February 1918
American Yankee Division training camp, just south
of Neufchateau, France

Rain has been continuous—
supply roads are muck beds full
of lories sunk up to their axels, sodden
horses so weak from the crossing
they have forgotten their commands.
Drill fields are ankle-deep in mud.
At morning formations Raymond drops
from exhaustion and nearly drowns.

Tomorrow they leave finally for the front.

orniment

On the way, they are packed into
slatted cattle cars, others
on motor transports riding on
rubberless tires. Four months
in training with a wooden rifle,
now Raymond holds his brand new
Springfield on his lap.

For the first time he is frightened.
He can’t remember why he is there.

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This was no armory drill back home,
no sister in lace collar waving
her handkerchief, no marching
shoulders back, chin tucked,
boots shined to glass.

They said he’d be a man before
the winter was out. And here he is,
just seventeen, a man-sized
terror in his throat.

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The stench of the front finds Raymond
long before he arrives. Carbolic
and ether, human and animal parts
in sepsis and putrefaction, chloride of lime,
cordite, the sickly stink of gas.
And mixed with it all, the waste
of a million men. The smell reaches
back into the primitive realm of his brain.

Run, it says, and don’t stop
until you are far away from here.

Young Raymond had spent the day
making land with his father. With wood
fulcrum and pry bar, they lifted
massive boulders onto the stone boat
hitched to the family’s old black Percheron.
Her long hip and wide powerful thighs
made light work of their burden.

Almost nightfall—
Raymond commanded the last load
to meadow’s edge, where a doe and her two young
fed—mute, indistinguishable from
what surrounded them—

The boy sensed movement and turned—
but by then they were gone.

March 1918
Chemin des Dames sector, the line north of Soisson

This once was the forest primeval, greenwood
of myth and legend. Motherland,
Fatherland, Arcadia—now
a midden of offal.

— Main Street Rag

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Darkness is full of activity, daylight
the time of tedium, and infrequently, sleep.
Stand-to renders sunrise a sacrilege, sunset
an obscenity. Even when retreating,

an army’s left and right are the same
as when they advance, and no matter
their direction, a river’s right and left
are calculated from its flow downstream.

What is forbidden in the other world
is demanded of Raymond now.

Five months before, they had disembarked
from the dock at Hoboken—Raymond
and Caswell Driscoll and the rest of the boys
from home. They crossed the Hudson
for more recruits, and when they arrived
at Manhattan Island minutes later, Cas asked,
wide-eyed, if they they’d arrived in France.

— Marlboro Review

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A diabolical surround, a solid ceiling
of sound—thirty shells a minute landing.
A French poilu tells Raymond that
at Verdun one barrage lasted nine days.

In the rare, intermittent lull, he can hear,
amid black clouds of swarming flies, his
buddy moaning, the high-pitched squealing
of well-fed rats. And, sublime absurdity—
the altogether beautiful song of a lark.

— Main Street Rag

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The ground is churned to porridge.
The water cart half disappears; its horse
has gone off the brush work track
and bogged. Raymond does his best
to put a sack under the animal’s hoof
to give it traction, while Cas strokes
her long neck and withers, chanting softly

There’s a clever girl, there’s a clever girl.
But the boney mare falls dead
right where she stands, topples
stiff as the miniature plaster horse
the boys had tried to set onto Raymond’s
windowsill just two springs past—
all those million years ago.

Cas and Raymond had walked together as one.
Though the boys rarely looked at one another
as they made their way to the schoolyard or
followed the railroad tracks that lead to places
they had not yet imagined, they strode
in tandem, so that an interval was created
between them, a region so deeply shared,
so inexplicable, it could not otherwise be.

June 1918
Bois de Belleau, northwest of Château-Thierry

Division Headquarters had opened
in a chateau at Boucq. Swans glide in the moat.
The gardener hums as he prunes the wisteria.
Creaking windmills still grind the peasant’s
corn and church spires stand guard
over the sleepy village.

Not far away the village of Rambucourt
is being ground to dust.

— Marlboro Review

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A nightingale sings in the wasted village.
In the sugar beet field cows bellow.
And in the wreckage of a beech copse a rook
finds scrap for its nest. The rattling of an artillery
limber is drowned out by the croaking of frogs.
Sparrow hawks circle above an ammunition
column on its way to the front, where dogs
sometimes stand sentry along the dreadful
stalemate, and rheumy horses are picketed
hock-deep in mud. Cas weeps from weariness.
A plague of flies obscures the sky—

— Marlboro Review

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Out the schoolroom window
the old apple tree prevailed, one bole
bending earthward as if to invite a boy
to climb. But Miss Morton, her auburn
upsweep caught neatly in a snood,
stood tall at the chalkboard spelling
Mesopotamia in perfect cursive.

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Near Flirey, a huge flowering cherry,
somehow spared the fate of all things
living on this earth, weeps in profusion
amid the black stumps of trees.
On night patrol, Raymond leaves
his post and belly crawls to
the base of the tree and begins to climb.

