Memorial Day

Towards the end of the song Memorial Day (on the album Bastard Life or Clarity), Russell talks about his memories of his grandfather, a WWII veteran who served in the Pacific in 1944. For him a simple meal of rice could bring back intense memories of the war. The story takes me back to dinners with my grandfather, who served in WWII and the Korean War and was a prisoner of war twice in Korea. His memories of famine, shared by his captors and his rescuers (Korean civilians) made it unthinkable to leave a grain of rice on his plate at the end of a meal, though his appetite was poor and his digestion worse.

I have always had trouble writing poetry with refrains, but in the WWII prisoner of war drama Hart’s War, I found a subject that allowed me to use repetition to moralize on the action of the poem, which saves subtlety, so I wrote several villanelles about the movie. It’s easy to say Hollywood makes too much of honor and war valor, but this movie has plenty of subversive things to say about courage. Villanelles are an especially difficult verse form, but I was pleased with these two results.

I.

The courage to survive bends like a slender flame,
or like a naked tree in falling snow, shifting,
sometimes forthright and others tender, touched by shame.

I stared into the sky, struck down, the human frame
of the surrounding snow a company, drifting.
The courage to survive bends like a slender flame.

I felt the silence like an elegy’s bleak claim,
as though the soundless wind spoke of their stolen spring,
sometimes forthright and others tender, touched by shame.

Imprisoned, I confessed in a steady tone: name,
rank and serial number. He went on, smoking.
The courage to survive bends like a slender flame.

Always polite, he only hinted threats, and blamed
others when he found me crouching naked, shaking,
sometimes forthright and others tender, touched by shame.

All he wanted was fuel tank positions, fair game,
blood need not spill on my account. I was breaking.
The courage to survive bends like a slender flame,
sometimes forthright and others tender, touched by shame.

IV.

To witness evil is to be a bystander,
complicit by standing aside and surviving.
To see in yourself the seeds of change is bitter.

There is shame in fellow-feeling if the danger
passes you over, you hang your head escaping.
To witness evil is to be a bystander.

The hope of confronting evil pleases soldiers,
but soldiers are men who smile darkly on fighting.
To see in yourself the seeds of change is bitter.

When the chain of command is the battlefield, their
smiles are stiff and unflinchingly self-effacing.
To witness evil is to be a bystander.

There is a sweetness to the man who smarts under
abused authority, his shame-faced fidgeting.
To see in yourself the seeds of change is bitter.

But for him to take a stand is radical, your
instinct is to brush off the excess of feeling.
To witness evil is to be a bystander;
to see in yourself the seeds of change is bitter.

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