Jan. 24, 2005

How to Kill

by Keith Douglas

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Poem: "How to Kill" by Keith Douglas, from Keith Douglas: The Complete Poems © Faber & Faber, Ltd. Reprinted with permission.

How to Kill

Under the parabola of a ball,
a child turning into a man,
I looked into the air too long.
The ball fell in my hand, it sang
in the closed fist: Open Open
Behold a gift designed to kill.

Now in my dial of glass appears
the soldier who is going to die.
He smiles, and moves about in ways
his mother knows, habits of his.
The wires touch his face: I cry
NOW. Death, like a familiar, hears

and look, has made a man of dust
of a man of flesh. This sorcery
I do. Being damned, I am amused
to see the centre of love diffused
and the wave of love travel into vacancy.
How easy it is to make a ghost.

The weightless mosquito touches
her tiny shadow on the stone,
and with how like, now infinite
a lightness, man and shadow meet.
They fuse. A shadow is a man
when the mosquito death approaches.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of Edith Wharton, born Edith Newbold Jones in New York City (1862). She came from a distinguished New York family, and she grew up stifled under all the rigid social customs of high society. She said, "I have often sighed, in looking back at my childhood, to think how pitiful a provision was made for the life of the imagination behind those uniform brownstone facades." She decided she wanted to be a writer at an early age, but her parents did not encourage her. She said, "Authorship was considered something between a black art and a form of manual labor."

Wharton was grateful that her parents took her traveling in Europe for much of her childhood, because she got away from many of the New York debutante parties, and she was able to spend most of her time reading. It was in Europe, when she was about twenty years old, that she first met the writer Henry James, though she barely had the courage to speak to him at the time.

Her parents married her off to a man she didn't love when she was 23, and she had to spend the next decade in New York, living the life of a society matron, hosting parties, and leaving herself almost no time to write. Having lived in Europe, she now found New York City to be an awful place to live. She said, "New York is cursed with its universal chocolate-coloured coating of the most hideous stone ever quarried, cramped horizontal gridiron of a town without towers, porticoes, fountains or perspectives, hide-bound in its deadly uniformity of mean ugliness."

She eventually had a nervous breakdown, and it was while she rested at a sanitarium that she began to write seriously. One of her doctors suggested that writing might impair her recovery, but after her first book of short stories The Greater Inclination (1899) got great reviews, she disregarded the doctor's advice.

A few years later, she met Henry James again, and the two became great friends. She had just published a few historical novels, which weren't very successful. His advice was that she write about contemporary New York City, the time and place she new best. He said, "Don't pass it by—the immediate, the real, the only, the yours."

Wharton took James's advice, and the result was her first great novel, The House of Mirth (1905), about the frustrated love affair between Lawrence Selden and a young woman named Lily Bart. Wharton wrote: "He had a confused sense that she must have cost a great deal to make, that a great many dull and ugly people must, in some mysterious way, have been sacrificed to produce her... She was like some rare flower grown for exhibition, a flower from which every bud had been nipped except the crowning blossom of her beauty."

Wharton went on to write many more novels about frustrated love, including Ethan Frome (1911) and The Age of Innocence (1920), which was the first novel written by a woman ever to win the Pulitzer Prize.

In her lifetime, most of her novels were bestsellers, even though they had unhappy endings. But after the rise of modernist fiction by writers like Virginia Woolf and James Joyce, Wharton's novels began to seem dated. She never understood why stream-of-consciousness writing came into fashion. She said of James Joyce's Ulysses (1922), "Until the raw ingredients of a pudding make a pudding, I shall never believe that the raw material of sensation and thought can make a work of art without the cook's intervening."

After her death, many critics considered Wharton a stuffy old woman who wrote novels about manners, and most of her books went out of print. Then in 1975, the biographer R.W.B. Lewis discovered that she had conducted a passionate affair during her marriage, and that she had been much more radical in her letters and her journals than her fiction. Suddenly, feminists and others began to reevaluate her work. Several of her novels were made into movies, most of her books came back into print, and she is now considered one of the great American novelists.

Edith Wharton said, "Life is always a tightrope or a feather bed. Give me the tightrope."

It's the birthday of war poet Keith Douglas, born in Tunbridge Wells, England (1920). His father was a military man who got laid off by the British army after World War I. His parents struggled to pay the bills, and they separated when he was eight years old. He never saw his father again. He was a student at Oxford when World War II started. He enlisted in the army in 1939, and was stationed in North Africa.

Soon after he arrived, a battle broke out, but he was told to stay out of the combat because he didn't have enough experience. He stole a truck and drove into battle anyway. It turned out that his truck was badly needed in the battle, and his commanding officer was so impressed by his bravery that he put Douglas in charge of a tank battalion. He kept a diary for the next two years, describing the desert campaign from El Alamein, Egypt to Zem Zem, Tunisia. The diary was later published as Alamein to Zem Zem (1946), and it's considered one of the best memoirs of World War II.

Douglas spent several months in a hospital in 1943, and from his hospital bed he wrote a series of unflinching poems about the battles he had witnessed. He said to a friend, "My object is to write true things... I see no reason to be either musical or sonorous about things at present... To be sentimental or emotional now is dangerous to oneself and others." After he got out of the hospital, he participated in the invasion of Normandy, and died in battle on June 6, 1944. His poems were published in The Collected Poems of Keith Douglas (1951).

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