Sunday, February 28, 2021

'Thirsty, Betrayed, and Terrified'

By the year he turned thirty-seven, the English poet George Gascoigne (1535-1578) had accumulated a résumé of failure. He failed as a farmer. He attended Trinity College, Cambridge, and left without a degree. He served a sentence in debtor’s prison and his father disinherited him. A contemporary called him a “ruffian.” In 1572, like a million other desperate young men, Gascoigne joined the army, serving under the Prince of Orange in the Netherlands. Accused of treason, he was taken prisoner by English troops during the Siege of Leiden. 

In 1575, Gascoigne published The Fruites of Warres, taking as his theme the Latin phrase dulce bellum inexpertis, from Pindar’s Greek: “war is sweet to those who have never experienced it.” In the poem’s seventy-first stanza he writes:


“So that I say as earst I sayde before,

That even as Haughtie harte doth hunt in vaine

Which seekes to winne most honor evermore,

By haunting warres: so can I see no gaine,

(With calme content) to feede that others vaine:

Wherfore my worde is still (I change it not)

That Warre seemes sweete to such as raunge it not.”


Raunge, akin to our range, is a transitive verb meaning, according to the OED, “to traverse (a place or area) in all directions; to roam over or through.” Only those who have never seen combat might find it sweet. A veteran knows otherwise. R.L. Barth takes the final two lines of Gascoigne’s stanza as the epigraph to Learning War: Selected Vietnam War Poems (Broadstone Press, 2021). His restatement of Gascoigne’s theme is “Reading the Op-Ed Page,” with the subtitle “I missed my generation’s test”:


“Yuppie’s nostalgic consonants and vowels

Prove that, though wanting guts, he still has bowels.”


In 1968-69, Bob was a Marine serving as a patrol leader in the 1st Reconnaissance Battalion in Vietnam. His poems are the opposite of sweet. They are often bitter and profane, and are virtually the only poems to come out of that war worth reading. Bob is a student of war, his and others’. Learning War is drawn from five previous collections and a broadside, all published between 1985 and 2016. Bob, a native Kentuckian, may be our finest living almost unknown poet, which is not a redundancy. Poets tend to be a clannish, inbred group and most, I say with a dedicated reader’s certainty, have never heard his name. His themes are not trendy, his verses rhyme and are metrically regular. He is the best epigrammist we’ve had since J.V. Cunningham. Unlike hundreds of hacks, he will never be nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. He wrote one of the most amusing poems I know, one I committed to memory, “Don't You Know Your Poems are Hurtful?”:


“Yes, ma’am. Like KA-BAR to the gut,

Well-tempered wit should thrust and cut

Before the victim knows what’s what;

But sometimes, lest the point be missed,

I give the bloody blade a twist.”


Barth’s war is a grunt’s. Here is “Terminology”:


“He humps the mountains in monsoon and mist

Who has no woman, is no pantheist.”


And one of the most shocking poems I know, “One Way to Carry the Dead”:


“A huge shell thundered; he was vaporized

And, close friends breathing near, internalized.”


Finally, “Epitaph”:


“Tell them quite simply that we died

Thirsty, betrayed, and terrified.”

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