As part of the “Occupy the Page: Literary Criticism and Activism” festival held March 18-20th, 2013, members of the San Diego State University community chose a poem or piece of prose that they felt exemplified a spirit of literary activism. This series showcases their commentary, and aims to add to the voices occupying the page. Special thanks to the Hugh C. Hyde Living Writers Series, Associated Students, and Poetry International for their support of this project.
A Picture of Soldiers by Marvin Bell
They are doughboys, of doughboy bearings,
shot in the thick-soled brownshoes of trainees,
the high necks and wide brims to be foregone,
and the camp and company of that lost peace.
Here they affected their final rank and file,
from which they recovered to western fronts
to short the batteries of the Kaiser
and oppose the shockwaves of his troopers.
They advanced without water, with inadequate
supplies, they lost their weapons but drove on,
when they lost their arms they went without them,
and then without feet and without stomachs.
They dug into the Argonne, buried Belleau Wood,
planted the trenches of forests, seeded their faults;
they lay down at their funerals in those forests,
leaving issue and rations to remainder,
and this rifle-long photo for my study,
in which these soldiers-to-end-all-soldiers
give up their fathering, give to the living
the next invention, the next impossible President.
“I would like to write poetry which finds salvation in the physical world and the here and now and which defines the soul, if you will, in terms of emotional depth, and that emotional depth in terms of the physical world and the world of human relationships.”
As we consider the quote by Bell, his poetic aesthetics are clear in this narrative poem. Bell describes in chilling detail, the bravery and perseverance of American and French soldiers, “doughboys,” during WW I at the Battle of Belleau Wood in the Argonne Forest. We see how Bell has blended precise descriptions with deceptively simple grammar and syntax. This directness serves to magnify the terror. Notice how the poem starts slowly by showing how the soldiers were dressed. Drama builds as we move through the stanzas: “final rank and file, / from which they recovered to western fronts / to short the batteries of the Kaiser / and oppose the shockwaves of his troopers.” At this point, unless you are familiar with this battle of 1918, you will be moved to search Google. “Kaiser” is the German word for “Emperor.” It is somewhat mysterious that he doesn’t name that powerful leader. This stanza serves as a succinct summary showing us that the soldiers won the battle against German “troopers.” Reading on, we encounter the shocking suffering they endured and death is addressed; “they lay down at their funerals in those forests, / leaving issue and rations to remainder,”
Later we discover that the poet has been writing about a photo in his study and this is an “Ekphrastic” poem. He writes, “and this rifle-long photo for my study, / in which these soldiers-to-end-all-soldiers / give up their fathering, give to the living / the next invention.” He praises them for their valor and sacrifice. But realizing that they may never bear children, we are deeply touched. Then, what’s this in the last line? What does he mean by “the next invention, the next impossible President”? The poem ends with a brief social statement about Presidents and their power to determine the direction and destruction of so many lives. It is a universal theme that repeats itself all over the world and will continue through the history of mankind.