My lifelong fascination with the history and culture of the First World War began as a small boy with stories heard from my grandfather, who had served with the Marine Brigade, 2nd Division AEF, in France. He had been a muleskinner, driving rations and ammunition into the front lines, at times under heavy shellfire, and had twice been awarded a Silver Star Citation and Croix de Guerre, once at Belleau Wood and again at Blanc Mont.
On more than one occasion I asked if had ever wished to return to France, to visit again the places he had been during the war. He said he had often wished to return, to show those places to his wife, but that they had always been too poor and too busy with a growing family and running the farm. And in any case he would have wanted to return within the first ten years after the war, before the places had greatly changed from what he remembered.
In later years, after his death, his only son made the attempt and got as far as Paris, but being an older man himself at the time, and a partial invalid, with little travel experience abroad and not speaking the language, he found himself unable to complete the final leg of the journey from Paris to Chateau-Thierry. He could not find Belleau Wood on any map, was uncertain where it was, and could find no English-speaking French person patient enough to assist him.
Some years later I made the attempt myself, and even with my French-speaking wife was nearly defeated. We got as far as Chateau-Thierry, but only to be told that there was no longer a bus to Belleau, and that we would have to rent a taxi, if one could be found who would not mind waiting for us as we walked around the cemetery. Hailing a cab from a central intersection proved impossible, and making herself understood over a phone to a cab company dispatcher, whose country patois bore little resemblance to any French Marian had heard before, was an obstacle surmounted only after many minutes of mutual bewilderment and exasperation. But somehow, against all odds, at the very end of the day, we managed it, and the experience of arriving at the Aisne-Marne Cemetery not long before sunset was so overwhelming that Marian mistook my speechlessness for morosity and felt slighted and hurt, and wandered off alone into the deep wood, until driven back into the sunlight by what she encountered there . . .
Only after returning to Chateau Thierry where, in a local bistro she plied me with repeated glasses of beer in an effort to soften what she mistook as my incivility, did we sort things out. And it was not until days later that she begin to speak of she had experienced in the shadows of the wood itself.
For weeks afterwards I was haunted by the graves and ghosts of Belleau Wood until, finally, I was able to lay the phantoms partially to rest by rendering the experience into artistic form: a series of fourteen rough-hewn sonnets whose basic rectangular form and controlled phrasing recall the form and function of memorial plaques. The rhymes, however, are not regular and commemorative, but widely-spaced, and often more suggested than actual — like distant echoes.
The Tower at the Edge of the Wood
Demure, nestled fields so intensely green
they appear to float amid clouds of swallows…
shimmering fields of incipient wheat
awash with scarlet of poppies, like those
my grandfather mentioned. Here, where arises
on battlements of crag and ravine,
the huge and shadowy bulk of a wood,
a sole brigade of Americans met
the army that swept towards Paris and stood
against it, dying by hundreds. I stare
at its rocky defiles and crevices
till my scalp begins to tingle and crawl.
My grandfather spoke of the poppies here,
how petals by hundreds would break and fall ~~
how every sullen recess of the wood
would flicker a vicious flame ~~ how a mighty
moan arose from the ranks as poppies,
soldiers and grain were cut down together
till not one man or stalk of wheat stood ~~
how those still breathing cringed behind bodies
crumpled or sprawling ~~ how raking fire
shredded their haversacks and pinned them
close to the earth ~ how strangely, somewhere,
the note of a warbler, piercingly clear,
emerged for a moment above the din ~~
how the fire hit them again, again,
as curse accompanied prayer ~~ how cries
of the wounded tore at the heart with pity.
Grandfather never spoke of such dying
directly ~~ there were clipped allusions,
disquieting, never intentional
and, often, there was the lapse of silence
that fell like frost on the otherwise green
and pastoral heart of each reminiscence.
Mostly what he imparted were small
vignettes and stories of commonplace things
reassuring to any farmer’s son:
how he stole up into the loft of a barn
with a bottle, or how he hauled ammunition
on a night so dark that he walked his team
by the flaring of shells ~~ how he stole a swim
while washing his lathered mules in the Marne.
One evening he held the porch like a stage
for a crowd of us boys and related the time
that he turned an all-but-terrified team
directly into a rolling barrage ~~
how he steadied the creatures, with reins taut
in his left hand, and a watch in his right
and, timing the march of the fiery wall
that bore upon them until the earth shook,
how he barked a brusque command to his mules
and bullied them straight through the coiling smoke.
But there was a darker side to the war
not found in his tales or among his letters,
or even between the lines of the battered
diary stashed in the back of a drawer.
