14 January 2013

Poem of the Week 2013/3

For Tony, Embarking in Spring

Mrs. Davis' younger son was home
On furlough, but the boy who was on Bataan
She has not heard from. Nor has Max Ribera
Had any word from his boy on Bataan,
And Frank's boy was drowned
In the Indian ocean.
      Today at last it's spring.
The leaves of the pear tree follow the petals
So fast the tree is green and white. The ditches
Flash red with the peach petals they carry away
Singing. The flag went up on the new army hospital
Yesterday; today the major takes us out to see it.
We hear the war news generally at noon,
In your room, on your radio, and your mother sews your curtains.
We hear it, and then we go outdoors again
To get our bearings from the spring trees.
Goodbye, dear boy. Thought can be the life of God
In each man, and God is love.

Haniel Long

Haniel Long is an American writer (1888 - 1956) who was born in Burma to missionary parents, returned with them to the United States at a very young age and lived in Pittsburgh and other eastern locales until 1929, when he relocated to Santa Fe. Though this poem clearly refers to World War II, it's easy to forget in our more instantly connected days that there is still silence and mystery (some of it intentional, some just life) over here about what's going on out there. A sense of dread about the possibilities of a soldier's fate builds up in the first few lines, from the boy on furlough to the two boys not heard from to the boy already killed. Calling the soldiers "boys" emphasizes their youth (their endangered youth) and their status as children - the viewpoint is that of of parents worrying, and trying not to. The switch to spring seems sudden, but maybe it isn't an evasion or a distraction so much as a deeper way of feeling a connection with these young men: spring is traditionally associated with youth, freshness, rebirth and renewed possibilities, and love; the fragile and fleeting nature of these things is emphasized in the details given of spring: in the maturing leaves that follow the fresh pear blossoms almost simultaneously, in the ditches that flash with the petals they carry off. Towards the end the narrator makes it clear that indeed the trees are a way of connecting with the soon-to-be absent son and of putting the worry and danger and uncertainty in perspective. No explicit statement is made about the value of that particular war, or of the causes involved (think of how often in our days people glibly talk about "our warriors" defending us from unspecified threats), but the last line, a statement of faith in connection and love, sets up those qualities in subtle and permanent opposition to war.

This poem is from the Library of America anthology American Poetry: The Twentieth Century, Volume One: Henry Adams to Dorothy Parker, and I'm posting it for JL, shipping out to Bahrain.


Sibyl said...

>gobsmacked< It's always the oddly specific details that get me in a poem, here the repetition and the homely detail in "We hear the war news generally at noon/In your room, on your radio, and your mother sews your/curtains." Devastating, no? Reminds me of the executioner's horse scratching its innocent behind in Musee des Beaux Arts.

Patrick J. Vaz said...

Yes, exactly. Something about the almost ritual way the two older people gather in the absent son's room to hear the radio. . . .

Thanks for mentioning this, since I hadn't pulled out that particular moment in my comments (which are meant to be sort of random and general).

I'm sure Auden will be showing up some week soon, by the way.

Unknown said...

What a wonderful poem. There's so much to it, but it very much sounds just like any letter from home, and with that in mind, the abrupt change to spring is not surprising.

Speaking of abrupt changes that make sense, you should be planting a pear tree or two of your own soon.