In June, 1944, Carentan was a French town of some 4,000 people that tourist guides might have described as “bucolic” just a few years earlier. But following within days of the Allied Forces’ invasion of Normandy on June 6, it became the scene of a pitched, frantic battle between German and American troops that took place from June 10-15. The prize was access to high ground and ultimate control of two beaches—codenamed “Omaha” and “Utah”—that flanked Carentan and would prove pivotal to the invasion’s success and the final vanquishing of the German military machine less than a year later.
Among those American troops was Louis Simpson, a 21-year-old immigrant from Jamaica. Simpson had been studying poetry and literature at Columbia University but left to join the war effort.
Born to an upper crust attorney father of Scotch descent and a Russian mother, Simpson endured the sudden, unexplained disappearance of his mother when he was 7 years old, the death of his father when he was 16, his subsequent banishment to the horrors of boarding school by his stepmother, and reunification with his mother at age 17 in New York City, with whom the relationship did not go well.
He returned from his war service to finish at Columbia and eventually became a renowned, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, noted for his deep penetration into the character of his adopted country and the stories it tells about itself.
Line by line, we hear the soldier groping plaintively for reassurance, explanation, for the stability of his previously ordered and directed world to be held together by the familiars of his past experience.
But the story he tells in his poem, “Carentan O Carentan” (printed in full below), is not about America nor any other country, but about a theme common to virtually all countries and the soldiers who have fought, cowered, suffered, shown courage and died for them over the eons. That story is of the unsurpassed horrors of war, far removed from the blustering pronouncements of politicians, the charts and strategy manuals of the generals, and the parades and confetti offered by those awaiting war’s end at home.
Told in simple, spare language that suggests a naive farm boy caught unwittingly in a maelstrom not of his choosing or previous imagination, “Carentan O Carentan” uses its nine stanzas of four lines each (“quatrains,” in poetic terms) to paint a harrowing portrait of chaos amidst an ambush by German troops.
The idyllic scenery of “a shady lane/Where lovers wandered hand in hand” suggests a wide-eyed appreciative tourist, easily forgiven at 21 years old for conjuring himself as one of those wanderers, perhaps smitten with a French girl who had cast him a glance from a terrace or cafe.
Then the romance of the scene deepens:
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 faraway guns had little to say at this moment to one who had never experienced the ravages of battle. The young soldier had crossed the seas and landed on the beach of a mythical land, prepared to slay dragons in a Theater of War. But that innocence would soon be punctured, like a languid summer picnic suddenly assaulted by lightning.
Line by line, we hear the soldier groping plaintively for reassurance, explanation, for the stability of his previously ordered and directed world to be held together by the familiars of his past experience. But nothing in that experience even faintly resembles what now confronts him, as each line checks off another grim reality of the horrors now revealing themselves.
Let’s follow the dawning of his “awakening,” as it were, to the supercharged reality of war, as we read the entire poem:
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.
So much to contemplate here, on this Memorial Day in a world not (currently) riven by the colossal struggles of the 20th century, but lurching nevertheless from one conflict to another in scenes every bit as terrible to those confronting them.
The soldier’s surprise at being shot (“A hammer at my knee”) leads him to initial reassurance of his mother in this still fairy tale- like tableaux (“It’s all in the game”).
But then comes the whistling in the leaves that he cannot mistake for the wind, and bullets (“knives”) shredding twigs on the way to their appointments with flesh.
The soldier is no longer casting envious glances at strolling lovers but instead summons his protectors and directors: the Master-Sergeant, the Captain, the Lieutenant, all in their turn. And all of them, tragically, in almost blandly stated horror: mute.
Not yet shedding the gauzy dream of innocence the soldier had come from, he notes his dead superiors as merely “silent…taking a long nap…a sleeping beauty charmed by that strange tune.”
But the soldier, answers to his questions not forthcoming (‘what’s my duty, My place in the platoon?), is finally forced into losing his innocence, no longer supported by the fictions of his youth nor the exhortations and assurances of superiors that all will be well if he but heeds their wise counsel.
He is alone now, surviving on luck and what is left of his mobility, hobbling through the smoke and din of battle, knowing with finality “what death could do.”
Simpson survived that battle and an even fiercer one, if that is possible, in the Battle of the Bulge later that year, which resulted in his long poem, “The Runner.” He went on to live a long life, dying in 2012 at age 89 in Stony Brook, New York, where he had written and taught at the state university for many years.
On this Memorial Day of 2018, it is good to memorialize him again for his service—not only military, but more lastingly, literary— in sketching the true horrors and costs of war for those who bear its most grievous burdens.
