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Political Poet's Choice: "Here, in Silence" by Fleda Brown

Brown Felda.jpgI was just weary. Those mostly-baby faces day after day, nearly young enough to be my oldest grandchild. But after the great World War I poets, Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon and Rupert Brook, how could I write this again? What new words are there? The anxiety of influence, as Harold Bloom called it. All I could do is focus on now and let the weight of past excellence bleed into the work. Owen, Sassoon and Brook do actually find their way into my poem.

I was angry, of course. So I had this one small-town guy, someone I made up out of all the others. I have him heading into the recruiting office. What does he want? It's so vague. I think of W. B. Yeats' poem, "An Irish Airman Foresees His Death"--the lines "Those that I fight I do not hate,/ Those that I guard I do not love." So what drew the airman there, to fight? "A lonely impulse of delight," he says. What else can I say, beyond that?

I let him disappear into my mind. I remember a story book--it's actually "Make Way for Ducklings" now that I think of it, but I made it into one of those books that you flip the pages fast and it looks like the images are moving. What made me think of that? I guess the danger, the innocent ducks trying to get through the traffic. The ducks made it; the soldier didn't.

Here, In Silence, Are Eight More

Night after night the photos of dead soldiers
go by on the News Hour like playing-cards while we drink

our wine, though we stop for that length of time, of course,
out of reverence, but it's not enough. The well of

how-not-enough-it-is is bottomless, deeper than TV. Even
if you track back through the Comcast cable, back to

the electrical impulses, you're not even close to what to do.
Not even if you end up on Main Street in Salisaw, Oklahoma,

and follow the 19-year-old into the storefront full of
uniforms, crisp, medallioned, follow not his vanity

but his hope, his longing for order, for the squared shoulders
of order, his wish for the vast plains of the world

to unroll at eye-level, so he can walk out into the particulars,
the screaming, the blood. Owen, Brooke, Sassoon: what

anthem for the doomed youth this time? His death rests
like a quarter in the pocket, a sure thing. Its arrival

is a few missing lines I fill in, wrongly, because
the mind does that: I have him watching in slow motion,

with love and pity, the flowers beginning to bloom
on his shirt, the sky closing like a book. Sadly, then,

he disappears entirely into my mind, his last breath
easing between my words. There was a book in his childhood.

No, mine. Ducks cross the road, a mother duck leads them
through traffic to the pond. The pages flip so that

the ducks seem to move. They slide into the pond
with the satisfaction of making it through the human

confusion. Our soldier floats like a duck. Like a night-flight
casket. In the photo his eyes, straight-forward, being all

they can be, float on the surface of a pool of uncatalogued
genetic material. One snapshot in time, his eyes were

like that, his mouth. He can't remember. He never was
like that. He was playing dress-up, then, hoping to make it true,

and did, so true no one could get in a word, in protest.

"Here, in Silence" was first published in The Delaware Poetry Review (2007). Fleda Brown's new book, released in March, is "Driving With Dvořák," in the American Lives Series, general editor Tobias Wolff, University of Nebraska Press.

By Ron Charles  |  March 17, 2010; 4:35 AM ET
Categories:  Poet's Choice  
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Brilliant poem by a brilliant writer. I have read all of Brown's poetry books and just finished reading "Driving With Dvořák," her collection of essays which covers-- among many other topics-- her brother's mental retardation, her odd but engaging parents, her sister's brain tumor, her two unsuccessful marriages and current happy marriage, her family's lake cottage, and, most of all, memory itself. I plan to make this a birthday and holiday gift for all the readers in my life.

Posted by: educator11 | March 17, 2010 11:46 AM | Report abuse

Haunting and brilliant piece. This poem will be read by students in the future in their quest to understand this era.

Posted by: murphykibler | March 17, 2010 8:38 PM | Report abuse

"The well of how-not-enough-it-is is bottomless,"
What a stunning poem. It will be filed for use with my creative writing students. Thanks for the column. I love reading a little bit about how the poem came to be.

Posted by: hollywren | March 18, 2010 9:42 AM | Report abuse

Okay people, let's get it together here. This is by no means "a stunning poem", "a brilliant poem" or a "haunting poem". It's a mediocre poem at best. I mean, did anybody read "our soldier floats like a duck" and not laugh out loud? That line alone will haunt my nightmares for years to come. And the poets mentioned by the author actually fought in the war and were on the battlefield, the author wasn't, but I get the distinct feeling the author was sitting there drinking chamomile tea while she was thinking about war. How damn lovely. This is the exact type of poem that illustrated the crisis in contemporary American poetry, this sort of prose-riddled, blase piece that is not even based on real experience. Stop choosing poems like this for the Poet's Choice.

Posted by: ItalianOlive | March 19, 2010 9:57 AM | Report abuse

I'm one Vietnam veteran who couldn't disagree more with ItalianOlive's comment on Fleda Brown's moving poem. Setting aside its needlessly vituperative tone, it offers a judgment as to what is a proper subject for a poem (a "piece that is not even based on real experience"), a presumptuous undertaking at the least. Does ItalianOlive really mean to suggest that only those who engage in war may make war their subject? Does s/he mean to deny that the poem's narrator experienced feelings in response to the TV's march of young faces of the newly dead, and dead ostensibly in the service of those at home? And to assert that those at home do not experience a corrosion of communal and individual spirit when the cause for which their young are fighting and dying seems to them unworthy? Thank goodness we have the poems of Wilfred Owens and, more recently, Brian Turner, which give voice to the experience of combat and the primal feelings it engenders. The experience of war, however, is multifarious, and no corner of that experience can be off limits to the poet.

Posted by: gregmcbride | March 22, 2010 11:51 AM | Report abuse

I agree with ItalianOlive.We shouldn't judge a poem merely by whether we agree or disagree with its theme. This poem employs cliched ideas, awkward images, and pandering sentiment.

Posted by: maryannlech | March 22, 2010 11:55 AM | Report abuse

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