Wednesday, February 28, 2024

'The Monsoons, Boredom, Stench'

 R.L. Barth takes as the epigraph to his new chapbook, Ghost Story (Scienter Press, Louisville, Ky., 2024), a passage from Dr. Johnson’s Idler essay for September 2, 1758: 

“I suppose every man is shocked when he hears how frequently soldiers are wishing for war. The wish is not always sincere . . . but those who desire it most are neither prompted by malevolence nor patriotism; they neither pant for laurels, nor delight in blood; but long to be delivered from the tyranny of idleness, and restored to the dignity of active beings.”


Johnson casts many of his periodical essays in the form of letters from fictional speakers; in this case, a former soldier with the unlikely name of “Dick Linger.” Johnson never served in the military but his understanding of human psychology, especially the psychology of young men, is discerning. Here is his subsequent paragraph in the Idler:


“I never imagined myself to have more courage than other men, yet was often involuntarily wishing for a war, but of a war, at that time, I had no prospect; and being enabled, by the death of an uncle, to live without my pay, I quitted the army, and resolved to regulate my own motions.”


As a young Marine in 1968, Bob Barth was granted his war in Vietnam. Young men have evolved to be edgy, restless, easily bored, ever ready for “action” of almost any sort. War, I’m told, often amounts to days of tedium interrupted by moments of adrenalin-fueled horror. Here, from Barth’s new collection, is “On Patrol”:


“‘Wedding Ring, Wedding Ring, you’re socked in solid.

Choppers may fly tomorrow. Hang in. Over


“So, a sixth day of monsoons, hacking bush.

Up at first light, unzipping sleeping bags,


“Smelling ammonia’s reek and shivering,

Gurgling soggy cigarettes and fussing


“Over our last long rations, chicken and rice

Mixed with filth-skimmed water, while we think


“Here’s our war now: the monsoons, boredom, stench.

Where are the images the networks fix


“On TV screens? Seen jungle rot and leeches?

‘Roger that; bet on it. Hanging in. Out.’”


Barth often honors the great poets of the past who write of war – Homer, Owen, Blunden, Sassoon. In Ghost Story he includes “An Old Story,” adapted from a poem by the Greek Archilochos (c. 680 B.C.-c. 645 B.C.):


“He pitched his rifle, ran. What if a Cong

Struts with it through the paddies of Phan Dong,

Or locks and loads it? Small arms fire was dense,

And simply breathing seemed like common sense.

Besides, he knows the armorer; and he

Will issue a new one, well-oiled, rust-free.”


Guy Davenport published his translation of the original Greek poem in Carmina Archilochi: The Fragments of Archilochos (University of California Press, 1964):


“Some Saian mountaineer

Struts today with my shield.

I threw it down by a bush and ran

When the fighting got hot.

Life seemed somehow more precious.

It was a beautiful shield.

I know where I can buy another

Exactly like it, just as round.”

[You can find Davenport's Archilochos translations in 7 Greeks (New Directions, 1995).]

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