My title alludes to an essay titled “Paris, the Capital of the 19th Century” by Walter Benjamin, a German-Jewish writer well-known to those who have studied literature, history, or the arts in grad school, if not so famous among the masses. Benjamin’s thesis was that Paris, through its up-to-the-minute confluence of architecture, city design, affinity for new modes of artistic reproduction, and rampant indulgence of consumer capitalism, was the “it” city of the nineteenth century. The most modern, the most happening, the most vital, the first home of all things new and exciting.
Walter Benjamin, war author? Benjamin, a Jew, committed suicide in 1940 when his effort to flee Nazi Germany was stymied.
Today, my local paper ran a story about how even Paris, along with many other cities, strives to capture the spirit of Brooklyn, the New York City borough that currently crackles with artistic and entrepreneurial creative energy. From my perch 50 miles north, I’ve been fortunate enough the last couple of years to make many forays into Brooklyn-land and drink deep of its magical mystical mojo. It’s hard not to get excited about what one discovers or become eager to seek the approval of its brave, bold, tough, and talented residents. Along with almost everything else in every other domain of life that seems worth paying attention to, Brooklyn sets the tone and pace of the contemporary war writing scene, too, with veteran and interested non-veteran authors by the dozens tapping into Brooklyn’s vitality in hopes of infusing their writing with urgency and relevance. Phil Klay, Matt Gallagher, and Roy Scranton, for examples, come immediately to mind as Brooklyn-based war authors who preside over not just the local, but national war lit scene by modeling excellence with their own work and exuding a generous spirit of encouragement to other war writers and readers.
On Veterans Day, I was invited by the war writers collective Words After War to moderate a group reading by up-and-coming war authors at the Old Stone House in Brooklyn. The Old Stone House, an historical site associated with the Revolutionary War Battle of Brooklyn, has for several years co-sponsored a Vets Day reading with an organization called Brooklyn Reading Works. The concept this year was for contemporary war writers to read selections from World War I authors in homage to the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the Great War. I liked the idea immediately—I’ve got plenty to say about the links between contemporary war writing and the WWI war writing tradition of Owen, Sassoon, and Hemingway, and I was eager to see which authors attracted the attention of other contemporary vets.
I’ll save the analysis for another column, however, and will, regrettably, for now shortchange attention to my fellow readers in this post. Below are my remarks and selections, for what they are worth. Thank you Words After War, the Old Stone House, Brooklyn Reading Works, and vet-authors Eric Nelson, Mariette Kalinowski, Lisbeth Prifogle, Jacob Sotak, Vic Zlatanovic, Nate Bethea, and Adrian Bonenberger. Most of the authors named are already in print and online, and all are working on projects that will make us pay even closer attention in the future.
“I’m honored to be here today to moderate Veterans Day: Writing War Fiction and Memoir as a guest of The Old Stone House, Brooklyn Reading Works, and Words after War. Tonight marks at least the third, or maybe even more, year in a row that Veterans Day has been commemorated with a literary event in this historic location. The format for this year’s event was conceived by Words After War executive director Brandon Willitts, who noted that 2014 was the 100th anniversary of the beginning of World War I, a war notable for the quality of the literature produced by those who fought it. Brandon’s idea was to have veterans of our contemporary post-9/11 wars who are active authors of fiction, poetry, memoir, essay, and nonfiction pay homage to the warrior-authors of the Great War, and in so doing render tribute to all those who have served our nation in its armed forces.
“I want to consider the particularly Brooklyn aspects of our endeavor here tonight. Brooklyn today is known for its hospitality to creative individuals—authors, artists, and musicians. But we might also remember its even stronger tradition of sending its sons and now its daughters to defend the nation and fight its wars. I couldn’t find exact numbers of Brooklynites who fought in World War I, but surely they were substantial, as New York state provided by far the greatest number of soldiers to the overseas army that fought in Europe. You can search online the names of those New York residents who died in World War I, and it shouldn’t surprise anyone that the first name, Boatswain Mate First Class Aksel Aanensen, and darn near the last, Private First Class Samuel Zuckerman, were from Brooklyn. We can also learn that a woman from Brooklyn, Daisy Kirkterp, a nurse, is memorialized for giving her life during World War I.
