Mar. 9, 2004

The Wars

by Howard Moss

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Poem: "The Wars," by Howard Moss, from New Selected Poems (Atheneum).

The Wars

How can I tell you of the terrible cries
Never sounded, of the nerves that fail,
Not in jungle warfare or a southern jail,
But in some botched affair where two people sit
Quite calmly under a blood-red lamp
In a Chinese restaurant, a ludicrous swamp
Of affection, fear drowning in the amber
Tea when no word comes to mind
To stand for the blood already spilled,
For rejection, denial, for all those years
Of damage done in the polite wars?

And what do I know of the terrible cries
That are really sounded on the real hill
Where the soldiers sweat in the Asian night
And the Asians sweat where the soldiers flail
The murderous grass, and the peasants reel
Back in a rain of gasoline,
And the shells come home and the bombs come down
Quite calmly under a blood-red moon
Not far from China, and the young are killed,
Mere numerals in the casualties
Of this year's war, and the war of years?

He stands with a knife in the Daily News.
They are snaking their way into the hills.
She is walking up Broadway to hurt again.
They are fleeing under a hail of shells.
He is taking her neck into his hands.
A human seed squats in the dark.
She is scalding the baby in the bath.
He feels the bullet enter his skin.
She spits in the face of the riot squad.
They are sitting down, they are opening wounds.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of composer Samuel Barber, born in West Chester, Pennsylvania (1910). He wrote beautiful melodies during a period of the twentieth century when it was becoming unfashionable to write melodic music.

It's the birthday of jazz saxophonist Ornette Coleman, born in Fort Worth, Texas (1930). Between 1959 and 1961, he and his original quartet played a new style of jazz called "free jazz," in which each piece opened and closed with a melody, but solos dispensed with chords and harmony altogether, instead improvising from a central theme.

Napoleon Bonaparte married Josephine on this day in 1796. At the time, Napoleon was still just a famous general, and Josephine was of much greater social stature. On the day of the wedding, he was in a rush to get back to a campaign in Italy and arrived three hours late to the wedding ceremony.

It's the birthday of crime novelist Mickey Spillane, the pen name of Frank Morrison, born in Brooklyn, New York (1918). He's the author of the novels I, the Jury (1946) and Kiss Me, Deadly (1952), in which he introduced the character of private detective Mike Hammer. Spillane said, "I have no fans. You know what I got? Customers. And customers are your friends."

It's the birthday of poet, novelist and biographer Vita Sackville-West, born in Knole, England (1892). She grew up in a wealthy family in a mansion with 365 rooms, and began writing as a teenager. She married for convenience; it wasn't until she began an affair with a woman named Violet Keppel, whom she had met in school when she was twelve, that she found real love. Violet once wrote to Vita, "You are my lover and I am your mistress and kingdoms and empires and governments have tottered and succumbed before now to that mighty combination." After the affair ended, Sackville-West wrote the novel Challenge (1923), about a turbulent relationship between a man named Julian and a woman named Eve. She went on to have other love affairs, most notably with Virginia Woolf, who is said to have based the androgynous main character of Orlando on Sackville-West.

Sackville-West once said, "It is necessary to write, if the days are not to slip emptily by. How else, indeed, to clap the net over the butterfly of the moment?"3

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