Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Blood Garden. An Elegy for Raymond — Reviewed by Jane Mattisson Ekstam

Blood Garden. An Elegy for Raymond
by Pam Bernard
Published by Turning Point, 2010

The 58 poems published in Blood Garden comprise an elegy for one of the first Americans to enter World War One. Raymond, who is referred to by his Christian name only, was part of the American Expeditionary Forces that arrived in France in the early fall of 1917. As Pam Bernard observes in her introduction, Raymond, who was her father, was already a "veteran", having served in the military in Mexico in 1916. When he landed in France, he was, however, only 17 years old. Both Raymond and America start a journey in 1917 that takes them from innocence to violence. Pam Bernard declares that the aim of her volume is to address the consequences of the war, "and, . . . in the process, all war."

Bernard's volume is divided into four sections: "Stone Boat", "Blood Garden", "Grim Trade", and "Foxfire". Juxtaposed against the poems about the war itself are shorter poems that reflect on Raymond's earlier life in New England. "Stone Boat" opens with poems about Raymond's training, focusing on how the soldiers were "ankle-deep in mud", and the exhaustion and the fear: And here he is/just seventeen, a man-sized terror in his throat. No-man's-land is described as "pocked, diseased, ripe with rot" (the alliteration here is particularly effective). The descriptions of the gaps between battles are very evocative as they contrast nature with the horrors of man-made weapons:

     In the intermittent lull, [Raymond] can hear,
     amid black clouds of swarming flies,
     the high-pitched squealing of well-fed
     rats. And, sublime absurdity —
     the altogether beautiful song of a lark.

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Blood Garden also portrays the "mind-rotting boredom" of sitting in the trenches and how this was interspersed with gruesome sights such as the jerking of a headless corpse that is illuminated by a star shell.

The section called "Grim Trade" contains interesting insights into the German perspective on the war, including the German soldier's dream of marching on Paris. This is contrasted with the horrors of Gallipoli, where neither side had been prepared for the climbing through thick scrub and the horror of being separated from one's fellow soldiers. The section emphasizes that there are no explanations for the war irrespective of which side one is on or where one is fighting. The tone of this section is harsh and condemning:

     No one can fathom the experience
     at the front, where wastage means casualties,
     and Third Ypres is called a battle, when
     surely it was a crime.

The narrator continues:

     The philosophers are in hiding
     promulgating deicide. Psychoanalysts
     debate the next paradigm.
     Science is the new logos.

As the poem continues to describe the horrors of war, these are juxtaposed against Raymond's earlier life as he walked the hills along the big river/waiting for geese to trumpet their return.

American Troops Deployed in Trenches, Winter 1917/18

In the section called "Foxfire" the narrator describes the unknown soldier, the product of the participating nations' need "to invent a tribute: an unknown to stand in for their loss." The tone is ironic — no one soldier can bear "the weight of all that dying." The penultimate poem returns to the theme of exhaustion explored in the first section, "Stone Boat". Raymond dreams of his earlier life, his mother, the river, and beautiful sunsets. The dream is abruptly broken as bayonets are fixed and Raymond smells the stench of death. The final poem depicts Raymond back in New England. It is October 1918. He has changed so much that not even his mother recognizes him.

While the collection of poems leaves the fate of Raymond open, it is very precise in its descriptions of war, carnage, and suffering. The contrasts with Raymond's former life enhance the tragedy of his experiences at the front. The quality and purpose of Pam Bernard's poems are best expressed in the poet's own words: Much beauty resides in the truth, especially when it saves us from repeating the history we choose to forget (from a letter to Roads editor Mike Hanlon, 26 June 2014). The events themselves cannot speak, but poems that describe what war does to the individual can. Blood Garden is an excellent example of how literature can help us understand what war is and means at the level we understand best, that of the individual.

Jane Mattisson Ekstam

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