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Out of the East -- James Fenton

Guest poem sent in by Reed C Bowman , who
writes:

Some time back I sent in James Fenton's 'The Ballad of the Imam and the
Shah'. In correspondence afterward, I mentioned another poem from the
same collection. Though the Imam and the Shah is what first called my
attention to Fenton, I think this one has become my favorite - bleak
though it is.
(Poem #1183) Out of the East
 Out of the South came Famine.
 Out of the West came Strife.
 Out of the North came a storm cone
 And out of the East came a warrior wind
 And it struck you like a knife.
 Out of the East there shone a sun
 As the blood rose on the day
 And it shone on the work of the warrior wind
 And it shone on the heart
 And it shone on the soul
 And they called the sun - Dismay.

 And it's a far cry from the jungle
 To the city of Phnom Penh
 And many try
 And many die
 Before they can see their homes again
 And it's a far cry from the paddy track
 To the palace of the king
 And many go
 Before they know
 It's a far cry.
 It's a war cry.
 Cry for the war that can do this thing.

 A foreign soldier came to me
 And he gave me a gun
 And he predicted victory
 Before the year was done.

 He taught me how to kill a man.
 He taught me how to try.
 Be he forgot to say to me
 How an honest man should die.

 He taught me how to kill a man
 Who was my enemy
 But never how to kill a man
 Who'd been a friend to me.

 You fought the way a hero fights -
 You had no need to fear
 My friend, but you are wounded now
 And I'm not allowed to leave you here

 Alive.

 Out of the East came Anger
 And it walked a dusty road
 And it stopped when it came to a river bank
 And it pitched a camp
 And it gazed across
 To where the city stood
 When
 Out of the West came thunder
 But it came without a sound
 For it came at the speed of the warrior wind
 And it fell on the heart
 And it fell on the soul
 And it shook the battleground

 And it's a far cry from the cockpit
 To the foxhole in the clay
 And we were a
 Coordinate
 In a foreign land
 Far away
 And it's a far cry from the paddy track
 To the palace of the king
 And many try
 And they ask why
 It's a far cry.
 It's a war cry.
 Cry for the war that can do this thing.

 Next year the army came for me
 And I was sick and thin
 And they put a weapon in our hands
 And they told us we would win

 And they feasted us for seven days
 And they slaughtered a hundred cattle
 And we sang our songs of victory
 And the glory of the battle

 And they sent us down the dusty roads
 In the stillness of the night
 And when the city heard from us
 It burst in a flower of light.

 The tracer bullets found us out.
 The guns were never wrong
 And the gunship said Regret Regret
 The words of your victory song.

 Out of the North came an army
 And it was clad in black
 And out of the South came a gun crew
 With a hundred shells
 And a howitzer
 And we walked in black along the paddy track
 When
 Out of the West came napalm
 And it tumbled from the blue
 And it spread at the speed of the warrior wind
 And it clung to the heart
 And it clung to the soul
 As napalm is designed to do

 And it's a far cry from the fireside
 To the fire that finds you there
 In the foxhole
 By the temple gate
 The fire that finds you everywhere
 And it's a far cry from the paddy track
 To the palace of the king
 And many try
 And they ask why
 It's a far cry.
 It's a war cry.
 Cry for the war that can do this thing.

 My third year in the army
 I was sixteen years old
 And I had learnt enough, my friend,
 To believe what I was told

 And I was told that we would take
 The city of Phnom Penh
 And they slaughtered all the cows we had
 And they feasted us again

 And at last we were given river mines
 And we blocked the great Mekong
 And now we trained our rockets on
 The landing-strip at Pochentong.

 The city lay within our grasp.
 We only had to wait.
 We only had to hold the line
 By the foxhole, by the temple gate

 When
 Out of the West came clusterbombs
 And they burst in a hundred shards
 And every shard was a new bomb
 And it burst again
 Upon our men
 As they gasped for breath in the temple yard.
 Out of the West came a new bomb
 And it sucked away the air
 And it sucked at the heart
 And it sucked at the soul
 And it found a lot of children there

 And it's a far cry from the temple yard
 To the map of the general staff
  From the grease pen to the gasping men
 To the wind that blows the soul like chaff
 And it's a far cry from the paddy track
 To the palace of the king
 And many go
 Before they know
 It's a far cry.
 It's a war cry.
 Cry for the war that has done this thing.

