A Day in the War
We lurked in the shades of a wasted heritage;
We scorpions in uniform awaiting orders to act.
Heights lined the horizon like drums
Tolling the knell of another man's war.
"Just give us time," Air-command demanded;
And the razed brush blazed like symphonic scales
Of sunlight strumming waves on the Kinneret.
The skies churned black as if vomited
From the bowels of the earth.
Then the words from the wireless
Wafted through the silence
"Move in after me!"
Columns of armor and swift moving armaments
Lurched into action.
No one could boast that the going was good;
Slopes steep as they were,
And our guns probing the sky
Beyond enemy bunkers, antennae
Impotent as blind insects.
Yet when we'd surmounted ravaged slopes,
With barrels of our arms
Still shining and cold,
The plateau stretched ahead
All bleak, charred and shelled. No cohorts
Were gleaming with purple and gold,
But the Syrian lay strewn
Like a frieze out of hell.
Copyright 2006 by Mike Scheidemann
Critique by Jendi Reiter
This month's critique poem, "A Day in the War" by Mike Scheidemann, blends firsthand war reporting with literary and historic allusions to depict not only the immediate sensations of this Israeli soldier, but the tradition that he draws upon to explain to himself why he fights. Though he would like to mythologize his actions, the predominance of mechanical and insectile imagery suggests that the contemporary conflict is only a mocking imitation of more-heroic battles of yore.
The vivid opening lines take us right into a scene of darkness and conflict, hinting at a reverse evolution that has turned men into insects and civilization into decadence: "We lurked in the shades of a wasted heritage;/We scorpions in uniform awaiting orders to act." The first thing we learn to situate ourselves is that we are fighting "another man's war". This phrase suggests the soldiers' lack of personal belief in the mission. It could also be read as "another of Man's wars"—which one, it scarcely matters. As the title suggests, this could be any day, any war; the idea of human progress is a joke.
Later details, such as Lake Kinneret and the Syrians, let us know that this is an Israeli-Arab conflict, most likely the Six-Day War of 1967 when Israel captured the Golan Heights from Syria. The last four lines rework a famous quote from George Gordon, Lord Byron's "The Destruction of Sennacherib", which itself is based on the Biblical account of the Assyrian siege of Jerusalem (2 Kings 18:13-19:37).
In the original story, God sends angels to slay the Assyrian warriors. "A Day in the War", like the Bible passage, ends with the soldiers discovering that their enemy has already been killed, but the culprit is more likely a disorganized military bureaucracy that was unaware that the protagonists' campaign was redundant. By giving his poem such an anticlimactic, absurd ending, Scheidemann calls into question the ideology that would cast the Israeli soldiers as modern-day warriors for the Lord.
While this poem says something important and has a number of elegant lines, there are a couple of missing elements that might keep it out of the running in our annual War Poetry Contest. This is the hardest kind of poem to judge, one that has clear poetic merits but somehow doesn't knock me out. I would probably reread it a dozen times before marking it down as a semifinalist, or perhaps a finalist. (The next War Poetry Contest will open for entries on November 15.)
For starters, I felt it didn't take me far enough, in terms of storyline or emotional connection. We began this contest after 9/11 in hopes of finding poems that could help a modern audience make sense of the political, ethical and personal significance of war. Scheidemann's poem expertly depicts the dehumanization and pointlessness that became the dominant focus of war poetry after World War I. But then it just leaves me there, without an emotional resolution or a new understanding of what lesson to draw from such experiences. Having tracked down the literary narratives with which "A Day in the War" is in dialogue, I can appreciate its hidden complexity, but I also feel that a great poem should provoke a powerful response on a first reading, before looking at the footnotes.
I'm no fan of tacked-on last lines that explain the meaning of a poem, and I think the ending of this poem works well in terms of scansion and a powerful final image. Perhaps more development of the speaker's personality and inner conflicts, interspersed with the external action of the strike preparations, would have given me more of a stake in the outcome. When he realized the men he was preparing to kill were already dead, did he feel disappointed, ashamed, powerless, relieved, triumphant? Some mysterious mixture of the above? "A Day in the War" keeps me at arms' length from these questions.
The other element that drags on a poem like this one is that a few lines lacked rhythmic momentum, which stands out more in a poem this short. The opening lines (through "Kinneret"), and the lines from "Yet when we'd surmounted..." to the end, fall into a strongly accented, orderly-sounding march of iambic and anapestic feet, echoing the Byron poem's four-anapest lines. When this pattern was broken by the insertion of more irregular, conversational cadences, I found it jarring. The lines from "The skies turned black" to "Lurched into action" sounded prosy compared to the rapid, complex meter and sharply textured consonants of "And the razed brush blazed like symphonic scales/Of sunlight strumming waves on the Kinneret."
How much music is packed into those two lines! The open, bright sounds of "razed/blazed/waves" help me visualize the sunlight on the water, while the hum of M and N sounds in "sun/strum/Kinneret" and the alliteration of "symphonic scales/sunlight strumming" produce the drowsy lull of an afternoon by the shore.
Anapestic lines can sound quite sing-song to modern ears, especially in a poem that presents itself as free verse. I would suggest Scheidemann either transform "A Day in the War" into an overtly formal poem, or loosen up the predictable rhythm of the final six lines (the ones that most closely track Byron's version) while adding more poetic imagery and psychological depth to the middle stretch of the poem.
Where could a poem like "A Day in the War" be submitted? The following contests may be of interest:
The Bridport Prize
Entries must be received by June 30
One of Britain's largest awards for poetry and short fiction, offering 5,000 pounds in each category; enter by mail or online
Writers Bureau Poetry & Short Story Contest
Postmark Deadline: June 30 (formerly July 31)
UK-based online writing school offers top prize of 1,000 pounds in each genre, plus several runner-up awards; online entry option new for 2006
Erskine J. Poetry Prize
Postmark Deadline: January 1
Award for unpublished poems from the journal Smartish Pace offers $200, print and online publication; online entries accepted
This poem and critique appeared in the June 2006 issue of Winning Writers Newsletter (subscribe free).
Categories: Poetry Critiques