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I have some vague childhood memories of events surrounding “Decoration Day” and my unabashed joy in 1971 when the last Monday in May made Memorial Day an official holiday….of course because it meant a day off school! This was a tantalizing bonus so close to the end of the term, and I did not ponder overmuch the reason behind the day.
However, I do also remember an annual ritual on this day each year when my usually jovial Uncle Francis, would come somberly to our door to collect my father so that they could go up to the cemetery. Francis had survived similar battles in France as those referenced here by Simpson. He had medals in his farmhouse that he consistently declined to discuss, replying in exceedingly brief and uncharacteristically gruff terms “It was during the war” in a way that made clear no further questions were welcome.
He didn’t like to talk about any of it, but he clearly never forgot his buds who didn’t return, his friends he had to leave behind “our brave and glorious lads, so far away” to borrow a line from the song “Christmas in the Trenches.” He and my father, and sometimes my aunts, would go to the tiny community cemetery with their flags, with their memories…of boys they had grown up next to, worked and played with, who were no more. For Francis it was also about remembering those young men he had fought beside and who he had watched die. When we pestered to be allowed to accompany them a swift look and a terse comment “This isn’t like that” (meaning a party or celebration) silenced us.
I wish I had been allowed to go, not to play hide-and-seek behind the tombstones but to be instructed more fully by them into the mystery of grief and the powerful tribute of memory. I wish even more that Francis could have talked about what had happened, where those medals had really come from, and what they meant, to him and to our bigger world. It was left to poets like Simpson to do that part of the work: the chronicling, the remembering, so we all might be aware of the collective grief, the collective gift we are all part of.
I thought of all this again as offices were emptying out on Friday, as people took off for the beach, planned barbecues and reveled at the prospect of an extra morning of sleep. I am happy enough to take part in all those things myself, and also wish to take some moments today to reflect on Francis and the soldier’s grief he always carried for people he lost, that we all lost, that gave their lives for us. Memorial Day.
Thanks Andrew and Mary for the reminder to remember. It brought to mind one of my favorite songs “The Green Fields of France” by Eric Bogel who speaks of World War One’s futility in the last two verses. He has been speaking to the gravesite of a “forever 19 year old” Willie McBride, then looks over the entire military graveyard and sings “here in this graveyard it’s still no man’s land, the countless white crosses in mute witness stand, to man’s blind indifference to his fellow man, to a whole generation that were butchered and damned” and “Willie McBride I can’t help wonder why, do all those that lie here know why they died, did they believe when they answered the call, did they really believe that this war would end wars? Well the sorrow the suffering the glory the pain, the killing and dying it was all done in vain, for Willie McBride it all happened again, and again and again and again and again”.
I just finished reading Elie Wiesel’s “Night”, a brief account of the horrors of his time as a young teen with his father in German concentration camps during World War Two. Although I registered as a conscientious objector in 1969, I like to think I would have been willing to fight in World War Two. Being Jewish, I would not be here today if Hitler had had his way. I am grateful to those who gave their lives so that I could have mine.
However, during my lifetime, my own country has inflicted more futile than noble war around the globe. Meanwhile, we continue to see genocide nearly as bad as that of World War Two. Even though my friends and family have largely been spared the horrors of war, the fact that we as a human race seem to be incapable of transcending war continues to be the source of great sadness to me.
Mary, thanks for this meditation on Uncle Francis and the burdens he bore. Unique as each such story is, the aspect of so much muteness underlying them seems as common as mud. Sometimes I wonder if that’s mostly because, in that stiff-upper-lip, repressed way, we don’t talk about horrible things, or whether, indeed, some things are simply too horrid and difficult to talk about. I was reading elsewhere this morning that one person’s relative only talked about the war when he was drunk, which strikes me as bespeaking an overwhelming need to share grief, with repression only compounding it. The ritual of visiting the cemetery that Francis and your father undertook at least served some of that function, though, so good for them.
Al, much appreciate you alerting me to this song, which I’d never heard, oh my, and for raising the whole vexing issue of “just war,” particularly in the context of commitments to peace, non-violence and conscientious objection. None of these matters are easy, not a one of them black-and-white, much as we’re tempted to make them so from whatever absolutist lines we draw across our fields of self-righteousness.
