My grandfather didn’t like to talk about the war,
but if you asked, he would share this story.
On a cold April morning just outside Monte Casino,
he walks into a field, dry stalks breaking under his feet.
His living breath makes small curling clouds of fog,
lit by the morning light for the space of a heartbeat
before vanishing on the breeze. White frost flecks
the land, and the men lying dead upon it. He pauses
before the form of a youth looking up as if perplexed
by the snowflakes falling from this clear morning sky;
or perhaps wondering why he is dead, his head haloed
by a frozen pool of black blood.
My grandfather crouches, contemplates the young face
as if it were an icon, as if it belonged to someone
he ought to know, or ought to have known, someday.
Curious, he pries a thin wallet from the young man’s
frozen fist: it is empty,
save for the photo of a smiling young woman,
and a little boy, and a little girl, laughing.
Like I said, my grandfather didn’t talk about the war,
except for this one story.
About the poem
The heart of this poem was inspired by my mother’s recollection of my grandfather telling the story of finding a fallen German soldier, and looking at the photo of his wife and children in the soldier’s wallet. The spirit of the poem is inspired by what I knew of my grandfather’s character, and reading his letters to my grandmother during the war. He was a pragmatist, not a pacifist, but the war clearly weighed heavily on him. He liked to write poetry, and I like to imagine that he tried to make sense of the war — or at least tried to process its brutality — through his poetry. His letters were upbeat and cheery — putting on a brave face for my grandmother, no doubt — but now and then he lamented the senselessness of it all. As a devout Catholic, he intuitively sensed that war was both the result of sin and itself shot through with sin.
Thinking about him as a young man crouched by the corpse of another young husband and father makes my heart ache. No young man should lie dead at the hands of other men, and no young man should have to bear witness to such a thing. There is nothing fancy or sophisticated or original in this insight, and yet for the sake of those two young men, and the victims of war around the world, we must repeat it until it becomes an universal natural habit.
The details of the poem are the embellishment of my own imagination.
Photo credit: The German cemetery at Monte Casino, by Ra Boe / Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0 de