The Battlefield as Winter

February 23, 2016

Indifferent tourists—to sounds, and shadows,
to mice whose teeth grind salt and syntax—
wait in line for the battlefield to open.
The tour guides tread softly across the field.
The shapen snow is so cold it bites the nose
of the unwary and leaves them crying.
You have to pay attention to the dead bodies
to know how the frozen solidity of the land rebukes
the crenellations the solders have left behind.
Crenellations are explained as cut outs in a wall.
The battlements gave height to your position.
Your morals are reified. Souvenirs are taken.
As the tourists climb back aboard the bus,
they caste a glance toward the towers  that gently move
against the astral sky, daylight’s passage.
They live as ceremoniously as the moss does
on rocks, imitating the rocks. The cannons roar,
the nights howl, might the banshee wail?—
we are all taken back to a time when
they were a tincture of the soil, its blood.

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8 Responses to “The Battlefield as Winter”

  1. Thomas Davis Says:

    Milton truly was a great poet, Jim. Thanks for reading the poem and commenting on it. I hope you are feeling better.

  2. extrasimile Says:

    Bravo! A somewhat ‘artificial’ form that reads like ‘normal’ speech. Okay I’m cheating a little by putting the two key words in quotes. But it does work. The only place I can detect as little concession to the form is in the line
    His hand up, said, I swear, to Bullock, “You,”

    Swearing seems a little out of place there—but I quibble. It is entirely believable. Of course I don’t know the history of Washington Island pre Civil War, which is a shame. What’s that lovely phrase? The ‘history of the inarticulate’. It seems a worthy topic for a sonnet. I also hadn’t realized that Milton took the sonnet out of the realm of love poetry. ‘On his blindness’ being the prime example, I guess. Now, Thomas, all you have to do is write something as beautiful as Lycidas. Milton really was a great poet, was he not?

  3. Thomas Davis Says:

    Jim, I hate to hear of old Dr. Parkinson. Hang in there! I have been getting published a little bit lately, although Ethel is outdoing me, I’m afraid. I admire your courage in writing while battling the beast. We should always battle the beast. How about a sonnet from me?

    An Incident on Washington Island
    Before The Civil War

    A Miltonian Sonnet with a Double Coda

    As Ambrose Betts gulped down the whiskey shot
    That Gullickson had given him, his face
    Was flushed, the muscles in his neck a knot
    So tight he winced, his outrage out of place
    Inside the cabin’s half lit single room.

    “A Winnebago Chief! I tell you Gullickson,”
    He said. “As large as life inside the gloom
    Of Miner’s kitchen, Bullock looking drawn,
    As if he’d seen a ghost, as black as coal.
    I’ve never seen the like before!” he yelled.
    “An Indian, white man, black man like a shoal
    Of pebbles on a beach. The Indian held
    His hand up, said, I swear, to Bullock, “You,”
    He said. “The first white man I ever knew.”

    Old Bullock, black as night,
    Smiled with those teeth of his
    So dazzlingly bright white.
    My head began to fizz,

    And Miner looked like God
    About to haul back, smack
    The Indian into sod.
    A white man that is black!

    Washington Island is off the tip of the Door Peninsula and had a six black family community in the 1850s that mysteriously disappeared after a law enforcement officer who had a bad reputation started visiting the community on a regular basis. It would have been the largest black community in Wisconsin at the time. Miner was the leading citizen of Washington Island at the time.

    Please be well.

  4. extrasimile Says:

    Hi Thomas—
    It is good to hear from you. I’ve been battling my old friend Dr.Parkinson quite a bit lately, and I’m not finished yet—but I am feeling a bit better. I am still typing with one finger and double ssstriki ng way too much. It takes forever to write anything. So far I resist any type of voice recognition technology. I’m not sure why except it doesn’t feel right. I do much of my thinking silently. Anyway—to the poem.
    I was thinking of Gettysburg, in part. That and a kind of Disney thing—except with real bodies. , I’m obviously playing fast and loose with wanton time here. If you can’t do such things in a poem, where can you do them? (Though one way the bodies don’t decay is if they are kept constantly cold. Think of Dante final rung in hell.) The rocks, the frozen soil, the hardness of the battlements, I hope all contribute to the ambience of the poem. This is a tough place. Toss is Elinor as another model. At least how it’s pictured in the Laurence Olivier version..
    Why this as a tourist site goes to the very heart of the poem. Maybe the tourists are sort of like rocks as well—or want to be. Or maybe the moss does get some life from the rocks. Some moisture. At the end of the poem, they get their wish—maybe. This ‘tincture’ stuff ( and who does the ‘all’ here refer to?) Anyway I leave the rest to your imagination. A tincture that distills something from the soil to form it’s blood. Just put a few drops under the tongue.
    I’ve been trying to get back in to your poetry, Thomas. Perhaps you could do me the favor [no, honor] of picking out one poem to look out from the last six months that I can look at.
    You aint such a bad poet yourself, you know. I hope you too are well.
    Jim

