Monday, September 12, 2005

Poem of the Week 9/12/2005: On a Return from Egypt

On a Return from Egypt

To stand here in the wings of Europe
disheartened, I have come away
from the sick land where in the sun lay
the gentle sloe-eyed murderers
of themselgves, exquisites under a curse;
here to exercise my depleted fury.

For the heart is a coal, growiing colder
when jewelled cerulean seas change
into grey rocks, grey water-fringe,
sea and sky altering like a cloth
till colour and sheen are gone both:
cold is an opiate of the soldier.

And all my endeavours are unlucky explorers
come back, abandoning the expedition;
the specimens, the lilies of ambition
still spring in their climate, still unpicked:
but time, time is all I lacked
to find them, as the great collectors before me.

The next month, then, there is a wondow
and with a crash I'll split the glass.
Behind it stands one I must kiss,
person of love or death
a person or a wraith,
I fear what I shall find.

Keith Douglas 1944

What is assuredly most striking about this poem is the apparent dissolution of a human being. And its rambling, directionless, disheartened rage. Or, as the narrator writes, his "depleted fury."

Starting at the beginning.

The line "the wings of Europe" is a pun on the WWII label "theaters." So we immeadately know that this is a man who is leaving the war, apparently "disheartened." Considering what he says next, though, "disheartened" may be an understatement. Disgusted, repulsed, dehumanized, frayed, or dismantled may be more accurate terms to describe the man who comes out of this war. The narrator calls Egypt a "sick land" full of "sloe-eyed murderers." The next line, "of themselves," however, brings under question exactly who these murderers are. Are they his friends? Egyptians? If the latter, "sloe-eyed" is a racial slur. Sloe, the book notes, is the dark fruit of the black-thorn, meaning that these killers had dark eyes. This image, however, becomes more gruesome (not to mention more politically correct), if one reads that these men are his friends. The darkness around the eyes may simply be rotting flesh. Both interpretations work with the following line that the men are "exquisites under a curse." The narrator may feel that these men are exemplary citizens upon whom government has laid the curse of military service, while they may also be his buddies now cursed with beetles (my friend Tim informs me that, left to nature, beetles are the creatures that will devour us. Not bacteria.) So, then, how are these corpses/enemies exercising his depleted fury? Perhaps the bodies would simply get his rage's tired heartbeat up again, or the Axis soldiers provide targets on which to empty his rage.

Anyway, the speaker surprises us again, when, after writing "the heart is a coal," he relays that it is actually growing colder. I find this image particularly poignant - what was once firey and impassioned now sifts away. This happens when his bright dreams blanche and crumble into rocks. And Douglas brilliantly continues this metaphor by saying that "cold is an opiate of the soldier." While war does evoke thoughts of physical coldness, Douglas implies that it is the spiritual chilling that really allows one to shut out the war. The tedium of war probably enhances this effect; by saying that the ocean and sky alter like a cloth until both lose "colour and sheen," Douglas implies that the narrator's repeated days in the war, like sun to cloth, have bleached any meaning.

This numbness is visible in the next stanza when the narrator refers to his actions as "unlucky explorers / come back, abandoning the expedition". This device takes what he's doing every day and wresting it from his identity. His actions can return because they once left. He is perhaps attempting to separate himself from the horrors of war. War certainly separates him from his goals - I read that he cannot pick "the lilies of ambition" because he is not at home. His aspirations probably never included fighting in the barren desert, for he gives no hint of patriotism in the text.

But now he has a chance, a little time. He is going home, if only for a month. However, it is in this last stanza that his complete dissolution becomes clear. His girlfriend does not stand in his imagination as the long-awaited refuge from hate and violence, but as one who could betray him, too. His fears about her hint at the psychological damage war can inflict on any of us; he fears that she may turn from love into death, or that she may not even be real. Like so many of his friends before her, we can presume, she may dissolve under his gaze.

The fears that resonate in the final stanza unearth what war has done, especially, to this individual. The poem can read almost like a list of atrocities the war has committed (killing friends, dulling the spirit, quelling dreams), so the fact that this offense closes the poem puts it in a place of special relevance. War has broken his trust. Even in she who he ought to love most. He can't trust her breath or her presence, because he knows how inconstant and fragile those are. This may be the hardest thing in the world - knowing that at any time, what you love and who you are can be taken from you. We have been talking a lot about liberty in my classes, and I think that this constitutes a serious breach of liberty. We are supposed to have a choice about where we are and what we do, and yet we can be sent somewhere else to take every choice a person will ever have away from him (for what else is death), and who knows if that person chose to be there anyway?

I chose this poem today because, frankly, it has been a grumpy-I-am-not-impressed-with-the-state-of-the-world day. Some days are just like that. We can't have beauty all of the time, because where does that leave us? I don't think it's possible. Doing an embittered PotW has helped, though, not least because it feels good to move out of the Romantic era and political rhetoric (where I am sitting in both lit classes right now. I love lit, but political rhetoric seems at once difficult to construct and depressingly easy to recognise. Ethos, pathos, logos. It's as simple as that. Sometimes slightly more entertaining, but only verry slightly.) So anyway. Here's to tomorrow improving on today, and also to peace!


Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for sharing these poems on your blog, which I've just discovered. I was looking for Keith Douglas poems because they did a very good programme on KD on BBC4 here in the UK on Armistice Day and it made me want to know more. I just wanted to say that from my reading experience 'sloe-eyed' is usually used as an admiring, even desiring phrase, and most often of beautiful women (dark, almond-shaped eyes), so I doubt it would have a racial slur, but that's just my twopenceworth. (Looking forward to reading more of your Potws!)

nigel said...

"Sloe eyed" means slant eyed which would be a the natural demeanour of soldiers in Egypt if they're squinting in the sun.