Tuesday, November 11, 2008

you only have to look at old pictures and see how they smiled

On Remembrance Day, I always feel, not exactly conflicted, but perhaps ambivalent. I guess that is not entirely unexpected when your father was a teenaged soldier in the German army during the second world war and then a career soldier in the Canadian army.

I always thought it was terribly sad that every year the veterans were older and frailer and fewer in number. The last remaining Canadian veteran from world war one is 108 years old.

But what I find infinitely sadder is that there is now a new generation of veterans. Because there is never any shortage of war.

These are the three most poignant war songs that I know. They all make my heart ache, but the final one, which I heard for the first time at an NQ Arbuckle concert recently, affected me even more so, by introducing me to this powerful poem by Alden Nowlan.

Ypres 1915 - by Alden Nowlan

The age of trumpets is passed, the banners hang
like dead crows, battered and black,
rotting into nothingness on cathedral wall.
In the crypt of St. Paul’s I had all the wrong thoughts,
wondered if there was anything left of Nelson
or Wellington, and even wished
I could pry open their tombs and look,
then was ashamed
of such morbid childishness, and almost afraid.

I know the picture is as much a forgery
as the Protocols of Zion, yet it outdistances
more plausible fictions: newsreels, regimental histories,
biographies of Earl Haig.

It is always morning
and the sky somehow manages to be red
though the picture is in black and white.
There is a long road over flat country,
shell holes, the debris of houses,
a gun carriage overturned in a field,
the bodies of men and horses,
but only a few of them and those
always neat and distant.

The Moors are running
down the right side of the road.
The Moors are running
in their baggy pants and Santa Claus caps.
The Moors are running.

And their officers,
Frenchmen who remember
Alsace and Lorraine,
are running backwards in front of them,
waving their swords, trying to drive them back,
at the dishonour of it all.
The Moors are running.

And on the left side of the same road,
the Canadians are marching in the opposite direction.

The Canadians are marching
in English uniforms behind
a piper playing ‘Scotland the Brave.’

The Canadians are marching
in impeccable formation,
every man in step.

The Canadians are marching.

And I know this belongs
with Lord Kitchener’s mustache
and old movies in which the Kaiser and his general staff
seem to run like Keystone Cops.

That old man on television last night,
a farmer or fisherman by the sound of him,
revisiting Vimy Ridge, and they asked him
what it was like, and he said,
There was water up to our middles, yes
and there was rats, and yes
there was water up to our middles
and rats, all right enough,
and to tell you the truth
after the first three or four days
I started to get a little disgusted.

Oh, I know they were mercenaries
in a war that hardly concerned us.
I know all that.

Sometimes I’m not even sure that I have a country.

But I know that they stood there at Ypres
the first time the Germans used gas,
that they were almost the only troops
in that section of the front
who did not break and run,
who held the line.

Perhaps they were too scared to run.
Perhaps they didn’t know any better
– that is possible, they were so innocent,
those farmboys and mechanics, you only have to look
at old pictures and see how they smiled.

Perhaps they were too shy
to walk out on anybody, even Death.
Perhaps their only motivation
was a stubborn disinclination.

Private McNally thinking:
You squareheaded sons of bitches,
you want this God damn trench
you’re going to have to take it away
from Billy McNally
of the South End of Saint John, New Brunswick.

And that’s ridiculous, too, and nothing on which to found a country.
It makes me feel good, knowing
that in some obscure, conclusive way
they were connected with me
and me with them.


Dr. Monkey Von Monkerstein said...

Beautiful post, That Pogues song makes me misty.

John Mutford said...

Nice choice, Barb.

Remi said...

Always loved that Pogues song.

The revelations for me are NQ Arbuckle and Alden Nowland.

I'll be searching out more from both.

Anonymous said...

That's a wonderful post, Barb. Thank you!

Sean Wraight said...

It's reassuring to know that feelings of ambivalence are not exclusive to my worldview. To that end kind of hopeful for me. The Alden Nowland piece absolutely breathtaking.

Wonderful post Barb.


Barbara Bruederlin said...

Thanks, Dr M. That Pogues song always chokes me up as well.

I figured I would surprise you with a poem, John. Surely a first for me.

I urge you to check out an NQ Arbuckle show, Remi. They are based in Toronto and they put on an incredible show. Frontman is positively mesmerizing.

Gawrsh, thanks, Justrun.

I excel at ambivalence, Sean. Being a libra, it comes with the territory.
I am certainly going to read more of Nowlan's writing, it is so powerful.

Bridget Jones said...

Thanks for this post, Barb. I think it's terribly sad too.

justacoolcat said...

Wars suck, but I'm sure thankful for the people that defend our countries when necessary.