Friday, August 3, 2018

"Ernesto de Fiori’s 'Soldier'” by Lowell Jaeger, Contest Judge

Ernesto de Fiori’s “Soldier”
Lowell Jaeger

                                    “So it’s not just staying alive; 
                                                it’s staying human that’s important.”
                                                            -- George Orwell

"We Won" Ink & Watercolor on Paper
By J. Artemus Gordon
This bronze man stands hairless as a worm
on his little pad of stone with no place
left to go. Earlier he woke with his face
in his hands and his hands in the faceless warm
remains of the not-so-lucky all around.  Their sap
he wiped on his sleeves and scraped it beneath his nail.
Then he picked his way up this knoll, leaving a trail
of first his khaki shirt, his dog tags, his steel cap,
then his right boot, left boot, underpants and all
until in the grey break of day he stands
the last man left when war is done.  His hands
don’t want to touch a thing.  His bare feet forever stall.

Some days his swollen sockets ask, What have we done?
Some days his lips half sneer, We won.

Poet’s Notes:  I don’t grade student poems.  Learning to write means learning the courage to risk failure and embarrassment.  Seems unfair that I encourage students to take risks in their poems and then give them a low grade because their brave attempt at something new and different didn’t pan out.  I ask, “What did you learn from this risk?”  That’s more important than a grade.  Taking a risk is important because we’ll never discover new possibilities if we write only from the safe havens of what we already know.

The poem “Ernesto di Fiori’s ‘Soldier’” takes some big risks.  First, it’s an anti-war poem, a politically charged poem, and political poems run the risk of merely preaching “right answers” rather than nudging the reader to new insights of his or her own.  

Second, it’s a poem about a relatively obscure sculpture.  I’d seen the sculpture and I could picture the sculpture in my mind as I wrote the poem but I couldn’t be sure that readers who hadn’t seen the sculpture would be moved by the same image moving me.  (This was before the wonders of the internet, so a reader unfamiliar with this piece of art would need to make the considerable effort to hoof it down to the local library and do some research.)  

Also, it’s a formal poem, and I am not a formalist; my aesthetic choices veer strongly toward narrative free verse.  Then too, when I wrote the poem, I had no real education about Ernesto di Fiori or his work, and I was unschooled in working with metrics and rhyme.  These were the biggest risks of all; di Fiori’s sculpture moved me deeply, and I had to trust that — despite my ignorance and lack of practice — I had something worthwhile to say and language worthy to say it.

“Out of quarrels with each other, we make politics,” wrote Robert Frost, “and out of quarrels with ourselves, we make poems.”  During the Vietnam War era, I was having a huge quarrel with myself. My dad was a World War II vet, a foot soldier in Patton’s army, a survivor of the Battle of the Bulge. His parents were German immigrants, and he grew up speaking German.  I was born just a handful of years after my dad returned home from war to marry my mom, and even as a young child I sensed my dad’s lingering psychological war wounds.  He’d tell few tales of war, none of which glorified combat.  He did talk about working as a translator with German prisoners of war. “Did you see Nazis? I asked.  He shrugged: “I just saw Germans.”  Once, he teared-up and had to leave the room while telling me about how his platoon liberated a Concentration Camp in Lenz, Austria.

My dad didn’t see war as a win or lose proposition; he saw war as a human tragedy for all involved.  So when it became my turn to carry a gun, I refused.  Some days I felt like a coward, some days I felt like a hero.  Mostly I just felt torn.  Out of this quarrel with myself came this sonnet which won an award.  Rilke advised young poets, “In the darkness of night, ask yourself, ‘must I write?’”  He meant that if you weren’t soul-wise compelled to scribble poems, then go be a banker or a baker.  This implies that real writers are motivated internally more than externally; greatness comes from inspiration, not awards.  This is good advice.  On the other hand, winning the Grolier Peace Prize did a hell of a lot for me as a poet and as a citizen.  I’d taken some risks, and this validation gave me new courage.

Editor’s Note:  Lowell Jaeger was granted Conscientious Objector status but refused it in principle and became a fugitive rather than serve in the Vietnam War.  January 21, 1977, one day after his inauguration, President Jimmy Carter, a graduate of the United States Naval Academy, fulfilled a campaign promise by offering a blanket pardon to anyone who had illegally avoided being drafted into military service during the Vietnam Era.

Denise Levertov awarded the Grolier Poetry Peace Prize to Lowell Jaeger for “Ernesto de Fiori’s ‘Soldier’” in 1987.  The poem was previously published in Broken Atoms in Our Hands Anthology, Poets and Writers Magazine, and War On War.  An image of The Soldier by Ernesto de Fiori may be viewed here

Artist's Note: It was tempting to make an illustration of the sculpture which inspired Lowell's poem. I decided against this because I believe it is a more authentic experience to read this poem without that visual.  I found the final line of this poem to be extremely powerful, so I decided to focus on that instead.  I used my own image for reference, which helped make the facial expression exactly the way I wanted it.

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