April 10, 2017 § Leave a comment


The  Battlefields in Flanders   WWI

April is the cruellest month, breeding /Lilacs out of the dead land/mixing memory and desire……..I am copying this from my college literature text Modern Verse in English 1900-1950 edited by David Cecil and Alan Tate.  My hardback copy of 688 pages was $3.85 in 1960 complete with my erudite marginalia referencing T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. I found the poem as dreary then as I find it dreary and self-absorbed now, riddled with obscure references and sly nods to contemporary speech. I don’t think I received a stellar grade in that course.  But, often a poet is redeemed for me by a memorable line and I think  Eliot’s mixing memory and desire touched such a nerve.


                 The Battlefields today in Flanders

Six years ago when I went to the WWI battlefields surrounding Ypres in Belgium, I woke to a misty morning outside the city of Ieper (the reclaimed Flemish name of the city).  Looking out the window, I saw only green grass and mist and heard birdsong. This was the city where my young Uncle was somewhere buried in an unknown spot.  This was the family story, the family memory and, for me, now, the desire to tell that story.  That urge in itself is one of the oldest stories.  Why we can’t forget. Why we want to construct  memory out of the rag tags of history. So, I visited the trenches.  I walked through a few, startled that my shoulders went to the lip of the trench. In 1914, they would have been fortified at the top with sandbags and soldiers were smaller then.  I heard the skirl of bagpipes played by a man pacing in Sanctuary Wood where many Canadian forces had lost their lives.  I walked through many sun-splashed graveyards where Commonwealth graves are impeccably kept.  I saw one German gravesite that my guide took me to and wondered how shaded, dark and somber it was, wondered if that were some kind of retribution for their part in the war and was told no, the Germans wanted it that way.  They felt their fallen would like to be in a shaded spot that reminded them of the sheltering, black forests. My guide pointed out, “There, there was this spot for that attack and that spot for the counter-attack”.  This high ground, that low ground. I saw fields of green and  heard birdsong and felt a soft breeze.  Memory and Desire.

In 2018, the Commemorations of World War One, the Great War to End All Wars, will conclude.  Our little theater group from Nova Scotia will travel to Belgium to present our play Le Retour. We will walk on the earth that holds the bones of our relatives. There will be green grass and mist and birdsong mixed with memory. What will our desire be then?

I am reminded of another poet, Carl Sandburg, whose poem Grass references the battles of Waterloo and Austerlitz, Gettysburg, Ypres, and Verdun. Pile the bodies high, the poet says/I am the grass. Let me work.  Today on April 10th, 2017– Can we do better than letting the grass cover what we have undone?

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