“A Pattern Called a War”

Memorial Day… Traditional to remember the sacrifice of soldiers on this day, the battlefield fallen. And we do. But today, let’s also remember those the fallen leave behind.

“Au Jardin.” Gioacchino Pagliei via Wikimedia Commons.


by Amy Lowell

I walk down the garden paths,
And all the daffodils
Are blowing, and the bright blue squills.
I walk down the patterned garden paths
In my stiff, brocaded gown.
With my powdered hair and jewelled fan,
I too am a rare
Pattern. As I wander down
The garden paths.

My dress is richly figured,
And the train
Makes a pink and silver stain
On the gravel, and the thrift
Of the borders.
Just a plate of current fashion,
Tripping by in high-heeled, ribboned shoes.
Not a softness anywhere about me,
Only whale-bone and brocade.
And I sink on a seat in the shade
Of a lime tree. For my passion
Wars against the stiff brocade.
The daffodils and squills
Flutter in the breeze
As they please.
And I weep;
For the lime tree is in blossom
And one small flower has dropped upon my bosom.

And the splashing of waterdrops
In the marble fountain
Comes down the garden paths.
The dripping never stops.
Underneath my stiffened gown
Is the softness of a woman bathing in a marble basin,
A basin in the midst of hedges grown
So thick, she cannot see her lover hiding,
But she guesses he is near,
And the sliding of the water
Seems the stroking of a dear
Hand upon her.
What is Summer in a fine brocaded gown!
I should like to see it lying in a heap upon the ground.
All the pink and silver crumpled up on the ground.

I would be the pink and silver as I ran along the paths,
And he would stumble after,
Bewildered by my laughter.
I should see the sun flashing from his sword-hilt and the buckles on his shoes.
I would choose
To lead him in a maze along the patterned paths,
A bright and laughing maze for my heavy-booted lover,
Till he caught me in the shade,
And the buttons of his waistcoat bruised my body as he clasped me,
Aching, melting, unafraid.
With the shadows of the leaves and the sundrops,
And the plopping of the waterdrops,
All about us in the open afternoon
I am very like to swoon
With the weight of this brocade,
For the sun sifts through the shade.

Underneath the fallen blossom
In my bosom,
Is a letter I have hid.
It was brought to me this morning by a rider from the Duke.
“Madam, we regret to inform you that Lord Hartwell
Died in action Thursday sen’night.”
As I read it in the white, morning sunlight,
The letters squirmed like snakes.
“Any answer, Madam,” said my footman.
“No,” I told him.
“See that the messenger takes some refreshment.
No, no answer.”
And I walked into the garden,
Up and down the patterned paths,
In my stiff, correct brocade.
The blue and yellow flowers stood up proudly in the sun,
Each one.
I stood upright too,
Held rigid to the pattern
By the stiffness of my gown.
Up and down I walked,
Up and down.

In a month he would have been my husband.
In a month, here, underneath this lime,
We would have broke the pattern;
He for me, and I for him,
He as Colonel, I as Lady,
On this shady seat.
He had a whim
That sunlight carried blessing.
And I answered, “It shall be as you have said.”
Now he is dead.

In Summer and in Winter I shall walk
Up and down
The patterned garden paths
In my stiff, brocaded gown.
The squills and daffodils
Will give place to pillared roses, and to asters, and to snow.
I shall go
Up and down,
In my gown.
Gorgeously arrayed,
Boned and stayed.
And the softness of my body will be guarded from embrace
By each button, hook, and lace.
For the man who should loose me is dead,
Fighting with the Duke in Flanders,
In a pattern called a war.
Christ! What are patterns for?

Sunday Afternoon - Ladies in a Garden. Detail of painting by unknown English School artist.

Sunday Afternoon – Ladies in a Garden. Detail of painting by unknown English School artist.

War is a tragedy. War destroys lives and causes unmeasurable suffering. It should never be entered in to lightly: lives are too precious to waste. We forget that all too often.

Every Memorial Day, I hope we remember.

“The Shovel is Brother to the Gun”


by Carl Sandburg

Long, steel guns,
Pointed from the war ships
In the name of the war god.
Straight, shining, polished guns,
Clambered over with jackies in white blouses,
Glory of tan faces, tousled hair, white teeth,
Laughing lithe jackies in white blouses,
Sitting on the guns singing war songs, war chanties.

Broad, iron shovels,
Scooping out oblong vaults,
Loosening turf and leveling sod.

