Joan Colby is today’s flashback Friday tribute. Here is “I Am Calm and Happy but Desperately Anxious to Live,” which first appeared in issue 293.2, spring 2008.
“I Am Calm and Happy But Desperately Anxious to Live” — from a letter by Royal Dublin Fusilier Tom Kettle a day before his death on September 5, 1916 in The Somme.
How many of them on that grim battlefield
Composed rather formal ornate poetry
Invoking God, glory, duty, a noble grave,
Or sodden with the rank stink of the trenches,
Screams of wounded, abandoned in no man’s land
Found their pencils scribing bitterness.
Not yet modern or abstract as the bitter
Almond odor of cyanide gas over the battlefield
Where helmets fell dismembered in no man’s land,
No prayer, no lamentation, no poetry
No rats, no shot away faces, no ghastly trenches
Could pardon those white crosses marking graves
“Known Only to God” the unidentified grave
faceless bounty robbed of bitterness
or forgiveness, all that the heart entrenched
forever lost as upon every battlefield
the rotting bones formed a terrible poetry
inspired by the faceless muse of no man’s land.
Fast forward, a couple of wars, a no man’s land
Open their gritty prose, the poetry
Of post Victorian times gives way to bitterness,
Novels Fields Of Fire, Paco’s Story, battlefields
Always the same, hills, plains, trenches
Machine guns, firefights, Napalm, in its trenches
The mind huddles in the midst of no man’s land
Where no man can save himself. The battlefields
Are made of earth, the earth is each man’s grave
Each man who yearned to live, his fate bitterly
Pocketed, a few lines, maybe poetry
Or maybe just a curse, a name, the poetry
He never learned in those scholastic trenches
Heroic epics, elegies tinged with bitterness,
Housman or Homer blazing in the no man’s land
Of blighted imagination. Regardless the grave
Will name him and thousands like him on the battlefields.
Does it matter which battle, which no man’s land,
Which trench composes his bitter grave?
None of it’s poetry.
Joan Colby has published widely in journals such as Poetry, Atlanta Review, South Dakota Review, The Spoon River Poetry Review, New York Quarterly, the new renaissance, Grand Street, Epoch, and Prairie Schooner. Awards include two Illinois Arts Council Literary Awards, RHINO Poetry Award, the new renaissance Award for Poetry, and an Illinois Arts Council Fellowship in Literature. She was a finalist in the GSU Poetry Contest (2007), Nimrod International Pablo Neruda Prize (2009, 2012), and received honorable mentions in the North American Review’s James Hearst Poetry Contest (2008, 2010). One of her poems is a winner of the 2014 Atlanta Review International Poetry Contest. She is the editor of Illinois Racing News, and lives on a small horse farm in Northern Illinois. She has published fourteen books including Selected Poems (FutureCycle Press), which received the 2013 FutureCycle Prize, Properties of Matter, (Aldrich Press/Kelsay Books), Bittersweet (Main Street Rag Press) and The Wingback Chair (FutureCycle Press). She has two new chapbooks, Ah Clio (Kattycompus Press) and Pro Forma (Foothills Press), as well as a full length collection Ribcage (Glass Lyre Press), which has been awarded the 2015 Kithara Book Prize. Colby is also an associate editor of Kentucky Review and FutureCycle Press.
Clay Rodery is a painter and illustrator who lives and works in New York City.