EP&M Online Review

R. L. Barth's

Deeply Dug In
With A Long Preamble About Its Place In The History Of War Poetry

review by

Richard Moore

What's happened to war poetry? Poetry itself in our part of  the world began with it, and Homer's Iliad may still be the  greatest as well as the first of our poems. But in recent times  the genre seems to have slipped into evil days. War, after all,  has become so utterly horrible, hasn't it? It is horrible in  Homer too, where "evil" is a frequent epithet for it. But it had  another epithet as well. War for Homer was "man-ennobling." As  Yeats has reminded us, propaganda is the attempt to convince  others, sentimentality, to convince ourselves; sensing and  resolving a struggle in ourselves, he said, is what stirs us to  poetry. Here's war, says Homer, and in his descriptions we feel  the complexity of its meaning.

The meaning of war changes from time to time, and when it  has done so, there has been great poetry about it. The First  World War was such a time. It began as Romantic War, a legacy of  the French Revolution: patriotism, sweet to die for your  country, all that rubbish. In the trenches it became machine war,  utter degradation and meaningless horror. There was wretched  poetry with one attitude or the other and great poetry that  acknowledged and tried to resolve the conflicting feelings that  the change produced. I once gathered three little poems on a page  to illustrate this to students. First there was a famous bit of  nonsense by Rupert Brooke:  

    If I should die, think only this of me;
     That there's some corner of a foreign field
    That is forever England.  

After a remarkably uninspired list of things English, the poem  ends with the final absurdity of "hearts at peace, under an  English heaven." Brooke was a real poet; he sensed that he was  lying, and the poet in him couldn't resist sabotaging his own  project.

When this Romantic attitude collapses and swings to its  opposite, we get poems like Siegfried Sassoon's "Does It Matter?"  "Does it matter?  —losing your legs?" it begins, and for the  second stanza goes on to "Does it matter?  —losing your sight?"  The third and final stanza brings the heavy sarcasm to a  crescendo, undermined once again, this time by the rollicking  rhythm:  

    Do they matter?  —those dreams from the pit?...
    You can drink and forget and be glad,
    And people won't say that you're mad;
    For they'll know that you fought for your country,
    An no one will worry a bit.  

The struggle between these simplistic attitudes made  possible the wonderful poetry of Wilfred Owen:  


    Move him into the sun  —
    Gently its touch awoke him once,
    At home, whispering of fields unsown.
    Always it woke him, even in France.
    Until this morning and this snow.
    If anything might rouse him now
    The kind old sun will know.  
    Think how it wakes the seeds  —
    Woke, once, the clay of a cold star.
    Are limbs so dear-achieved, are sides
    Full-nerved,  —still warm,  —too hard to stir?
    Was it for this the clay grew tall?
      —Oh, what made fatuous sunbeams toil
    To break earth's sleep at all?  

That first line  —what an inspired way to tell us  —make us feel  —  that the man is dead, and to suggest the speaker's unwillingness  to accept the fact! Clearly Owen sides with Sassoon in the attempt  to define war's meaning. (Indeed, they were friends, admired  —or  professed to admire  —each other's work.) But in tone, diction,  and attitude, this poem, as others from this poet, gains  immeasurably by making us aware that it is firmly rooted in the  Romantic tradition and, by implication, the Romantic view of war.  In the Romantic manner, the personal incident in a trench becomes  the occasion for an impassioned statement about life on earth. The  man described is from the rural countryside. He would never have  used educated poetic phrases like "whispering of fields unsown" to  describe the sun that woke him each morning. This ghostly presence  of the older, gentler time in the mind of the poet is what gives this poem much of its poignancy.

In comparison, the poetry of the Second World War is undistinguished. War has become an obscene joke. Once the joke has  been told, there is nothing more to say. Of the large volume  of Randall Jarrell's war poetry, for example, all that seems to  have remained is the magnificent epigram,  

  The Death Of The Ball Turret Gunner  

   From my mother's sleep I fell into the State,
   And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze.
   Six miles from earth, loosed from its dream of life,
   I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters.

