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Tim Murphy 12-20-2003 03:01 AM

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I settle in my ambuscade
as jungle shadows fall;
I think of you and plans we made,
but hidden creatures call.
I'm burning in the dying light:
oh, that I could sleep with you tonight.

A sudden hush, the snap of sticks:
a squad is on the trail;
I have you, shadow number six,
as through a parting veil.
I'm trained to aim without a sight.
Now! But I will sleep with you tonight
And every night that I shall live.
Oh God, how can I pray
for mercy that I would not give
another man today?
Oh God of wonder and of might,
depart. I cannot sleep with you tonight.

Bill Daugherty



Rhina P. Espaillat 12-20-2003 09:30 AM

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The surprises and ambiguities of this poem begin with the very title: why the plural? The first six lines, ending with that long, ear-pleasing one plangent with desire, sound like the beginning of a straightforward love poem, a soldier's distant "serenade" to the girl back home. The danger of the battle situation is suggested, and the "burning" referred to in line 6 is either the young lover's passion at work or the heat of the tropical night.

But line 7 changes the scene: the enemy appears, and the soldier shifts from lover to killer. He aims at "shadow number six, and presumably hits him. Now the "you" being addressed is no longer the lover back home, but the dead enemy, with whom he will "sleep" every night for the rest of his life. This is reminiscent of Thomas Hardy's "The Man He Killed," in which the soldier returned from war muses on the stranger he killed in battle, and imagines situations in which they could have met casually and even been friends.

Then there are three harrowing lines that recall Mark Twain's "War Prayer," but in reverse, by asking outright what that savagely ironic masterpiece forces us to ask ourselves: how can we pray for God's blessing and assistance when we go out to kill? But the issue is complicated by the fact that had he not shot first, he would have been killed by the very enemy he now seems to mourn over.

And then the final couplet introduces a wholly unexpected shift: the "you" addressed becomes God, who is told to "depart: I cannot sleep with you tonight." Is the soldier asking God to leave him to his military duties, untroubled by such ethical considerations? Is he suggesting that the soldier, by virtue of the task he performs--must perform--for his country, is unfit to "sleep with God"? that the soldier's life is opened up forever to a kind of doubt and haunting memory that the rest of us don't experience?

This is a dark, troubling poem, moving, unsettled and unsettling. The use of lines of unequal length is interesting and musical, and the direct address of a "you" that shifts identity is very effective.

The one word in the poem that I feel could be stronger, that doesn't earn its place in the poem, is "wonder" in the penultimate line. A word more charged with the multiple meanings of the poem would work better there.

And I wonder if anyone else found the meter a bit too smoothly regular throughout, and wished for a little more substitution, a little roughness in the flow. But those are minor comments: this is a very fine, provocative poem to "sleep with" a long time. And the rereading is enriched by the realization that this poem is a multiple expression, a series of "serenades."



Tim Murphy 12-20-2003 10:20 AM

My friendship with Bill dates from the day I saw the rough draft of this. It made me weep, it conflicted me with guilt over my failure to serve in a war I so violently opposed thirty years ago. It sent me to Owen, to Hecht, to Bob Barth, to Henry Reed's Naming Of Parts. That is, it invites favorable comparison with the great work of our soldier poets. I think the regularity of its rhythm is incantatory and relieved by the masterful way the line lengths are altered. Rhina might be right about wonder, and a better word might be thunder.

Janet Kenny 12-20-2003 10:46 PM

Tim Murphy asked us to comment on each other's poems.

I had hesitated to do so but I am so moved by the agony of this particular poem that I have decided to put my toe in the water.
I find the meter is perfect for the content. Young love is powerful and takes priority over everything. It holds so much future for both lovers. The threat of permanent separation is intolerable.

This part of the poem is stunning:
Oh God, how can I pray
for mercy that I would not give
another man today?

There, as Rhina says, is Mark Twain's "War Prayer".

Oh God of wonder and of might,
depart. I cannot sleep with you tonight.

I understand why Bill used "wonder". The wonder of an impenetrable God who gives so much and asks so much. I can't think of a substitute. I see why Rhina feels it lacks complexity and depth but I just can't conjure up any other word.
I'm knocked out by this poem.

[This message has been edited by Janet Kenny (edited December 20, 2003).]