  5. Thomas Davis Says:

    Jim, I am always amazed by your poetry. It is not poetry for the casual reader. Even when it seems straightforward it creates a labyrinth of meaning and metaphor, somewhat like John Stevens, whom I know you love, that challenges the reader.
    I actually thought the poem was about Gettysburg, the haunted field of death where tourists flock every year. Why do we humans dwell so much on the tragedies our forebearers created?
    What makes the poem complex is a line like this:
    You have to pay attention to the dead bodies
    to know how the frozen solidity of the land rebukes
    the crenellations the solders have left behind.
    The poem is set in winter, “frozen solidity,” but how do you pay attention to dead bodies that have long gone to soil in their graves. The idea of the land rebuking crenellations that mark the soldiers left behind is powerful, as if the land itself objects to the carnage the crenellations represent. But the poem seems to suggest that the dead bodies are still there, not gone, and that at least certain tourists can pay attention to them. This part of the poem is macabre, but powerful, an objection to the battle, and therefore all battles, that has long been in the past.
    There are lives and lives in the poem:
    As the tourists climb back aboard the bus,
    they caste a glance toward the towers that gently move
    against the astral sky, daylight’s passage.
    They live as ceremoniously as the moss does
    on rocks, imitating the rocks.
    Towers gently move; they live ceremoniously as the moss does imitating the rocks . . .
    The universe bristles with both the past and the present as the tourists, visitors, those from some place that is not the battlefield or the past when the battle occurred, board their bus to leave what they have just experienced behind.
    The cannons roar,
    the nights howl, might the banshee wail?—

    But it is more than echoes once alive on the battlefield,
    we are all taken back to a time when
    they were a tincture of the soil, its blood.
    In the experience of past battles we are all taken back to the immediacy, the blood, the blood of sacrifice, the aftermath of a tincture of soil.
    Then the title: The Battlefield as Winter. The battlefield is obviously more than a battlefield. It is winter, and winter as a metaphor can mean death or even the wheel of time as it creeps toward spring. Or the winter of life.
    As I read this the poem is about time, about the past living in the present, evolving into the present, and winter as a metaphorical battlefield with the tantalizing obscurity of meaning, the double entendre, that all great metaphors present.
    Ah, you are a poet. I hope you are well.

  6. John Looker Says:

    Keep soldiering on buddy! Campaign medals have been ordered!

  7. extrasimile Says:

    I had in mind a place where some famous battle took place—something from the Civil War, say—where tourists would visit—kind of a Disney world with real dead bodies frozen in the soil. The winter is of course the wrong time go on a tour like this, but that just gives it a little frisson. As to the metaphoric dimensions…all of the above you mentioned seem applicable. The battlefield as the human condition.
    As to the battlefield as poetry…yes, I hadn’t thought of it per se, but in a way that is an excellent way of summarizing my thinking about this poem. There are the ‘poetic parts’ and the more workman like parts, parts that further the narrative of the poem. The battle is to keep a balance between the two. Emily Dickinson is a good example of someone who wins that battle often. Right now, I’m a good example of someone who losses that battle more than he wins.
    I am feeling better, but I have a long way to go.
    Jim

  8. John Looker Says:

    Hello over there, Jim.
    You find me reading and rereading your poem at the very moment you have been reading and commenting on my own last effort. These lines from you are ( unlike mine perhaps) indisputably a poem. They puzzle me somewhat, but for a different reason: I find myself wondering what you have in mind. The question interests me. In fact it’s more like a quest, a challenge I want to rise to. The battlefield could be so many things: a veritable battlefield (but not one in the Americas I think); the long winter; a person’s life; or Life itself. Right now I’m deriving, for myself, the image of the battlefield as Poetry.
    All those indifferent readers, the scraps of souvenirs they take away from the syntax when the casual guide isn’t looking.
    I hope you are well. John


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