   When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.  The young man has not only been killed; he has never lived. From  his mother's womb he fell, not into life, but into "the State,"  represented by the bomber's turret, where he "hunched," a fetus  still, until he became a mess that had to be cleaned up.

Can war get any worse than this? Indeed it can. It seems to  be changing its meaning once more. The Second World War was  horrible enough and much of the dying pointless and silly as well,  but no one doubted that it had to be fought. The aggressions of  Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan had to be resisted. Even the  Germans and the Japanese now believe that. (In deference,  apparently, to the wholesomeness of the War, there was a  journalistic rule that only whole dead bodies could be displayed  in photographs of it. Body parts were forbidden.)

The Korean interlude seemed to be another event in the same  tradition  —though for some, problems had begun to emerge. I was  flying airplanes in the Air Force at the time, and it made me  uncomfortable, in the outrage following the Chinese intervention,  to compare the 7000 miles that we brave "defenders of freedom"  were from our own border to the 50 miles that "the Chinese  Communist aggressors" were from theirs.  

Be that as it may, Vietnam soon followed, and as just about  all of us who were old enough to know have experienced, the evil-  aggressor myth exploded. Never mind about the details. Our wars  have changed their character yet again, and the poets are still  trying to deal with the fact. One of the bravest of the early  attempts was by Michael Casey, the author of the only poem I  remember solely by hearing the poet read it in public. It was in  the early '70's. The poem describes how a column of American tanks  is going through a rice paddy. The farmer, angry about the damage  being done to his crop, beats furiously on the lead tank with a  stick. In reply, the tank commander directs his column to go  sideways, destroying the farmer's crop completely. The poem  concludes with these words, more-or-less:  

    If you have a farm in Vietnam
    and a house in Hell,
    sell the farm and go home

I think the poem is in a book entitled, Obscenities.

As it suggests, we thought that war had reached a degree of  horror and pointlessness that could not be exceeded, but we have  become aware of a new horror of the spirit which has evidently  been added: the thought that our suffering and sacrifice may be on  behalf of an Evil Empire. I think it is this possibility lurking  in the shadows of R. L. Barth's Deeply Dug In that makes it a very  interesting book of poems indeed.

There is an ambiguity even in the book's title. Soldiers "dig  in"  —into foxholes, trenches, etc.  —to protect themselves. But  the scorpion that is stinging you is also "deeply dug in," isn't  it? The book, consisting mainly of extremely brief epigrams, is  divided into three sections. The first has the same title as the  book and seems to be, among other things, an exploration of the  title's other possible meanings  —that is, or the various  scorpions involved.

But before this first section, there is an introductory poem  for the whole book which emphasizes Barth's awareness of his war's  place in history, including literary history:  

    Reading The Iliad  

    Volume and desk, coffee and cigarette
    Forgotten, the reader, held in Homer's mind,
    Looks upon Greeks and Trojans fighting yet,
    The heroes and foot soldiers, thin and blind,  
    Forced-marching for the Styx. But suddenly
    Stunned by the clamor under smoky skies,
    Boastings and tauntings, he looks up to see  —
    Not the god-harried plain where Hector tries  
    His destiny, not the room; instead, a mountain
    Covered with jungle; on one slope, a chateau

    With garden, courtyard, a rococo fountain,

    And, faces down, hands tied, six bodies in a row.  These lines may owe something to W. H. Auden's memorable poem,  "The Shield of Achilles," but that need not worry us. In all ages  until recent times, poets have freely imitated one another. As  Bertolt Brecht remarked, if we demanded originality from those who  built our houses, we would all be living in huts. In Barth's poem,  as in Auden's, we go from the ancient Iliad directly to a scene  from modern times, in this case Vietnam's French colonial past, a  past that has been wiped out in this location, leaving only the  remains of six summary executions. Who were the victims? And who  killed them? We are not told because it doesn't matter. The West's  colonial past (and China's colonial past in Vietnam for 3000  years before that) had been in place and the trading of  atrocities had begun long before the Americans arrived.