I ask you
To witness—
The shovel is brother to the gun.

War Memorial at The Park at Bothell Landing

Sunday Song: Memorials

It’s Memorial Day weekend here in the States. I wrote a memorial last year, and won’t add to it. We’ll just do two songs.

This is Iced Earth’s “Ghost of Freedom,” which is quintessentially American and a lovely tribute to those who fought and died for liberty.


Every time you think about it
It tears you up inside
You curse the day your mother
told you, your father died
Now you’re always searching
Searching for the reason why I’ve gone
But I will always be here
By your side, through the darkest night

Here I’ll stand on the firing line
Here I’ll walk through the field where I died
I will fight and let the voice ring true
I am the ghost
Standing next to you

Every night you go to sleep
You pray the Lord my soul to keep
You don’t know I’ve not gone away
You see I watch over fighting men
So they can have peace again
And maybe someday you will all be free

Here I’ll stand on the firing line
Here I’ll walk through the field where I died
I will fight and let the voice ring true
I am the ghost
Standing next to you

You speak to me
And I feel your pride
Assuring me I’ll never die
I write Mother…
“He’s here with me…”
He’s in our minds
He’s in our souls
Of sacrifice his story’s told
He holds the flame of freedom for all to see

Here we stand on the firing line
Here I’ll walk in the field where I fight
I will fight or die for liberty
With the ghost standing next to me

Don’t tread on me…live free or die!!!
To our fallen brothers
You died to keep us free
To our fallen brothers
Who gave us liberty!!!

Of course, I have hopes that one day, liberty won’t come at such an appalling cost. I would like to see a time when there are no fresh names to remember on Memorial Day, when war is just a memory from our species’s angry adolescence, and disputes aren’t solved at gunpoint. I find myself unable to do the “Rah, rah!” thing on Memorial Day. They died. Some of these soldiers died for good causes, some while serving their country in much murkier wars, and we owe them all. But they died, and I want there to come a time when people do not have to die in the line of duty.

So, “Sleepless.” This an an Anathema cover by Cradle of Filth, and it’s haunting and beautiful and a soul cry.

And I often sigh
I often wonder why
I’m still here and I still cry

And I often cry
I often spill a tear
Over those not here
But still they are so near

Please ease my burden

And I still remember
A memory and I weep
In my broken sleep
The scars they cut so deep

Please ease my burden
Please ease my pain

Surely without war there would be no loss
Hence no mourning, no grief, no pain, no misery
No sleepless nights missing the dead … Oh, no more
No more war!


The Moving Wall Vietnam Memorial

My dad used to tell me stories.

He’d been in Vietnam.  Infantry, United States Army.  He’d gotten drafted while switching colleges (never let it be said grades aren’t important: they can keep you from getting shot, for instance).  And it was a hard year.  That year changed his life.  He went to war.  He lost half his hearing when someone shot a .45 near his ear in a tunnel; he’d had his jaw broken by a bullet; he still has bits of shrapnel working their way out of his chest from a grenade wound he took to the ankle.  He still won’t sit with his back to a door.  And for years, he could only allow bits and pieces of that year to surface.  He’d talk about it, but only in fragments.  Some of it he barely talked about at all.

I used to go out into the garage and open the box with his war medals.  I remember the cold, rich glow and sharp points of the Bronze Star; the royal starkness of his Purple Hearts.  There was a scent to them, old ribbon and polished metal, somehow seeming very distant and serious.  I remember his name sewn on his fatigues, and the stiff decorations.

He hated green for a great many years.  Green was Army fatigues, and jungles, and too many memories.  Maybe that’s part of the reason we ended up in Arizona.  Not so much green there.  And he wouldn’t eat beans on a bet.  Yes, part of that was because of the horrors of his grandmother’s method of cooking green beans (place in pressure cooker, cook until it explodes, scrape beans of ceiling along with flecks of yellow paint, serve).  But the rest of beankind got short shrift from him after a year in the Army.

He’d tell me stories. 

There were young men in that unit who knew you had to be a little crazy to survive.  So they’d be crazy.  You’d have to be crazy to be pinned down in trenches, under heavy fire, running out of ammo, and go fetch an enormous sack of the stuff, come back through the trenches with that sack on your back singing “Here comes Santy Claus, here comes Santy Claus – and what can Santa do for you?”

And my father, giddy with the relief of seeing rather more useful bullets come his way than the ones that had been coming his way a moment before, said, “Well, Santa, I’d like some ammunition.”