Terese Coe 12-21-2003 04:10 PM

Bill's "Oh God of wonder and of might"
is conversing with the Christmas carol, "We Three Kings":

O, Star of wonder, star of night
Star of royal beauty bright,
Westward leading, still proceeding,
Guide us to Thy perfect light.

The soldier has not found the light, does not hope to find the light any time soon, and for the moment unconsciousness looks like his best friend, the only refuge from the starkness of reality (hence "wonder").

William A. Baurle 12-21-2003 10:22 PM

I was reminded of Owen, who's been mentioned, but also of James Dickey, in that the poem puts the reader on very intimate terms with the soldier's actions and thoughts.

I was singularly impressed by how one word: "Now", can convey a dramatic scene so vividly, with only a brief but precise set-up and no unnecessary details.

Following immediately after that one word come my favorite lines in the piece:

But I will sleep with you tonight
And every night that I shall live.

which are so sudden and arresting.

The poem is very civil and powerful, and more complex than I probably would have realized were it not for Rhina's comments.


Jim Hayes 12-22-2003 05:43 AM

Altogether a very striking poem, and raher different than many war poems where politicans and high ranking officers were the targets for the poet's disaffection.
The shift in the last stanza is particularly effective focussing as it does on the poets ultimate disenchantment with God.

Well chosen Tim, and wonderfully explained Rhina.

Bruce McBirney 12-23-2003 10:48 AM

This has gotten better each time I've read it, and I expect it will linger with me a long while. Packs quite a wallop.

Bill, if I remember correctly, wasn't "Patina" one of yours? That's another poem that was posted here this year that's lingered with me long after it was off the board.

Thanks, Tim, for posting all of these, and Rhina for your thought-provoking and perceptive comments. And whoever provided the "gift wrap" around each of the poems was inspired!

Wild Bill 12-23-2003 01:03 PM

Thank you, Rhina, for your perceptive analysis and generous praise. I'm mindful that my poems about the war probably go beyond troubling and unsettling; in the sensibilities of many here, they are upsetting and even revolting. But I feel compelled to write them for several reasons, not least that the trauma robbed me of critcal faculties and the means to express them, but also because I think this generation needs to hear them. Writing poetry is my means of recovering command of my emotions, and of warning others that there is a price to be paid long after the fighting is over.

This poem came to me pretty much of a piece as I was waking up one morning. Some the elements that I added to "layer" it were the jungle shadows, hidden creatures and burning. I am bringing the reader along with me to an encounter with God and I wanted the feel of Blake's "Tyger, Tyger burning bright, / In the forests of the night".

I am not much in sympathy with Hardy's soldier and wrote a poem entitled "The Man I Killed" in which I observed

Nor am I able to pretend
we might have ever shared a drink
and laughed, and made our glasses clink,
or that he might have been my friend.

Between us there was nothing more
than practiced malice and a round
of ammunition. No, I found
nothing curious or quaint in war.

I no longer feel this way, but for a long time I was consumed with hatred and, to my surprise, fear.

The mission of the infantry is always to close with and destroy the enemy. But the ambush is a particularly merciless way to fight. It is very difficult to make an existential connection with the "him or me" of a face-to-face fight; I'm not giving him a chance. So there's the rub. I know I will one day stand in need of mercy; will I have the effrontery to ask for myself that which I have withheld from others? In this I agree with King David of old: "Please let me fall into the hand of the Lord, for His mercies are very great; but do not let me fall into the hand of man."

Regarding "depart", I have learned to be happy with any reasonable interpretation the reader arrives at. My intention was more like Peter's plea: "Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man."

The only thing that I remain undecided about is that I had a stanza break after "Now! But I will sleep..." I wanted to show three distinct serenades; in its present form the second morphs into the third. I'll continue to "sleep on it".

Thanks again, and to Tim for including my poem here and for other encouragement. Thank you to Janet, Terese, Bill, Jim and Bruce for your comments and encouragement.


Susan McLean 12-25-2003 10:38 AM

I find this very powerful, though I would like it better separated into three stanzas to emphasize the parallelism of the form. If you don't capitalize the "and" at the beginning of the third, the violent enjambment will have a startling effect, I think, which would reinforce the content. One thing I particularly like is the irony of the title, which certainly takes the "serene" out of "serenades." And I am also fond of the different meanings that "sleep with" takes on in the course of the poem.

I have heard that there are only two ego defense mechanisms that have a positive effect on a person--humor and sublimation. They have worked for me. I hope that the latter is working for you, too.


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