There’s a saying in the army: “Hurry up and wait.” I kept paper and a pen in my helmet, so when I was waiting I would write sonnets. I know I wrote more than seven, but seven sonnets were selected for publication in The American Scholar, Winter 1946-1947.
1. For the Victorious Poets
O do not speak again of misplaced spring
Or days when roses bathed in vulgar red,
Or of contemplative field larks who sing
Remembrances to our unhearing dead.
You cannot dare for phrases “not in vain,”
Or “final sacrifice” or “not for long,”
There are no social hopes among the slain,
The larks have sung an idiotic song.
Do not speak, do not talk, no words, no sighs,
Let silence be the epitaph of war,
A silence that is pressed on autumn skies
By winds that bear the living spore:
A quiet that obscures a useless glow,
For it is truth to say, “I do not know.”
2. For My Outfit
This is a thin, discordant counterpoint
To oratory and the martial strain,
A marching file is weaving out of joint
And greasy clouds are spilling steady rain
On rifles pointed down, on standards cased,
On hopes of home that lie in muted throats
As tenuous ideals become erased
By swamps and fascists wearing khaki coats.
We are the tutored mob, the infantry,
Redeemers of some words we vaguely know,
Who soon shall find the sharp philosophy:
That moment when a whistle’s final blow
Shall signal the deploy and we disperse
Alone, and target to the universe.
3. La Roche, Belgium
These dead are caught in booby-traps
Awaiting chemical reform,
Disinterested in shrouding wraps,
They’ve lost concern for keeping warm.
They gave too much to beat the cold,
Though it was given honor-free;
There’s sometime use for growing old,
I’ll give my right leg to the knee.
O commandant, come lead your men,
Lay down your decorating pen,
To evade the cold, which wound is best?
A jointless arm? A sucking chest?
We’d die, but death is suspect here,
Your corpse has snow within its ear.
4. Prummern, Germany
Cannoneer, rifleman, mortarman dead,
What are the thought you retain in your head?
What are the hopes that were caught in your throat
As the shrapnel prepared a red burial coat?
You are the loser, the battles are won,
The glories are faded, the writers are gone,
Speak it in silence and ask it in ruth,
Through the word is unheard, the word is first truth.
All sand and starlight, wind and cloud,
Come take the man who made the crowd,
Answer him with swaddling shroud,
And rot the face that lies mud-masked
To mute the question yet unasked —
O his was flesh far over-tasked.
Yes, it is fine to die like Socrates,
With Grecian students weeping in your cell,
Dispensing grace for all posterities,
Philosophizing on the state of Hell;
Or if the Marys guard the sepulcher
Your name is meant for neon set in chrome
And there will be the Easter songs and myrrh,
And there are always candles burned in Rome.
But what if the Schmeisser behind the concrete
Tears out an eye and riddles both feet?
What of a death in disputed terrain —
Twenty-three days that you rot in the rain?
Better….The burst is sometimes sure and quick;
The Cross is too slow, the hemlock too thick.
6. Evacuation Train, Hannover Station
Sons of the queen, returning from the wars,
Filled sick with dysentery, steel, and hate,
Come watch the locomotive punctuate
The cultured sky that rests upon your soars.
Watch, in the street the talking Germans fuss
At seeling lentils or dissecting dreams,
Or picking used cigars from gutter streams:
They are inventors of the calculus.
Physics is not impressed by bravery,
A bullet’s catenary will not skew
Through honest flesh without a residue
Of blood and pain and shackling misery:
There is your impotence, there in the street,
They are the weavers of your shrouding sheet.
7. I Cannot Pay for Eggs
In the morning, in the morning,
When the whores are off the streets,
From the bedroom we are watching
Drudges changing last night’s sheets.
We have talked of brave tomorrows,
Crosby leading to the Host,
Ellington for true love’s sorrows,
While we’ve smeared the buttered toast.
Yet before breakfast make the choice —
Society demands our voice,
Let us spin the five franc coin
To see which dogma we shall join:
Head is Marx and tails is Freud,
The milled edge is the Hebrew’s void.