Poems for Memorial Day


As I did last Memorial Day, I’m posting excerpts from poems that especially speak to me today. I hope you enjoy these, and will share some of your favorites in the comments.

1) “It is Dangerous to Read Newspapers” by Margaret Atwood (full text here):

…Now I am grownup
and literate, and I sit in my chair
as quietly as a fuse

and the jungles are flaming, the under-
brush is charged with soldiers,
the names on the difficult
maps go up in smoke…

Even my
passive eyes transmute
everything I look at to the pocked
black and white of a war photo,
can I stop myself.

It is dangerous to read newspapers.

Each time I hit a key
on my electric typewriter,
speaking of peaceful trees

another village explodes.

2) A Mad Fight Song for William S. Carpenter, 1966″ by James Wright (full text here):

At the edges of Southeast Asia this afternoon
The quarterbacks and the lines are beginning to fall,
A spring snow,

And terrified young men
Quick on their feet
Lob one another’s skulls across
Wings of strange birds that are burning
Themselves alive.

3) “Learning Experience” by Marge Piercy:

I have come out on the train from Chicago to talk
about dangling participles. I am supposed
to teach him to think a little on demand.
The time of tomorrow’s draft exam is written on the board.
The boy yawns and does not want to be in the classroom in Gary
where the furnaces that consumed his father seethe rusty smoke
and pour cascades of nerve-bright steel
while the slag goes out in little dumpcars smoking,
but even less does he want to be in Today’s Action Army
in Vietnam, in the Dominican Republic, in Guatemala,
in death that hurts.
In him are lectures on small groups, Jacksonian democracy,
French irregular verbs, the names of friends
around him in the classroom in Gary in the pillshaped afternoon
where tomorrow he will try to fail his license to live.

4) “19 January 1944” by Salvatore Quasimodo (full text here):

Someone is alive.
Someone, perhaps, is alive. But we, here,
absorbed in listening to the ancient voice
seek for a sign that outreaches life,
earth’s dark sorcery
where even among the tombs of rubble
the malign grass rears up its flower.


Poems for the Fallen Soldier

Today is Memorial Day, and in D.C. and the surrounding neighborhoods, we’re visited by groups of motorcyclists (Rolling Thunder) coming to honor fallen soldiers and veterans of the Vietnam War. People crowd on the highway overpasses with signs and flags, cheering on these men and women as they pass.

My father fought in World War II, in Iwo Jima, and though he survived, I often think of the horrors he witnessed, and how it is possible for any human being to return to the ordinary world afterward. My thanks go to all the soldiers who have protected us, and those who still protect us.

I love this excerpt of “Visiting the Wall” by Bob Hicok, which reflects on the atrocities of the Vietnam War:

A man wearing a beret

wheels up, leans near and fingers a name.

I remember being eight

and coming in

from catching fireflies,

the shocking switch from suburban twilight

to a helicopter

whirring over the exotic menace I knew

as Vietnam, a man twitching

while another pushed

against his stomach,

trying to keep what was inside

in, and realize

this marine and his fellows were also

voyeurs, witnesses of sights

no one should see,

the imaginative cruelty

of a bomb trip-wired to a baby,

…a dozen men

skinned and hung from a tree.

On the losses that women have felt as their husbands and lovers were taken by war, no one says it better than Amy Lowell, in her poem “Patterns:”

In a month he would have been my husband.

In a month, here, underneath this lime,

We would have broke the pattern;

He for me, and I for him,

He as Colonel, I as Lady,

On this shady seat.

He had a whim

That sunlight carried blessing.

And I answered, “It shall be as you have said.”

Now he is dead.

In Summer and in Winter I shall walk

Up and down

The patterned garden paths

In my stiff, brocaded gown.

The squills and daffodils

Will give place to pillared roses, and to asters, and to snow.

I shall go

Up and down,

In my gown.

Gorgeously arrayed,

Boned and stayed.

And the softness of my body will be guarded from embrace

By each button, hook, and lace.

For the man who should loose me is dead,

Fighting with the Duke in Flanders,

In a pattern called a war.

Christ! What are patterns for?