This leads us to the first poem in the book proper:  

    1. Proem  

    I need just war, a people's sense of mission,
    And not some general's arrogant ambition
    For heroism's context, or my muse's
    Tongue-tied except for how that people uses
    Not troops, sheep-slaughtered, baby-killers, tools,
    But, to speak plainly, its unmonied fools.  

If a poet who writes about war cannot think of it as having a just  and worthwhile purpose, he had better skip the cliches of war  protestors and admit that he's only in it because he lacked the  brains or the money to buy himself out of it. Thus, reflections on  the war reflect ultimately on him, and, right off, the scorpion  has begun to sting  —though there is a danger of self-pity in such  a "hard-boiled" attitude, as in  

    3. War Debt  

    Survive or die, war holds one truth:
    Marine, you will not have a youth.  or  

    4. Allegory For L. B. J.  

    So many Isaacs, Abraham!
    You needn't even lash
    Poor boys to alters; seek no ram;
    Just raise your knife and slash.  

  —though this last is saved by those "poor boys." Does the phrase  expand to "O those poor innocent boys" or to "those fools who  weren't rich"?

The recovery from this sting is to endure the deeper sting of  a different scorpion:  

    9. A Child Accidentally Napalmed  

    "Why waste your tears on me? Give over grief.
    If I knew horror, yet my life was brief."
    Some poet will perhaps say that for me.

    I'd say, "I suffered an eternity."  

  —the realization that, in such a war, the suffering that one's  own side causes belittles one's own.

The digging-in theme can suggest the grizzly humor of having  one's friend dig into one through one's nostrils:  

    11. One Way To Carry The Dead  

    A huge shell thundered; he was vaporized
    And, close friends breathing near, internalized.  

It is curious the way the presence of a participial absolute in  the second line makes this most modern of poems sound like a  translation from the Latin and suggest that present conditions may  somehow be a return to something very ancient.

Still a different kind of digging in occurs (again as in  ancient times) in wars where armies mix with general populations:  

    12. An Old Story  

    "Hustle the boom-boom girls up here,
    But take precautions, hey? I've sent
    Back for the rum. We'll drink down fear.
    Why should our watch be different?  

Another characteristic that flourishes in Barth's anatomy of  this turning point in American history is the way both the  supporters of the war and the protestors against it are scornfully  dismissed:  

    15. Movie Stars  

    Bob Hope, John Wayne, and Martha Raye
    Were dupes who knew no other way;
    Jane Fonda, too, whose Hanoi hitch
    Epitomized protester kitsch.  

This first section ends with a final digging in very deeply  indeed:  

    21. Epilogue  

    Twenty years later, the poor sons of bitches
    Learn jungle rot, decaying flesh, still itches
    And, spreading body part by body part,
    Even corrupts the chambers of the heart.   

  —suggesting, through its effect on hearts, the effect that the  war has had on the country as a whole.  

The remaining two sections of the book, entitled, "Looking  For Peace" and "Small Arms Fire," remind the reader  —this reader  at least  —of the movements into which classical music is  organized  —three movements, fast, slow, fast, being the simplest  pattern. In all the patterns, the weight and power, the discovered  profundity of the piece, tends to fall in the slow movement, in  particular, in the revelatory end of it. I suspect that something  like this was in Barth's mind when he sought out ways to organize  his material.  

A year or two ago, I had an odd thought: that the Next Great  War, to be known also, if there is anybody left on earth to know  things after it, as the Final Great War, is going to be the war  between people and machines: "machines" meaning, not just the  machines proper, but also the people who run the machines, who  have themselves become like machines in order to run them; and  "people" meaning the actual people who remain, who have been left  out of this wonderful symbiosis and who have helter-skelter  mobilized themselves in strange ways in order to fight it: have  become like peasants, beating on tanks with sticks, guerrillas in  the hills, suicide bombers, God knows what next....

The title, "Looking For Peace," of this second section  —this  slow movement  —is taken from a passage in Jeremiah and again has  more than one meaning. It won't be enough with this, as with other  wars, just to have it over  —peace in that sense. There is also an  inner peace that we will have to find somehow. Near the beginning  we have:  

 A Letter To The Dead  

  The outpost trench is deep with mud tonight.
  Cold with the mountain winds and two weeks' rain,
  I watch the concertina. The starlight-
  Scope hums, and rats assault the bunkers again.  
  You watch with me: Owen, Blunden, Sassoon.
  Through sentry duty, everything you meant
  Thickens to fear of nights without a moon.
  War's war. We are, my friends, no different.  

