18 November 2013

Mil-poets Talk a 'Blue Streak' About War and Poppies

Appropriate to last week's Veterans Day launch, three poets featured in the first issue of the "Blue Streak" military-poetry journal evoked the World War I poem "In Flander's Fields."

The 1915 poem was written by Canadian Army physician John McCrae, and later inspired the tradition of wearing the Remembrance Poppy on occasions such as Remembrance Day (also called "Armistice Day" or even "Poppy Day"), Anzac Day, and Memorial Day:
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below. [...]
The online journal is a project of Military Experience and the Arts, Richmond, Ky. The 105-page inaugural issue is available free as a PDF here.

Poppies, of course, also factor into the agriculture of Afghanistan—a fact not lost of Blue Streak poets Chris Heatherly and Virgil Huston.

Chris Heatherly's "In Afghanistan's Fields" [p. 10] is a tight-shot group of three observations on the ground, collectively aimed at the modern military's motivations and missions. In some ways, the work can be read as much as a critique of the War on Drugs, as well as the Global War on Terrorism:
In Afghanistan’s fields the poppies blow
The seeds of war flowering, row on row.
We know the places where they grow
Following orders, soldiers pass on by
Leaving the demons where they lie.

Rules of engagement tied our hands
Prevented us from entering enemy lands
Lines on a map more important than a line in the sand
Lying awake in bed, we ask the night,
“Why were we there, if not to fight?”
In Afghanistan’s fields.

Across America, a slowly falling snow
Thousands of white crosses stand row on row
Our government sleeps; the poppies grow
Perhaps we lost our way,
Avenging a fateful September day
In Afghanistan’s fields.
In "Afghanistan's Flanders Fields" [p. 23], Virgil Huston starts with Alexander and the Hindu Kush before evoking the British, Soviet, American, and Afghan soldiers who would come later. Regarding rules of engagement, he ends with laments that sound similar to Heatherly's:
what of that ground
that is forever England?
I have seen it
no one cares
sheep shit on it
men do not respect
but touch a Muslim grave
and US generals grovel
and prostrate themselves
while Presidents condemn
their own soldiers
for such transgressions
while we should be
denouncing those
who desecrate
Flanders Fields
Finally, World War II Navy veteran William Lincoln Simon, who died earlier this year at the age of 88, wrote "The Dead of Peleliu Speak" [p. 98] in 1944:
On Peleliu no poppies grow, between the
crosses row on row,
But only coral, rock, and sand. Each
cross a muted sentry, stands
A guardian of those hallowed sands
That drank our blood.

On Peleliu we fought and died. We’re restless lying side by side,
Who gave our all. And now we wait,
too worn to rest, too tired to hate.
We are the earth’s repatriate,
Who crave long peace.[...]
Three wars. Three poets. Three fresh takes on Flanders Fields.

Memorable stuff.

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