Thanks Andrew for Simpson’s poem, and Mary and Al for your reflections… brings to mind visiting the D-Day beaches 4-5 yrs. ago and being very touched, especially by both the American and German cemeteries (very clear who “won” , German’s largely mass un-named graves in muted colors, American’s clearly marked with bright dignity)… a good friend from work, Greg Englar related a story of his father being a 19 yr old landing craft driver who made 3 landings over 24 hrs that day, his best friend dying (he drowned) during his first landing… like Mary’s Uncle Francis, Greg’s dad never spoke of the war until he was nearly 80s and his family convinced him to go to France for the 60th anniversary – he was so touched by the ceremony and meeting the French family who tended his best friends grave the past 6 decades – Greg said this opened the gates of repressed memory/feelings/emotions that was very healing for both his Dad and the rest of the family. I can certainly identify w/Al’s thoughts about our human fallibility and propensity towards war, violence and incalculable grief… sad indeed…I feel full of conflicting feelings memorializing/honoring those who gave their lives in service of our country while at the same time feeling angry and frustrated with our all too human foibles… maybe that’s why poetry is in some sense more able to capture the contradictory mosaic of our thoughts/feelings…
I just returned from a brief trip to Tokyo where I was met with smiles and warm hospitality by hotel staff and my client, enjoying a fine final evening dinner with a few Japanese business people. To think that a mere five years before I was born American bombs were destroying that city and killing thousands of civilians and today we are breaking bread together. A couple of years ago I spent a week in Vietnam, where men of my own generation were dropping bombs, napalming villages and sometimes monstrously killing innocent women and children (think My Lai massacre) even closer to the present day. Again, I was greeted with warms smiles and hospitality. Two societies which have somehow found the capacity to forgive and offer grace to those who within a lifetime were mortal enemies. This gives me some measure of hope, which I desperately need as I watch my own nation sink deeper into bigotry, greed and selfishness led by a man who seems ignorant of humility, forgiveness or grace. I also take comfort in the knowledge that despite the violence and warfare that appears in front of us and in our news feeds the human race has been constantly ratcheting down the tally of violent deaths and warfare when we take the very long view of human history. Thank you for this column today, Andrew. Lately I have been somber and reflective on this holiday, finally in my later years realizing it is about so much more than barbecues and shopping and sleeping in. It is a day for just such a poem, and for the profound thoughts it inspires. Let there be peace, and let it begin with me.
Whenever war poetry comes up the one that always rises to the top for me is Wilfred Owen’s ” Dulce et Decorum Est” . Perhaps the quintessential WWI poem. Owen wrote a number of poems during the war that were published after his death at the end of the war. He was tragically killed in an action one week before the armistice was signed. Probably a universal truth that although these two works were written about a quarter century apart in two different wars, by an American and a Brit, whose styles and language are different, the essence of the works are pretty much identical.
It is a sad commentary and both these works get to the heart of it. Thanks for posting it on this Memorial Day.
Dulce et Decorum
BY WILFRED OWEN
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.
Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime.—
Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.
Latin phrase is from the Roman poet Horace: “It is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country.”
Kevin, David, Bruce, thanks for all this rich contemplation, so full of nuance and wonders and horrors, all swirling in their multi-faceted ways. It seems we are all struck more with the seriousness of what Memorial Day calls forth, conjures, suggests. Not sure why this is; perhaps because we have reached that stage in life where both despair and hope mix ever more tightly, conjoined like so many other polarities in this world.
I’m struck by the thought of how much I have come to hate waste in life, whether of water, leftover food, tin foil or plastic bags. And then to consider the enormity of wasted lives thrown in the gutter from poverty or gas attacks or barrel bombs or simple neglect—as if they were nothing more than that plastic bag tossed carelessly from a car and drifting to the muddy street or into a tree. Somber indeed, and yet within that, the fellowship and forgiveness you speak of David, right there in the middle of it all, human and whole.
Andrew, I’ve really enjoyed not only reading your commentary on “Carentan O Carentan,” but also the posts by Mary, Al, Kevin, David and Bruce. Excellent writing by all. Since Bruce threw in Owen’s heart-wrenching “Dulce et Decorum,” I thought I might piggyback on that and give recognition to the American poet Randell Jarrell, who served in the Air Corps during WW2. His “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner” is a haunting 5-line reminder of the horror of institutionalized warfare.
“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.
Wonderful reflection and much needed reminder on the rich (and often tragic) meaning of this early summer holiday. My father-in-law, now deceased, fought at Iwo Jima before he turned 20, subsequently fathered ten kids in Detroit ( my wife, Dawn, is the oldest) and was a magnificent patriarch who has left a legacy of a tight-knit and loving family that continues to pull together frequently for holidays and family celebrations. Dawn and her siblings often reflect on their dad, Don, who never talked about the war; yet they all know that him surviving Iwo Jima clearly made possible the richness of their collective and individual lives and the lives of those who married into the family. In reading Simpson’s poem I was struck by thoughts of the young Marine from Detroit charging the beach at Iwo and the horrors he witnessed as many of his friends fell around him. Many thanks again for the reminder.