In all his words there was nothing of what
when, years afterward, exhuming the past
in the moldy crypt of an archival vault,
I uncovered by chance a written account
by a young corporal in Grandpa’s detachment
who described how the dead lay in summer heat
all swollen and black ~~ how Marines were sent
on burial parties, not from a sense
of rightness, but only to stop the stench ~~
how, unceremoniously, they tossed
the corpses in shell-holes ~~ how when they pulled
on limbs they could feel the joints separate ~~
how flies buzzed up from the flesh in a cloud ~~
how, mostly, the bodies were left to rot.
Such images weltered up in a flood
as our taxi turned through the somber gate
some minutes ago and proceeded straight
through a corridor of identical trees
and bordering hedges of clustered roses.
Directly before us, positioned midway
up the side of a hill, in a brooding wood,
an immaculate, white, unworldly tower
commanded a field of white marble crosses.
As we left the car, the driver leaned out,
and said he would wait for one full hour,
and turned off the meter. At our surprise,
he told how his father had also fought
on the Marne, and with that he looked away.
In the years just after the war they came
in multitudes here ~~ the mothers, widows,
and fatherless children ~~ to walk among rows
of crosses in search of some single name
out of all the rest ~~ and there came, as well,
the soldiers themselves: alone or in pairs
or, ever more frequently through the years,
together with wives. For months afterward,
Grandfather talked of a long journey back,
of showing my grandmother what had occured ~~
of trying to show what he couldn’t tell.
But he gave it up ~~ with too many rows
of his own to walk, too much acreage, stock,
and too little savings, too little time.
When, long after that, I asked him whether
he might still return, he said, with a frown,
“That was decades ago. Your grandmother’s gone.
Nothing would be the same.” I remember
the way he looked out at the evening sky
as though he might peer through miles and years
to those far-off events, and how I arose
from the sofa and silently left the room.
And now, what a strange, ironic turn
that it should be I and not he who has come,
and my wife rather than his who should see
this place of all places. ~~ She takes my arm
and, almost touching her lips to my ear,
quietly whispers, the circle is closed.
We proceed along the avenue, dazed
by the sheer translucency of the air,
by all the surrounding acres of wheat
and myriad poppies, by wheeling arcs
of swallows suffused in light . . . everywhere
we turn it is almost as though we gaze
upon the first morning before there fell
the least intimation of closing night.
My wife, knowing little of what has passed
in this sorrowful wood, sees it most of all
as a beautiful and mysterious place
and, venturing off on her own to where
a stair rises dimly into the dark
of the trees, she slowly climbs out of sight.
And now for the first time I am alone,
alone in that locus of legends to which
my grandfather always longed to return,
a place of apocalyptic fury,
of carnage and devastation… a place
of villages and reclusive pastures
and rivers that haunted him all his days.
At the close of this wrathful century
which he, as a boy, observed at its dawn,
I have come in his place to stand and watch
at post, as a cloud moves over the sun,
as a shadow moves slowly across the face
of the tower that stands like an ancient cairn,
marking the derelict bones of warriors.
I cross a rectangular swath of lawn
to the base of the hill where, step by step,
I mount an austere and gradual stair
to the terrace that foots the tower and stop
to face the imposing arch of a doorway.
Passing beneath an medieval warrior
surrounded by archivolts like the dawn,
I find myself standing within a small,
obscurely-lit chapel where sunlight glows
through a deeply-set and faceted window
of tinctured and leaded glass, muted rays
of spectral radiance slanting through air
to hallow, in auras of blue and rose,
names of the missing incised on the wall.
Since before the last war these ghostly rays,
pivoting on axes of window-glass,
have cloven the cloistered air of this place,
their indiscernable movement across
the walls precisely in opposition
to the arc of the sun across the sky.
In shadow, a Gothic altar of brass
and marble stands recessed in an apse,
presenting a stark, solitary cross.
I turn from its presence and wander out
into warmly showering light, a vision
of uninterrupted tranquility
rising above me: a sky without cloud,
a single swallow that soars and dips.
I watch, completely absorbed in its flight
till it skirls into aether, and then I turn
and follow the terrace around the wall
of the tower from where I can see, above,
the stairway vanishing into the wood.
The air is less cordial here, with the sun
eclipsed by a circuit of conifers
closing on every side. A residual
atmosphere, haunted and unresolved,
hovers about their boughs and they brood
like portals opening into the night,
into a purgatory of craters,
of trenches and dugouts clouded with fern,
of corroded cartridges, buckles, spoons.
But there are are darker ravines in this wood
where more survives than detritus of war,
where memory stains the air and where cries
of huddled and immaterial forms
are like shuddering leaves… ~~ She catches my eye
from the stairway, suddenly stepping forth
from out of the shadows, a strange, uncertain
regard on her face that makes me afraid.
I rush up to meet her. She grasps my arm
and urges me rapidly down the stair
toward the waiting taxi. I pull her near
and ask her to whisper what she has seen ~
she turns with a look that is oddly removed ~
her eyes are unaccountably grieved.