Memento mori

The Brutal Lovers (Los Amantes Brutales)
translated from the Spanish of Roberto Sosa

Those
strangers came
from other worlds
to this ground that saw our birth.
We are the light they said without mincing words.

They came calculating
body count times betrayal, saying our friends.
They came to eat, ate everything and wouldn’t leave
this ground that saw our birth, men
of metal, of straight edges, they
the brutal lovers of Death.

Death
to that Death!

(El llanto de las cosas, Editorial Guaymantes, Tegucigalpa, Honduras, 1995)

***

Prompted by an article in The New Yorker called The Casualty I take my cheap edition of The Works of Wilfred Owen off the shelf and begin to read. My god, what a poet! Contemporary of Rilke and Yeats and every bit their equal, killed in 1918 at the age of 25, one week before the Armistice.

The last poem in the book, “Strange Meeting,” describes a Ulysses-like journey to the underworld. No doubt the editors, by placing it there, had the same banal reaction as I did: this could have been a foreshadowing. It’s all here, the feyness of the poet who accepted his own death as the price for understanding “the pity of war.” Who knew his own poems to be beautiful, bearers of “truths that lie too deep for taint.” One does not dare to speak of sacrifice, but certainly Owen knew better than anyone what was at stake when he re-enlisted in August 1918, leaving the hospital where he had been recovering from what we now call post-traumatic stress disorder. Almost all his poems, including I presume “Strange Meeting,” had been written during his year-long convalescence. The slant rhymed AA’BB’ scheme is particularly effective in this context, like the shell and its aftershock, forcing a doubletake. Not quite the rhyme one had expected.

Strange Meeting
by Wilfred Owen

It seemed that out of battle I escaped
Down some profound dull tunnel, long since scooped
Through granites which titanic wars had groined.

Yet also there encumbered sleepers groaned,
Too fast in thought or death to be bestirred.
Then, as I probed them, one sprang up, and stared
With piteous recognition in fixed eyes,
Lifting distressful hands, as if to bless.
And by his smile, I knew that sullen hall,-
By his dead smile I knew we stood in Hell.

With a thousand pains that vision’s face was grained;
Yet no blood reached there from the upper ground,
And no guns thumped, or down the flues made moan.
‘Strange friend,’ I said, ‘here is no cause to mourn.’
‘None,’ said that other, ‘save the undone years,
The hopelessness. Whatever hope is yours,
Was my life also; I went hunting wild
After the wildest beauty in the world,
Which lies not calm in eyes, or braided hair,
But mocks the steady running of the hour,
And if it grieves, grieves richlier than here.
For by my glee might many men have laughed,
And of my weeping something had been left,
Which must die now. I mean the truth untold,
The pity of war, the pity war distilled.
Now men will go content with what we spoiled,
Or, discontent, boil bloody, and be spilled.
They will be swift with swiftness of the tigress.
None will break ranks, though nations trek from progress.
Courage was mine, and I had mystery,
Wisdom was mine, and I had mastery:
To miss the march of this retreating world
Into vain citadels that are not walled.
Then, when much blood had clogged their chariot-wheels,
I would go up and wash them from sweet wells,
Even with truths that lie too deep for taint.
I would have poured my spirit without stint
But not through wounds; not on the cess of war.
Foreheads of men have bled where no wounds were.

‘I am the enemy you killed, my friend.
I knew you in this dark: for so you frowned
Yesterday through me as you jabbed and killed.
I parried; but my hands were loath and cold.
Let us sleep now….’

***

Anon. 14th century

Erþe toc of erþe, erþe wyþ woh,
Erþe oþer erþe to þe erþe droh,
Erþe leyde erþe in erþene þroh –
þo heuede ere of erþe erþe ynoh.

Earth took of earth, earth with woe,
Earth other earth to the earth drew;
Earth laid earth in earthen trough,
Then had earth of earth enough.

(Additional notes, including a possible interpretation, here.)

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