“Veterans Day is not Memorial Day, but those who gave their life in combat are a special subset of those whom we honor on Veterans Day, so let’s render tribute to Brooklyn residents who have died in Iraq and Afghanistan, such as Captain John McKenna, USMC (Iraq, 2007), and Army Specialist Deon Taylor (Afghanistan, 2008). We want above all to be sure that those who die in combat do not die in vain, and the families of Captain McKenna and Specialist Taylor should take great comfort in, among other things, their beloved lost ones are remembered in the proud, tough, caring community from which they came.”
“Wallace Stevens is not usually thought of as a World War I poet, but the great American modernist appeared in print as early as 1914 with a poem, called “Phases,” that directly engaged the war. Shortly after the war ended, he wrote “Lettres d’un Soldat,” a passage from which I will now read. It is like no other Wallace Stevens poem or no other war poem that I’ve ever read, which makes it very cool indeed.”
John Smith and his son John Smith,
And his son’s son John, and-a-one
Lean John, and son, lean John,
And his lean son’s John, and-a-one
Rich John, and son, rich John,
And his rich son’s John, and-a-one
Wise John, and son, wise John,
And his wise son’s John, and-a-one
And-a-fee and-a-fee and-a-fee
Voila la vie, la vie, la vie
“I will close by reading a poem by a poet who was not a Brooklynite, but who fought and died in the Fighting 69th Infantry, a legendary New York City unit. Sergeant Joyce Kilmer, the author of the famous poem “Trees,” and the namesake for Brooklyn’s Joyce Kilmer Square, wrote “Rouge Bouquet” just before his death in France in 1918. The poem, which is about the deaths of his fellow soldiers by artillery barrage in a French forest named Rouge Bouquet, is very much of its time not just in regard to its depictions of the horror of war, but in regard to its notions of duty, courage, and honor. We have more complicated notions about these values than did those who fought World War I, in part because of the test-by-fire the values were subjected to in the Great War. But let’s end with a poem that unabashedly renders the old virtues in the old ways, because the sentiments, despite how many times the world has turned since, can still stir us today.”
In a wood they call the Rouge Bouquet
There is a new-made grave to-day,
Built by never a spade nor picK
Yet covered with earth ten meters thick.
There lie many fighting men,
Dead in their youthful prime,
Never to laugh nor love again
Nor taste the Summertime.
For Death came flying through the air
And stopped his flight at the dugout stair,
Touched his prey and left them there,
Clay to clay.
He hid their bodies stealthily
In the soil of the land they fought to free
And fled away.
Now over the grave abrupt and clear
Three volleys ring;
And perhaps their brave young spirits hear
The bugle sing:
‘Go to sleep!
Go to sleep!’
Slumber well where the shell screamed and fell.
Let your rifles rest on the muddy floor,
You will not need them any more.
Now at last,
‘Go to sleep!’
There is on earth no worthier grave
To hold the bodies of the brave
Than this place of pain and pride
Where they nobly fought and nobly died.
Never fear but in the skies
Saints and angels stand
Smiling with their holy eyes
On this new-come band….
And up to Heaven’s doorway floats,
From the wood called Rouge Bouquet
A delicate cloud of bugle notes
That softly say:
Comrades true, born anew, peace to you!
Your souls shall be where the heroes are
And your memory shine like the morning-star.
Brave and dear,
Shield us here.
Nate Bethea, Eric Nelson, Adrian Bonenberger, Brandon Willitts, Mariette Kalinowski, Vic Zlatanovic, Lisbeth Prifogle, me, Jacob Sotak
Thanks to Melissa Parrish, Iraq US Army vet, for turning me on to Wallace Stevens’ “Lettres d’un Soldat,” and in particular the great “John Smith and son John Smith” passage.