I recently listened to a brief NPR Author Interview with former British poet laureate Andrew Motion on the subject of war poetry. I more or less inherited an interest in this subject matter because my father spent several years in intensive, self-directed study of the genre before writing a memoir that explored his experience as an Army draftee who fought in the Vietnam War through the lens of 20th century war poetry. I spent a portion of graduate school copy-editing the drafts for him and handling an elaborate permissions project seeking the rights to reprint many of the poems he wanted to include. Over the course of one hot D.C. summer, I learned a lot about Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen, and what Vietnam was like for a young man pursuing a law degree and drafted into the army, somewhat against his own principle. Writing that sentence, it occurs to me afresh how profoundly lucky I am. I have skated through life, cocooned and bubble-wrapped, compared to my father, and his parents, and their parents. I am determined that this attenuation of hardship does not invite a parallel loss of courage, or lassitude, on my end. I am fortunate, and I must remember it.
Anyhow — a happenstance clicking around led me to this NPR interview, whose title turned my head. The conversation itself was not particularly substantive, but there was enough meat on the bone and enough resonance in Motion’s recitations to spur me into looking up he and his own poetry.
Does it ever feel as though you are Gretel following a breadcrumb trail that was destined for you at a given moment? I don’t know what led me to listen to that NPR interview, or to chase down Motion’s poetry, or to land on the following poem, but some force drew me here with intent. And the echo of this poem against the current cultural moment rings prescient.
I visited The Anne Frank house while studying abroad and I felt exactly as Motion did: shocked by how touched I was, electrified by the tragedy. I sound callous admitting this, but I approached the museum thinking I knew the story, had wrung my hands at the sadness of it already, and that the visit would be more of a tick mark on my cultural program for the season. I was wrong. Visiting this museum was heart-rending. An arrest. As Motion put it: “Just listening / is a kind of guilt.”
Anne Frank Huis
Even now, after twice her lifetime of grief
and anger in the very place, whoever comes
to climb these narrow stairs, discovers how
the bookcase slides aside, then walks through
shadow into sunlit room, can never help
but break her secrecy again. Just listening
is a kind of guilt: the Westerkirk repeats
itself outside, as if all time worked round
towards her fear, and made each stroke
die down on guarded streets. Imagine it—
four years of whispering, and loneliness,
and plotting, day by day, the Allied line
in Europe with a yellow chalk. What hope
she had for ordinary love and interest
survives her here, displayed above the bed
as pictures of her family; some actors;
fashions chosen by Princess Elizabeth.
And those who stoop to see them find
not only patience missing its reward,
but one enduring wish for chances
like my own: to leave as simply
as I do, and walk at ease
up dusty tree-lined avenues, or watch
a silent barge come clear of bridges
settling their reflections in the blue canal.
If you are up for a literary reflection this morning, I’m curious what you make of the aggressive, foregrounded use of enjambment in the stanzas above. (Enjambment is the continuation of a sentence without a pause beyond the end of a line, couplet, or stanza.) The clipping sensation and jerky movement between lines hang rich with subtext.
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