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If in some smothering dreams you too could pace Behind the wagon that we flung him in, And watch the white eyes writhing in his face, His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin; If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs, Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues, My friend, you would not tell with such high zest To children ardent for some desperate glory, The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est Pro patria mori. From "Dulce et decorum est,” Wilfred Owen, 1918
One of the noted poets who described the horrors of WWI via poetry, Wilfred Owen did not make it through the war. Owen, who became famous for his graphic descriptions of death and dying in his verse, was shot and killed with just a week left to go in the war, in 1918.
Not long before he left this veil, he penned the classic poem above, “Dulce et decorum est.” The final two lines are a Latin phrase from the Roman poet Horace, which were used to exhort young men to join the fight in the early days of WWI. They translate as “It is sweet and honorable to die for one’s country.” It was most definitely not, Owen argued—neither for him nor for most soldiers.
Circa 2012, a group of former soldiers from across the U.S. have written their own compelling poetry for a new anthology, Proud to Be: Writing by American Warriors. The book was published by the Southeast Missouri State University Press with help from the Warriors Arts Alliance and the Missouri Humanities Council, and edited by SEMO’s Susan Swarthout. The St. Louis Poetry Center sponsors a book-release event with readings at the Focal Point, this coming Tuesday.
The book offers emotional work by veterans of U.S. military conflicts from World War II to Afghanistan, in creative nonfiction, poetry, fiction, and photographs. The judges included Mark Bowden, author of Black Hawk Down.
The poems are really something.
In “SPC Browning Speaks” by Missouri poet Levi Bollinger, a soldier patting down an Arab civilian feels the metal of his fake leg through his robes, and thinking it’s a weapon, and immediately begins beating the innocent.
In Christopher Collins’ “Ana as’fi” (“I am Sorry”), a group of soldiers kicks in the door of a family’s home at 2 a.m., and one of the soldiers tries to sexually intimidate a 17-year-old girl.
In Liam Corley’s “Care Package,” a soldier gives a watermelon-flavored Jolly Rancher to a poor Afghani girl; neither understands what candy has to do with the war.
In Carl Palmer’s "incoming,” a sickly comic vignette plays out when a child pops bubble-wrap and her father, battered by PTSD, dives to the ground.
In Sonja Pasquantonio’s “War Wounds,” a woman returns from the theater of war to a pathologically suspicious husband who assumes she has slept around with the other soldiers at the front.
In Missouri poet Tim Leach’s “Prisoners of War 1965” the writer conveys the strange boredom of traveling in the belly of a warship, en route to some great unknown, waiting for him in Vietnam.
In “tree line,” a poem by St. Louis-born Fred Rosenthal, the vet remembers the alien, menacing sounds of the Vietnam forest, “an insane cacophony / of fauna gone berserk… respiring the humid stench / and rotted breath of jungle.”
Finally, Columbia, Mo.’s Gerardo Mena was cited for penning the best poem of the collection. Here’s his “Baring the Trees”:
The dead hang
from the dead like leaves
upon an ashen tree—
waiting for their deep autumn
so that they may open
their withering mouths
and fall, but the sad
season never arrives.
There is always a heavy
heat; always bullets
in a rifle; always a young
finger to slap
a trigger; forever
a fresh body to fasten
to a generation.
Proud to Be: Writing by American Warriors book reading, signing, and reception takes place at The Focal Point, 2720 Sutton, Tuesday, November 27 at 7:30 pm. Admission is free, but donations are welcome. For more information, call 314-973-0616, or visit stlouispoetrycenter.org.