And the man – Jimmy Blue, I believe, though you can’t trust a kid’s memory and I hesitate to dredge my father’s memory at this time of year – the crazy man with the enormous sack of ammunition on his back handed over some ammunition with a cheerful “Here you go!” and went singing off to the next man pinned down under fire, the best Christmas present they could have asked for.

There was the time they were out on patrol with a lieutenant they didn’t like.  Obstacles were supposed to be whispered back.  This was enemy territory at night – had to be quiet.  So you whispered back the obstructions and moved as quietly as possible.  Until you heard riotous laughter from the back of the line, and stormed back there to see what the fuck was going on, and found Zimmerman and a few of the others laughing at the lieutenant, up to his neck in raw sewage in a drainage ditch, because one of them “forgot” to pass the word along.

You did not piss off the men, because they would find ways to piss on you.  So would their monkey.  They had a monkey who lived in the common area.  It once pissed on an officer.  This, they decided, was an enlisted man’s own monkey.  Nobody had liked that officer much.  Neither, it appeared, had the monkey.

So many men, so many stories, hilarious stories, funny and heartwarming and head-shaking stories.  There were moments of high bravery and low comedy.  Brothels in Saigon.  Beer runs.  Trying to eat a steak when your jaw had been shattered in a dozen places.  Shooting a wild pig at dawn, because as it turns out, pigs breathe quite a bit like humans and don’t identify themselves when they’re ordered to.  That poor unfortunate porker came upon my dad and a few of his fellows when they were in a perimeter camp.  My dad built that story from the foundations: a dark, quiet morning.  Breathing in the jungle.  Something creeping closer, closer, surely the enemy.  Finally opening fire.  Silence.  “Should we check?”  Finally, a cautious excursion, and the dead enemy: a wild boar.  Inspiration.  Breakfast.  Their commanding officer came up on them just as they were busy roasting the boar for breakfast, demanded to know what was going on, and was solemnly informed that they’d engaged the enemy.  They had a confirmed Viet Cong kill: this pig.  Would you like some, sir?

He told me the stories.  So many stories.  And then, one day, the Traveling Wall came through Page, and he handed me a list of names.  He couldn’t face that wall yet.  Could I find those names and get rubbings of them?

I looked down at the list.  On it were a lot of the people he’d told me stories about, people I’d come to love and look forward to.  I remember going numb, and then I started crying.  I’d had no idea.  I knew that war had claimed over fifty thousand American lives, but not them.  Not those lives.  Please, not the men I’d grown up hearing about.  I don’t remember much about that day.  I don’t remember getting those names off that wall.  I just remember looking at it not as a curiosity, not as a monument, but for what it was: a memorial, a long black monolith with the names of the dead written on it in stark white letters.  It’s different, when they’re men you’ve known.  It’s different, when they’re men your father fought and nearly died with.  It’s harder and it means more.

I wish I remembered them better.  One day, my father and I will sit at a table again, and he’ll be in the mood to talk about Vietnam, and I’ll treat those names with more care.  There’s only one I’m sure of: Jimmy Blue.

He was twenty years old.

He’d had the kind of outsized personality that made you believe he could never die.  And a memory of him never will.  There will be his name in stone, which will probably outlast this republic.  There’s the stories, which my dad told and which I’ll pass on, and generations from now, someone will remember the crazy kid who once went through the trenches near Christmas with a sack of ammo on his back and a song on his lips.

Your feelings about the justification for the Vietnam War don’t matter here.  There’s just one fact, on this day, that we must remember: this country asked these young men and women to fight and die for their country, and they did.  Whatever their personal feelings about why they were there or whether it was a “good” war, they served their country, and gave their lives for it, and this is the day we’ve set aside to remember them as a nation.

I give my love to all of those boys who only came home in my dad’s memory.  I wish I’d met you.  I’m so glad I’ve known you.

Thank you.

Memorial Day Roundup

A lot of bloggers had good Memorial Day posts up today. Just in case you missed them, here they are.

Think Progress has stats showing that America’s failing her vets.

Susie Madrak at Crooks and Liars reminds us: For Every Death, A Hole in the World

DarkSyde at Daily Kos takes us Beyond Memorial Day, and reminds us that there are all too many veterans we’re forgetting.

And Digby celebrates the moral Heroes, who deserve just as much praise as the physical variety.

We may not always support the war these men and women are sent to fight. But we will always support them.