imagine
    the dead themselves, their boots, clothes and possessions
    clinging to the ground, a man with no head
    has a packet of chocolate and a souvenir of Tripoli’.

    • Thanks Jasper – in fact I’d incorporated exactly that verse in the presentation because one of the arguments I’m developing throughout is the way in which military violence turns nature into a cyborg nature (of sorts): so the mud of the Somme, for example, was turned into a ‘slimescape’ that comprised not only earth and water but spent shells, waste, body parts and the rest; the same applies to the Western Desert (the minefields are a hideously good example of a cyborg nature: Rommel’s “Devil’s Gardens”). So Dixon’s imagery of ‘gun barrels split like celery’ and ‘metal brambles’ – and of course ‘the dead themselves, their boots, clothes and possessions’ – is a remarkably powerful way of sharpening the point.

      • Derek: I can’t wait to see the presentation in London sometime: my other thought is that are we not ‘sleepwalking’ past the 70th anniversary of the end of the Western Desert campaign: 1943-2013 ? Officially May 13, but has there been any mention ?

  2. Pingback: Playing war | geographical imaginations

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