 A foreign soldier came to me
 And he gave me a gun
 And the liar spoke of victory
 Before the year was done.

 What would I want with victory
 In the city of Phnom Penh?
 Punish the city! Punish the people!
 What would I want but punishment?

 We have brought the king home to his palace.
 We shall leave him there to weep
 And we'll go back along the paddy track
 For we have promises to keep.

 For the promise made in the foxhole,
 For the oath in the temple yard,
 For the friend I killed on the battlefield
 I shall make that punishment hard.

 Out of the South came Famine.
 Out of the West came Strife.
 Out of the North came a storm cone
 And out of the East came a warrior wind
 And it struck you like a knife.
 Out of the East there shone a sun
 As the blood rose on the day
 And it shone on the work of the warrior wind
 And it shone on the heart
 And it shone on the soul
 And they called the sun Dismay, my friend,
 They called the sun - Dismay.
-- James Fenton
I don't have a lot to say about the poem itself. I think the driving
strength of Fenton's unusual meters gives his poems, especially his
bleak war poems, a great power of vividness and immediacy. I like a poet
who can throw the almost playful onomatopoeia of 'the gunship said
Regret Regret', into a desperately serious poem (or is it reverse
onomatopoeia? Is there a word for this articulation into real words of
an inarticulate sound? A specialized case of personification, I suppose).

This poem, like 'The Ballad of the Imam and the Shah', was set to music
early in its life - for a 'pocket musical' titled _Out of the East_,
performed in Paris in 1990 - and may or may not have been written
originally with music in mind. I must say - with utmost subjectivity -
the oddly facile repetition in the final two lines disappoints me much
in the way many song lyrics do when transcribed to read as poetry. But
the poem stands despite it. [I agree - the last two lines were
definitely detrimental to my appreciation of the poem, especially
occupying the crucial position they did. Nonetheless, this is far too
good a poem to be spoilt by a bad ending - martin]

'Out of the East' recurred to my mind, and I first intended to send it,
early in the USAmerican campaigns in Afghanistan. It occurred to me that
the poem was about what happened in a poor country, torn by tribal
conflict and blindsided by the incursion of the wars of neighbors, when
a ruthless, ideologically extreme group arose to give its battered
people a blind purpose, fed with all the weapons the first world could
provide, then touched off by undeclared retributive war from the West
against a desperate army illegally basing itself in - and partially
controlling the politics of - that same crumbling country. The situation
sounded unfortunately familiar. It may well be, and it is certainly to
be hoped that I was wrong in my knee-jerk comparison of the situation of
Afghanistan with Cambodia. But time alone will tell.

RCB

[Martin adds]

As I have mentioned before, I am always on the lookout for new 'voices'
in poetry, particularly in massively popular genres like love and war
poetry. That is to say, not just new poets, but poets with whole new
perspectives, both on the subject and on its presentation. Fenton has
been a very welcome addition to my list of distinctively-voiced war
poets - many thanks to Reed for introducing me to him.

Tangentially, the phrase 'Out of the East' called Tolkien's "The Lord of
the Rings" to mind, and in particular the bit immediately following the
Lament for Boromir [Poem #46]:
  'You left the East Wind to me,' said Gimli, 'but I will say naught of
  it.'
  'That is as it should be,' said Aragorn. 'In Minas Tirith they endure
  the East Wind, but they do not ask it for tidings.'

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Anonymous said...

this poem makes me want to go and kidnap a little dog, boil it alive, and use the mixture of blood and water has lubricant. it also makes me happy . tim tam , water octopuss, jack knife

Steve Aronoff said...

I heard Fenton last night at the 92nd street y in manhattan, and my wife and i were blown away."just terrific...especially hearing the reading from Fenton himself.
I just wrote a poem contrasting the " warrior wind from the east " to ode on the west wind" by Shelley.
Fenton is thought provoking and a wonderful poet .
Steve Aronoff
White plains ny

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