Beyond its simple manner, there is a strange complexity in that  second stanza. Those World War I poets aren't really watching with  him on sentry duty any more than he is really writing a letter to  them. He is only pretending all that, based on a single  similarity: a night without a moon is more dangerous for a sentry  than one with a moon to light things up a bit. What, then, are we  to make of that bluff, hail-fellow-well-met last line? Is war war?  No, war is not always war since the character of war changes. And,  yes, we are different since the statement that we are not  different is so obviously untrue.  

This middle section quickly moves on to thoughts and  attitudes we could not imagine encountering in the work of the  poets just named:  


    No moon, no stars, only the leech-black sky,
    Until Puff rends the darkness, spewing out
    His thin red flames, and then the quick reply
    Of blue-green tracers climbing all about.
    At night, such lovely ways to kill, to die.  

In the conditions described in Barth's poetry, death itself has  become beautiful and attractive. We are told why in the poem which  follows (the title refers, evidently, to the landing of Marines by  helicopter in hostile territory; a glossary in this book would  have been helpful):  

    The Insert  

    Our view of sky, jungle, and fields constricts
    Into a sinkhole covered with saw grass  
    Undulating, soon whipped slant as the chopper
    Hovers at four feet. Rapt, boot-deep in slime,  
    We deploy ourselves in a loose perimeter,
    Listening for incoming rockets above  
    The thump of rotor blades; edgy for contact,
    Junkies of terror impatient to shoot up.  
    Nothing moves, nothing sounds: then, single file,
    We move across a streambed toward high ground.  
    The terror of the insert's quickly over.
    Too quickly ... and more quickly every time ...  

The experience of danger has become like a drug. The addict Marines  need it, can't do without it. These are people with a new  identity, which the next poem succinctly defines.  

    Swift, Silent, Deadly  
motto of the 1st Reconnaissance Bn., U.S.M.C.  

    Somewhere, along the tangled mountain slopes,
    Slyly edging the camps and villages,
    The tiger pads;  
              he is at once our emblem

    And fear and, did he know, almost extinct.  

The tiger doesn't know that he is almost extinct, and the Marines,  the poem implies, don't either.

Is there a counterbalance to the spiritual anguish revealed  in "Looking for Peace"? The section ends with  


    At last, the senses sharpen. All around,
    I listen closely. Under the dull sound
    Of distant artillery and the shrieking planes
    Diving with napalm; under the dry crack
    Of automatic rifles; at the back
    Of consciousness, almost, one sound remains:
    Mud sucking at bare feet as they are going
    Between the rice shoots. Nearly silent. Knowing.  

In the Final War between people and machines, the people  —in  their bare feet!  —are going to prevail. In America this result  may not be greeted with enthusiasm.

How can the jovial and sprightly finale required by custom  possibly follow from such a searching and devastating slow  movement? Once again the masterpieces of eighteenth century music  point the way. There is indeed gaiety. But the gaiety is ironic.  It is like the endings  —the "false" endings  —of Moliere's  greatest plays. A farcical presence comes onstage to remind us  that it was, after all, only a play that we have been watching.  Barth's final section, "Small Arms Fire," opens with its title  poem and reminds us  —in Moliere's very manner!  —that there is a  difference between life and art:  


    The epigram is not artillery,
    Blockbuster, napalm, mortar, rocketry;
    But it is, rather, hunkered deep in mire,
    The sniper-scoped guerrilla's small arms fire.  

And  —with its "hunkered deep in mire" reflecting yet again the  "Deeply Dug In" of the book's title  —there we have it. The  resolution of the agony for this soldier has been for him, in the  spirit of his art, to establish his own rapport with the enemy  and, as far as he is concerned, to bring the Evil Empire to an  end.

This is a wonderful book.  

                                                                Richard Moore