Thursday, November 11, 2010

Keith Douglas

On Veteran's Day last year I presented a poem or two from Wilfred Owen. This year I thought to quote from another poet of war, Keith Douglas, an English poet of World War II.



Keith Douglas was born in 1920 in Kent, and educated at Oxford. In one of his letters written in 1940 he looks back on his childhood: "I lived alone during the most fluid and formative years of my life, and during that time I lived on my imagination, which was so powerful as to persuade me that the things I imagined would come true." Within days of the declaration of war he had reported to an army office with the intention of joining a cavalry regiment. Like many others keen to serve he had to wait and it was not until July 1940 that he started his training. On the 1st February 1941 he passed out from Sandhurst, the officer training school, and was posted to the Second Derbyshire Yeomanry at Ripon; he spent most of his war service in North Africa. In 1944, he took part in the D-Day invasion of Normandy, during which action he was killed.

His poetry shows the range of the best of the English war poets, showing what Owen called "the poetry and pity of war," from lyrical to polemical. His poems from the desert are filled with descriptions of the lives of desert civilians as well as warriors, with insight into the burdens of the warrior and wounded. One of the things Douglas thought about, which has become a major theme among veterans over the past century, is: how do you come back home, when the war is done?

Douglas talks less directly about war and politics than other war poets might, but the context is always there. It's the quiet backdrop of his poems, some of the most memorable of which were written in North Africa.



Villanelle Of Spring Bells

Bells in the town alight with spring
converse, with a concordance of new airs
make clear the fresh and ancient sound they sing.

People emerge from winter to hear them ring,
children glitter with mischief and the blind man hears
bells in the town alight with spring.

Even he on his eyes feels the caressing
finger of Persephone, and her voice escaped from tears
make clear the fresh and ancient sound they sing.

Bird feels the enchantment of his wing
and in ten fine notes dispels twenty cares.
Bells in the town alight with spring

warble the praise of Time, for he can bring
this season: chimes the merry heaven bears
make clear the fresh and ancient sound they sing.

All evil men intent on evil thing
falter, for in their cold unready ears
bells in the town alight with spring
make clear the fresh and ancient sound they sing.



Cairo Jag

Shall I get drunk or cut myself a piece of cake,
a pasty Syrian with a few words of English
or the Turk who says she is a princess—she dances
apparently by levitation? Or Marcelle, Parisienne
always preoccupied with her dull dead lover:
she has all the photographs and his letters
tied in a bundle and stamped Decede in mauve ink.
All this takes place in a stink of jasmin.

But there are the streets dedicated to sleep
stenches and the sour smells, the sour cries
do not disturb their application to slumber
all day, scattered on the pavement like rags
afflicted with fatalism and hashish. The women
offering their children brown-paper breasts
dry and twisted, elongated like the skull,
Holbein's signature. But his stained white town
is something in accordance with mundane conventions—
Marcelle drops her Gallic airs and tragedy
suddenly shrieks in Arabic about the fare
with the cabman, links herself so
with the somnambulists and legless beggars:
it is all one, all as you have heard.

But by a day's travelling you reach a new world
the vegetation is of iron
dead tanks, gun barrels split like celery
the metal brambles have no flowers or berries
and there are all sorts of manure, you can imagine
the dead themselves, their boots, clothes and possessions
clinging to the ground, a man with no head
has a packet of chocolate and a souvenir of Tripoli.



The Knife

Can I explain this to you? Your eyes
are entrances the mouths of caves
I issue from wonderful interiors
upon a blessed sea and a fine day,
from inside these caves I look and dream.

Your hair explicable as a waterfall
in some black liquid cooled by legend
fell across my thought in a moment
became a garment I am naked without
lines drawn across through morning and evening.

And in your body each minute I died
moving your thigh could disinter me
from a grave in a distant city:
your breasts deserted by cloth, clothed in twilight
filled me with tears, sweet cups of flesh.

Yes, to touch two fingers made us worlds
stars, waters, promontories, chaos
swooning in elements without form or time
come down through long seas among sea marvels
embracing like survivors in our islands.

This I think happened to us together
though now no shadow of it flickers in your hands
your eyes look down on ordinary streets
If I talk to you I might be a bird
with a message, a dead man, a photograph.



How To Kill

Under the parabola of a ball,
a child turning into a man,
I looked into the air too long.
The ball fell in my hand, it sang
in the closed fist: Open Open
Behold a gift designed to kill.

Now in my dial of glass appears
the soldier who is going to die.
He smiles, and moves about in ways
his mother knows, habits of his.
The wires touch his face: I cry
NOW. Death, like a familiar, hears

And look, has made a man of dust
of a man of flesh. This sorcery
I do. Being damned, I am amused
to see the centre of love diffused
and the wave of love travel into vacancy.
How easy it is to make a ghost.

The weightless mosquito touches
her tiny shadow on the stone,
and with how like, how infinite
a lightness, man and shadow meet.
They fuse. A shadow is a man
when the mosquito death approaches.




Desert Flowers

And here's a brief animation built around Douglas reading one of his most famous poems, Simplify Me When I'm Dead:

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