And though he doesn’t mean to do it,
when he reaches the top, he lets out
a holler of delight, and when Cas
in the trench hears, he too tries hard
to stifle his own cry of victory. But
the night is still and the enemy close.

Fragrant blossoms all around him
burst in fever as they drift smaller
and smaller to the ground below.
Where am I? Father, is that you?

If his mother had caught sight of his legs
disappearing up the backyard hazelnut
to escape his chores again, she’d smile
and shake her head. But when father
called her to fetch the switch
young Raymond climbed down in hurry.

— Mobius

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Over the top, boys, and good luck to you!
shouts the subaltern, then blows his silver
whistle—and they spiral out of the sucking
clay, bayonets fixed and glinting, early
blooms in that blood garden. Now
a boy blossoms on a thicket of barb.
Greenbottle flies get busy with their task.

Across the channel in Sussex, his mum hears
only a soft bumping in the distance, as she
dines on roof rabbit set on a fine blue plate.

— Marlboro Review

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The lucky ones are sent back
to Scotland, to Craiglockhart, where
nurses float in and out of sparkling
light from high windows and the food
is hot and plentiful, where
a gramophone blares John Peel
to block out the men’s screams.

D’ye ken John Peel with his coat so gay,
D’ye ken John Peel at the break of day,
D’ye ken John Peel when he’s far away,
With his hounds and his horn in the morning.

One boy has stopped clawing his mouth; thus
begins his rehabilitation. First,
he is instructed in the homely art
of weaving, the loom a kind of primer
for the small boy he has become. Nurse stands
behind him to guide his hands, warp to woof,
with comforting regularity, a soothing
message to his poor excitable limbs.

In a few days, after he is helped
with his breakfast porridge, a small
piece of cloth is placed on his lap, pierced
with a few large stitches from a saddle needle
and heavy thread. Nurse croons to him,
though she is weary of it, that he can
do this too if he will just hold still.

More days of practice and he is brought
to the barley field to help harvest the crop,
and the next day to the cow barn
and shown how to grasp the teat
firmly but gently, and then,
after a time, when he gets the milk to flow,
he learns again how to hoist the rifle
just so with both hands steady,
and then to kill again.

— Marlboro Review

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Unprotected targets, horses
are often the first to be hit.
Their moaning is worse than
a human’s to hear, bringing
men to tears of rage and helplessness.
Their bloated, rotting bodies clog
roads and supply routes, sometimes
with gas masks, fitted like absurd
feed bags, still strapped on.

Over three million horses had been mobilized
in 1914, many arriving by ship. With slings
around their bellies they were hoisted by crane
from the deep hold where, in terror, they had been
stowed in airless enclosures, then swung high
above the deck to the cobbled quay below.

Those that survived passage served as
mounts for cavalry divisions, draught animals
for regimental and artillery transport. They
pulled limbers, caissons of explosives,
lorries leaden with supplies.

— Main Street Rag

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As the landscape turns melancholic, mysterious,
the boy knows he is near home: Asnabrüch.
Villages of whitewashed, half-timbered
houses capped with thatch, streams banked
with bog myrtle, old lime trees, mottled, abundant.
He’s struggled with his pack and rifle, so heavy
he’s barely managed to keep them aloft.

At last, the familiar latch,
and at the top of the stairs, fragrance
of potato cakes, mother and young Hilda
busy with Saturday cooking. A jar of whortleberries
squats on the worn wooden table.

Later, under an aegis of his beloved
chestnut tree the sun glints with purpose
through the branches onto his clean hand—

yet he can think of nothing but returning
to the front, to what he understands—death
and stink, the mind-numbing boredom,
to the only life he now can live.

On sentry, he’d heard the unburied
dead belch and hiss, too far
in no-man’s-land to retrieve.
When the French sent up a star shell,
a headless corpse jerked as if startled
by the sudden illumination.

— Main Street Rag

September 1918
St. Mihiel salient, south of Verdun

No one can fathom the experience
at the front, where terms like wastage
means casualties, and Third Ypres is called
a battle, when surly it was a crime.

How can Raymond tell them back home
how it took ten men to carry a stretcher
a hundred yards, that forcing his legs
forward in that mud, he gladly would
have died in the place of the wounded
boy they carried, who held his
own guts in blackened hands.

— Salamander

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Some pray to the Madonna
for an American limb— a good leg
with an enlarged sole to walk
on plowed soil, a hook
to hold the handle of the plow,
an arm to grasp the reins of a horse,
or grips to turn a cream separator.

For the salesman, a Sunday arm,
when he needs to look his best.
For those who have lost an ear,
a model ear and jar of paste
to match a man’s complexion.

Those whose faces are disfigured
are sometimes sent to rural settlements
so that they can holiday together.

But masks give the greatest comfort—
portrait masks—so folks at home
can better face the returning wound.

— Marlboro Review