“An epigraph is an effective literary tool that some writers utilize to focus the reader toward the theme, purpose, or concerns behind the work. It is included at the beginning of the piece of literature to offer insight into the motivation behind the artist’s vision. Generally a brief quotation taken from another piece of literature, the epigraph is oftentimes not a direct commentary upon the work but used to establish a mindset or offer insight into the factors that contributed to the manifestation of the work.”
-University of Michigan English 217 student website
Epigraphs are curious. First of all, I have trouble remembering the word and often confuse it with “epigram” and “epitaph.” Second, if I bother to read an epigraph before starting a book, I rarely remember it while reading the narrative proper. If an epigraph is too long, I mostly just let my eyes glaze over it. This is unusual, because epigraphs clearly have an important relation to the story that follows, and authors obviously go to some care to choose them and place them in front of us for consideration. But lots of books don’t have epigraphs. I recently pulled the Iraq and Afghanistan war fiction and poetry I own off the shelf and checked them for epigraphs. Most of the fiction employs epigraphs, but not all of it. Ben Fountain’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, Phil Klay’s Redeployment, Atticus Lish’s Preparation for the Next Life, Matthew Hefti’s A Hard and Heavy Thing, and Hassan Blasim’s The Corpse Exhibition are five that don’t, for instance. As if to make up for the books that don’t feature epigraphs, some authors provide two. Overall, reading a number of epigraphs in this way–very quickly, back-to-back–was enjoyable. The epigraphs definitely brought back strong memories of the book to which they were attached and together they created a thick literary web of intertextual references and signals. They made me think that epigraphs might be better read after reading the main text, not before.
Of the fiction that does include epigraphs, the most frequent source for them are the Greek classics. Many works, from Siobhan Fallon’s You Know When the Men Are Gone, published in 2011, to Brian Van Reet’s Spoils, published last year, quote Homer, Socrates, Aeschylus, or another writer from antiquity. Of the non-Greeks, many are from American and English canonical authors, some known as war-writers and some not. W.H. Auden provides epigraphs for Lea Carpenter’s Eleven Days and Helen Benedict’s Wolf Season. Stephen Crane is quoted by both David Abrams in Fobbit and by Matt Gallagher in Youngblood. The rest are from here-and-there, ranging in surprising exoticness from Sir Thomas Browne, used by Kevin Powers’ The Yellow Birds, to Jean Baudrillard, quoted by Odie Lindsey in We Come to Our Senses. Not to play favorites, but the one that jumped out at me as being both unexpected and particularly apt for the story the author tells is Jesse Goolsby’s use of Whitman for I’d Walk With My Friends If I Knew Where to Find Them. Whitman’s insistence on the procreative urge of the world seems very near to the American-flavored cosmic force Goolsby suggests shapes the lives of his protagonists, not in a crude sexual way, but in terms of existential yearning only half-understood.
For some reason, not as many volumes of contemporary poetry employ epigraphs. Hugh Martin’s The Stick Soldiers quotes Crane, so that’s three for the author of The Red Badge of Courage. Jehanne Dubrow’s Dots & Dashes includes an epigraph, but her Stateside doesn’t. Nor do Brian Turner’s Here, Bullet and Phantom Noise, Elyse Fenton’s Clamor and Sweet Insurgent, Colin Halloran’s Shortly Thereafter and Icarian Flux, Eric Chandler’s Hugging This Rock, and Charlie Sherpa’s Welcome to FOB Haiku, to name a few more.
I haven’t surveyed the dozens of memoirs I’ve read for epigraphs, but do note their presence in two of the more literary-minded of them, Benjamin Busch’s Dust to Dust (the epigraph quotes his father, the novelist Frederick Busch, who is also referenced by David Abrams in Fobbit) and Brian Turner’s My Life as a Foreign Country, which draws from the Italian poet Eugenio Montale.
Retire the Colors, an excellent anthology of war-themed essays by veterans and non-veterans edited by Dario DiBattista, uses a quote from Jennifer Percy’s Demon Camp for an epigraph, which is the only case I know of a contemporary war work quoting another. On the hunt, I tracked down Demon Camp to see what the always-interesting Percy might have used for an epigraph. I found two, one by Kierkegaard and the other by one of my favorite authors, James Salter, from a book I just finished reading and loved, his memoir Burning the Days. That was cool.
Fobbit, David Abrams (2012)
Wars are nothing, in the end, but stories.
-Frederick Busch, The Night Inspector
In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.
-J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit
Brave Deeds, David Abrams (2017)
“Tell brave deeds of war.”
Then they recounted tales,—
“There were stern stands
And better runs for glory.”
Ah, I think there were braver
-Stephen Crane, The Black Riders and Other Lines
Green on Blue, Elliot Ackerman (2015)
Allah’s Apostle said, “War is deceit.”
-Iman Al-Bukhari, 846 AD
The Corpse Washer, Sinan Antoon (2013)
In both gardens are fruit, palm trees, and pomegranates
Sand Queen, Helen Benedict (2011)
For sweetest things turn sourest by their deeds;
Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds.
