When I was working on ‘The natures of war’ (DOWNLOADS tab; the slide above is from my presentation) I stumbled across the poetry of Keith Douglas and his prose account of the desert war, From Alamein to Zem Zem (see my post here).
I was familiar with the soldier-poets of the First World War, of course, but I confess I had no idea how much fine poetry had emerged from the deserts of North Africa in the 1940s. Ironically, Edmund Blunden was Douglas’s tutor at Oxford….
The LA Review of Books recently published an appreciation of Douglas’s importance by Steven Isenberghere:
Douglas wrote Alamein to Zem Zem (1946), his account of men and tanks in North Africa, so close in time and space to the desert battlegrounds that it pulses with ebullient immediacy. He became the answer to his own question: “Why are there no poets like [Wilfred] Owen and Sassoon who lived with the fighting troops and wrote of their experience while enduring them?”
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)
Douglas’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 Amieltook 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”.