- Scenes of War
Soldier in a Ruined Church
—from a photograph near Carentan, France, 1944
I wasn’t a religious man, but when I stood In front of what remained of the altar—when I took off My helmet and eased the butt of my rifle down To the rubble-strewn floor—the sun pouring through the hole In the cupola warmed my face as if such light Could draw a halo out of me, it seemed like God Had breached the shell of building that separated us. No intermediary was needed any more— We could see each other plain: He the measureless blue Over my head, and I the frame of bone with skin Stretched over it, skin grown sticky with the salt Sweat leaves behind—a creature priests declared He made. The cherub on the wall behind the altar Was only legs now and a part of robe covering The hips. The rest was ascending, at last translated Into Heaven by a burst of thunder and light.
Hawaii? frowns the man who lives next door To Dad, who’s just explained we’ve declared war
On Japan: “They bombed Pearl Harbor!” Idled By years of working the tobacco fields [End Page 593]
To the north, a tenant farmer creased as the leaves He used to harvest, Mister Severn waves
My father’s words away like a cloud of horseflies. This country’s always crossing the seven seas
To fight someone. Hawaii’s not even a state!Betcha nobody round here could find it
On a map. Dad blinks. “What about F. D. R.?” The old man steps out and lets the screen door
Whack the frame behind him; his porch creaks As he trudges to its edge. He looks
Past my father. Back in the War to EndAll Wars, I was sent to a distant land
Called France—a little place called Belleau Wood. Ever hear of it? Dad shakes his head.
Severn snorts: You’re a kid; course you never.We had to get the Jerries outta there,
Outta those woods. To do that, we had to crossAn open wheat field. He pauses to wipe his face
As if sweating, but to Dad his skin looks dry. It didn’t seem like a hard thing to do.
But machine guns and artillery fireSwept that field again and again like a thresher—
As though the Jerries wanted to cut us down like wheat.To clear them out, we went to bayonets
And fists, and still it took us six timesTo get across and finish the job. A game [End Page 594]
Was all it was, says Severn, his voice now down To a murmur. My father says, “But you won
The battle! You beat the Germans!” The farmer turns To face him. Dad can’t believe how worn
His neighbor’s eyes have grown—like marbles rubbed In sand. Slowly sitting, the old man grabs
The porch’s post to ease down onto the steps. And they’re on the same side as the Japs.
He grunts. I guess we didn’t really winIf kids like you will have to fight them again.
Principles of War and Peace
You need to have a war Historians call great, When men dug a trench Like a line of connected graves Before they died in waves;
And after that the depression Historians call great, When hunger was the guest Who always sat at the head Of tables without bread;
And then another war Historians call greater, Where towns were divided By V-2’s, B-17’s, And other numbered machines, [End Page 595]
To reach the generation Historians call greatest: So bright it made the smallest Particle—the atom—flash Whole cities into ash. [End Page 596]
Michael Spence, a longtime contributor of poetry, has work forthcoming in the Gettysburg Review and the Southern Review. His latest book is Crush Depth (2009).