To a Soldier
Imagine it: a world away, Autumn.
Leaves scattering but not in fiery
Effusion, like the red/gold sentinels
Of the Smokies or north of Boston.
A world away: not enough Fall to
Make a cliché, the one we love about
The season’s redemptive powers, its
Dazzling imitation of death, the gold & blood –
Colors. In the desert, in the cities of armaments –
You tell me leaves die without turning –
Without color, they die. Without a sign
Of how it ended, the season, how it was lost to us.
© Carol Muske Dukes Printed by permission of the author.
Carol Muske-Dukes is poet laureate of California and a professor of English and creative writing at the University of Southern California. Her eighth book of poems, Twin Cities, is forthcoming in the Penguin Poets Series in June of 2011, and Crossing State Lines: an American Renga, which she co-edited with Bob Holman, will appear from Farrar, Strauss and Giroux in fall of 2011. Among her many poetry outreach initiatives is a children’s poetry project, The Magic Poetry Bus Driver’s Guide.
A&A Poetry Editor Lisa Russ Spaar notes: To ask what is the role of the poet in a time of war might be to ask what is the place of the poet in the world at all. Armed strife and violent conflict between and among people are as old as human experience itself, older perhaps than singing, and certainly predating the writing of verse. Awareness of wars near and far, inner and outer, must always be a subtext of the examined life, even of the most private and interior sensibility, and can be a source of empowerment, despair, and anxiety for those wielding pens instead of swords.
W. H. Auden famously stated that “poetry makes nothing happen,” but poets have always made wars--their heroes, victims, consequences--the subject of myriad poems. “Sing, Goddess, the wrath of Achilles” begins the Illiad, attributed to Homer at about the 8th-century BC, and in a translation by Sam Hamill, the Chinese poet Tu Fu (712 – 770 AD) writes, “Sleepless, memories of war betray me: / I am powerless against the world.” One thinks, too, of Thomas Hardy’s “The Man He Killed” or Sappho’s bold statement that what one loves is worth more poetry than any legion of horsemen or warriors.
Carol Muske-Dukes’s “To a Soldier” is an epistle of sorts, an imperative, a call to a soldier in “a world away” to imagine autumn happening back home, in subdued “red/gold sentinels,” while in the desert, where the soldier lives, “in the cities of armaments - // . . . the leaves die without turning - / Without color, they die.” So much happens in these four tercets! A far cry from a “wish you were here” postcard, the poem indicts any poetic act that fails in such a context to push beyond consoling tropes and the familiar poetic recourses to myths such as the fall, “the one we love about / The season’s redemptive powers, its / Dazzling imitation of death.”
In a surprising and powerful turn at the poem’s conclusion, the poet turns the missive on herself, on the reader, on “us.” It is we who are being called to imagine that other world, where soldiers, like leaves, die: “without a sign / Of how it ended, the season, how it was lost to us” -- and where a lost season -- lost time, lost life -- is as crucial and significant as a lost battle.
We must waken, Muske-Dukes admonishes, to our need to empathize, to overcome our great human tendency to forget, to distance, to protect ourselves from the conditions of others, to things happening elsewhere, something that is perhaps most dangerously possible in language. This poem is an act of passionate imagination -- of the ability to empathize -- without which, Blake and others have challenged, social and cultural and political transformations are impossible.
Wallace Stevens, who lived and wrote through two world wars, said that “the role of the writer in war remains the fundamental role of the writer intensified and concentrated.” Disarmingly simple and clear, Muske-Dukes’s lapidary, ardent poem recalls us to our losses, our selves, a responsibility that extends “to a soldier” -- to a man, to a woman.
(Also of interest to readers in relation to this timely poem is Muske-Dukes’s moving, thoughtful series of “Soldier to Poet Exchanges” about poetry and war at The Huffington Post.)