A dozen scrawny children run and play
rags for clothes, and silly boots meant for bigger steps
scuffing, jumping, clomping across the rubble strewn square
burnt brick, mortar, shattered glass and scrap metal
to me a dreadful remnant of war costly won
to the children, an undiscovered country
to conquer, to tame, to slay dragons therein
One lad slips and scrapes his knee
I hobble over, and set him on my lap as the others gather round
Tell us mister how you lost your leg?
I wipe clean his scrape
tear off a piece of empty trouser leg to bandage the hurt
A German wanted it more than I
I find myself smiling
an unexpected joy, to bandage a child and not a soldier
in his eyes, wonder, hope, and mischief
his world burned and bombed and taken away,
still he dreams, thanks me kindly
and off to battle dragons again
Children heal so quickly
I have much to answer
all done rightly, all done proudly
I am told
grieves my heart the same, never any peace
I know how the stories end
I know the moment
I know their names
I know what we've done
Katie is lost as well
she doesn't know it's over
she doesn't know her name
I gave her Katie, my wife's name
when she needed it
Katie lay trapped in a cellar with her dying family
no one knows how long
her building bomb-collapsed
hour after wretched hour alone
finally hiding too deep to be found
to be four
to be there
The children wave and smile as I enter the hospital
Katie is such a pretty, tiny thing
her eyes terrible as any nightmare
she lives in that cellar still, oh God
She deserves what peace I gave away
broken, scattered, tearful eyes shut tight
I kiss her cheek
place my hand over her mouth and nose
Copyright 2012 by L. Kerr
Critique by Jendi Reiter
Juxtaposition is creative writing's path to insight. Placing two narrative threads side by side, without immediately explaining their connection, prompts the reader to search out areas of sympathy between them. This leads to a deeper understanding than if we analyzed each topic separately. The same is true of the uncommon pairings of images that characterize a fresh and effective use of metaphor in a poem. Practiced with empathetic attention, this kind of reading can cultivate a habit of mind that breaks down barriers between our own life and the lives of others who seem superficially different from us. This month's critique poem, L. Kerr's "Katie", demonstrates both the technique of surprise juxtapositions and the opening-up of moral vision that it can produce.
In the first half of the poem, the narrator, a war veteran, affectionately watches children at play in a bombed-out neighborhood. Their imaginative transformation of the ruined streetscape presents a hopeful contrast to his memories of battle. Unanswered questions keep the reader engaged. Who is the "Katie" of the title? Is the "rubble strewn square" a casualty of the same conflict in which the narrator was wounded, or another war, or the daily violence of the ghetto?
The juxtaposition of children's games of heroism and the ugly realities of battle, for ironic or tragic effect, has become a cliché of war poetry, and if "Katie" pivoted on that comparison, it would not be a memorable poem. Instead, the poem gains dimension by shifting, without warning, to another story: "Katie is lost as well".
Crucially, we do not learn what the stories have in common until other details have stirred our emotions. Had Kerr introduced the change of topic by saying, in effect, "This reminds me of Katie, whose home was also bombed," it would seem heavy-handed and preachy. Besides, factual similarities miss the deeper point. What is universal in all these stories is loss—collateral damage, the loss suffered by innocents too young to know what death means, even when it's all around them. The gap in information between "Katie is lost" and "her building bomb-collapsed" makes space for the reader to intuit this shared experience.
Katie's story also complicates our picture of the narrator, in a way that enriches the poem. The first scene is all sweetness—too much so, if left to stand alone. The veteran idealizes the children, and their optimism calls forth his better self, so that he accepts his wounds without bitterness toward the enemy: "Tell us mister how you lost your leg...A German wanted it more than I".
Shortly thereafter, he hints that this saintly behavior is an inadequate attempt to make amends for the atrocities that warfare requires. "I have much to answer...I know what we've done". It was justified, it was heroic, according to the official line—but is this as much of an illusion as the children's fantasy that a junkyard is a land of dragons? The reference to Germans suggests World War II, which many Americans think of as the last "good" war. But the narrator reminds us that even a justified war leaves soldiers with stained souls. To save Hitler's victims, we bombed civilians in Dresden, and then in Hiroshima. Again we see how paired narratives naturally ask questions of one another, without the poet spelling them out.
The last line adds another wrenching twist. It appears that the narrator had to smother Katie because she would otherwise have died a terrible slow death, trapped under immovable rubble. In retrospect, the poem has earned the sentimentality of the veteran's kindness to the children, as a relief from the awful ambiguity of a world where killing and saving are nearly indistinguishable.
My main criticism of this poem is the stylistic inconsistency between its two halves. Beginning at "I have much to answer", the narrative is delivered in a taut, plain-spoken style that suits the persona of the "everyman" soldier. Unadorned language gives the sound of sincerity to dramatic and painful revelations.
The first section of the poem is wordy and old-fashioned by contrast. It does not always sound like the same narrator, and seems less immediate to me, like a tableau observed at a distance. Phrases like "a dreadful remnant of war costly won" and "to slay dragons therein" have a musty Victorian flavor. Because the scenario of the battle-weary soldier refreshed by childhood innocence has been so over-played, it is especially important that the style hold no trace of sentimental straining after dramatic effects.
Juxtaposition is not patchwork. For the conversation between narratives to work, they must both be speaking the same language. A consistent voice is the holding environment where the drama of contrasts is played out. Condensing the opening stanzas, possibly by as much as half, would make "Katie" an even stronger poem about the hard-won victory of empathy over violence.
Where could a poem like "Katie" be submitted? The following contests may be of interest:
Fish International Poetry Prize
Entries must be received by March 30
Irish independent publisher offers 1,000 pounds and reading at West Cork literary festival in this contest for unpublished poems; online entries accepted
Press 53 Open Awards
Postmark Deadline: March 31
Small press in NC offers prizes of $250 and anthology publication in 5 genres: poetry, short story, novella, flash fiction, and creative nonfiction; enter by mail or online
This poem and critique appeared in the February 2012 issue of Winning Writers Newsletter (subscribe free).
Categories: Poetry Critiques