(Poem #1013) Carentan O Carentan
Trees in the old days used to stand And shape a shady lane Where lovers wandered hand in hand Who came from Carentan. This was the shining green canal Where we came two by two Walking at combat-interval. Such trees we never knew. The day was early June, the ground Was soft and bright with dew. Far away the guns did sound, But here the sky was blue. The sky was blue, but there a smoke Hung still above the sea Where the ships together spoke To towns we could not see. Could you have seen us through a glass You would have said a walk Of farmers out to turn the grass, Each with his own hay-fork. The watchers in their leopard suits Waited till it was time, And aimed between the belt and boot And let the barrel climb. I must lie down at once, there is A hammer at my knee. And call it death or cowardice, Don't count again on me. Everything's all right, Mother, Everyone gets the same At one time or another. It's all in the game. I never strolled, nor ever shall, Down such a leafy lane. I never drank in a canal, Nor ever shall again. There is a whistling in the leaves And it is not the wind, The twigs are falling from the knives That cut men to the ground. Tell me, Master-Sergeant, The way to turn and shoot. But the Sergeant's silent That taught me how to do it. O Captain, show us quickly Our place upon the map. But the Captain's sickly And taking a long nap. Lieutenant, what's my duty, My place in the platoon? He too's a sleeping beauty, Charmed by that strange tune. Carentan O Carentan Before we met with you We never yet had lost a man Or known what death could do.
This is a poem of contrasts. Some of these are made explicit, such as that between lovers walking hand in hand and soldiers patrolling in pairs, or that between the peace of the countryside and the fury of aerial bombardment . More subtle and powerful, though, are the contrasts left implicit, and the most important of these is the contrast between the language of the poem and its topic. The former is simple, almost naive; the syntax is childlike, the words used elementary. The repetitive pattern of the last few verses, the apostrophes to the narrator's mother and various commanding officers (figures of (compassionate) authority all), the occasionally juvenile prosody - all these contribute to a 'nursery-rhyme' kind of feeling. And it's precisely this which gives the poem its power: by inverting the usual relationship between form and content, the narrator invests the poem with a peculiarly nightmarish quality. Here simplicity does not imply ease; here innocence does not imply deliverance; here euphemism, far from degrading or downplaying the enormity of the events being depicted, adds to their horror. And oh, the horror. The last stanza easily ranks as one of the most poignant pieces of verse I've ever read. Wilfred Owen once wrote, "The Poetry is in the Pity"; today's poem testifies to the truth of that statement. thomas.  I thought this phrase was original to me, but a quick Google search reveals that it's actually the title of a fairly celebrated poem by one Richard Eberhart. I _thought_ it sounded familiar. [Biography] Louis Simpson was born in Jamaica, West Indies, in 1923, the son of a lawyer of Scottish descent and a Russian mother. He emigrated to the United States at the age of seventeen, studied at Columbia University, then served in the Second World War with the 101st Airborne Division on active duty in France, Holland, Belgium, and Germany. After the war he continued his studies at Columbia and at the University of Paris. While living in France he published his first book of poems, The Arrivistes (1949). He worked as an editor in a publishing house in New York, then earned a Ph.D. at Columbia and went on to teach at Columbia, the University of California at Berkeley, and the State University of New York at Stony Brook. In 1975 the publication of Three on the Tower, a study of Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, and William Carlos Williams, brought Simpson wide acclaim as a literary critic. His other books of criticism include Ships Going Into the Blue: Essays and Notes on Poetry (1994), The Character of the Poet (1986), A Company of Poets (1981), and A Revolution in Taste: Studies of Dylan Thomas, Allen Ginsberg, Sylvia Plath, and Robert Lowell (1978). Louis Simpson has published seventeen books of original poetry, including Nombres et poussière (Atelier La Feugraie, 1996); There You Are (Story Line, 1995); In the Room We Share (1990); Collected Poems (1988); People Live Here: Selected Poems 1949-83 (1983); The Best Hour of the Night (1983); Caviare at the Funeral (1980); Armidale (1979); Searching for the Ox (1976); Adventures of the Letter I (1971); Selected Poems (1965); At the End of the Open Road, Poems (1963), for which he won the Pulitzer Prize; and A Dream of Governors (1959). He is also the author of a memoir, The King My Father's Wreck (Story Line, 1995), and published a volume entitled Selected Prose in 1989. His Modern Poets of France: A Bilingual Anthology (Story Line Press) won the Academy's 1998 Harold Morton Landon Translation Award. Among his many other honors are the Prix de Rome, fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, and the Columbia Medal for Excellence. Louis Simpson lives in Setauket, New York. -- www.poets.org