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.
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.'