-Shakespeare, “Sonnet 94”
Wolf Season, Helen Benedict (2017)
Behind each sociable home-loving eye
The private massacres are taking place…
-W.H. Auden, “In a Time of War,” 1939
Mothers have been stolen from their own tears.
-Kareem Shugaidil, “Flour Below Zero,” 2005
A Big Enough Lie, Eric Bennet (2015)
I thought about Tolstoy and about what a great advantage an experience of war was to a writer. It was one of the major subjects and certainly one of the hardest to write truly of, and those writers who had not seen it were always very jealous and tried to make it seem unimportant, or abnormal, or a disease as a subject, while, really it was just something quite irreplaceable that they had missed.
-Ernest Hemingway, Green Hills of Africa
mundus vult decripi ergo decipiatur [the world wants to be deceived, so let it be deceived]
The Watch, Joydeep-Roy Bhattacharya (2012)
I know that I must die,
E’en hadst thou not proclaimed it; and if death
Is thereby hastened, I shall count it gain.
For death is gain to him whose life, like mine,
Is full of misery. Thus my lot appears
Not sad, but blissful; for had I endured
To leave my mother’s son unburied there,
I should have grieved with reason, but not now.
Eleven Days, Lea Carpenter (2013)
She looked over his shoulder
For vines and olive trees,
Marble well-governed cities
And ships upon untamed seas,
But there on the shining metal
His hands had put instead
An artificial wilderness
And a sky like lead
-W.H. Auden, “The Shield of Achilles”
You Know When the Men Are Gone, Siobhan Fallon (2011)
She turned to descend the stair, her heart
in tumult. Had she better keep her distance
and question him, her husband? Should she run
up to him, take his hands, kiss him now?
…And she, for a long time, sat deathly still
in wonderment—for sometimes as she gazed
she found him—yes, clearly—like her husband,
but sometimes blood and rags were all she saw.
-Penelope upon recognizing Odysseus, The Odyssey
Youngblood, Matt Gallagher (2016)
In the desert
I saw a creature, naked, bestial,
Who, squatting upon the ground,
Held his heart in his hands,
And ate of it.
I said, “Is it good, friend?”
“It is bitter—bitter,” he answered;
“But I like it
“Because it is bitter,
“And because it is my heart.”
I’d Walk With My Friends If I Could Find Them, Jesse Goolsby (2015)
There was never any more inception than there is now,
Nor any more youth or age than there is now,
And will never be any more perfection than there is now
Nor any more heaven or hell than there is now.
Urge and urge and urge,
Always the procreant urge of the world.
-Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself”
Wynne’s War, Aaron Gwyn (2014)
He spoke of his campaigns in the deserts of Mexico and he told them of horses killed under him and he said that the souls of horses mirror the souls of men more closely than men suppose and that horses also love war. Men say they only learn this but he said that no creature can learn that which his heart has no shpe to hold. His own father said that no man who has not to war horseback can ever truly understand the horse and he said that supposed he wished that this were not so but that it was so.
-Cormac McCarthy, All the Pretty Horses
What Changes Everything, Masha Hamilton (2013)
You don’t need a war.
You don’t need to go anywhere.
It’s a myth: if you hurl
Yourself at chaos
Chaos will catch you.
Beirut. Bagdad. Sarajevo.
Bethlehem. Kabul. Not of
Be Safe, I Love You, Cara Hoffman (2014)
Even from ten or fifteen miles away you get a good view of a burning village. It was a merry sight. A tiny hamlet that you wouldn’t even notice in the daytime, with ugly, uninteresting country around it, you can’t imagine how impressive it can be when it’s on fire at night! You’d think it was Notre-Dame! A village, even a small one, takes at least all night to burn, in the end it looks like an enormous flower, then there’s only a bud, after that nothing.
-Louis-Ferdinand Celine, Journey to the End of the Night
We Come to Our Senses, Odie Lindsey (2016)
But, ultimately, what have you got against aphrodisiacs?
-J. Baudrillard, The Gulf War Did Not Take Place
Bring Out the Dog, Will Mackin (2018)
We saw victory and defeat
and they were both wonderful.
-Barry Hannah, “Midnight and I’m Not Famous Yet”
These Heroic, Happy Dead, Luke Mogelson (2016)
…why talk of beauty what could be more beaut-
iful than these heroic happy dead
who rushed like lions to the roaring slaughter
they did not stop to think they died instead…
-e.e. cummings, “next to of course god america i”
The Yellow Birds, Kevin Powers (2012)
A yellow bird
With a yellow bill
Was perched upon
I lured him in
With a piece of bread
And then I smashed
His fucking head…
-Traditional U.S. Army Marching Cadence
To be ignorant of evils to come, and forgetful of evils past, is a merciful provision in nature, whereby we digest the mixture of our few and evil dayes, and our delivered senses not relapsing into cutting remembrances, our sorrows are not kept raw by the edge of repetitions.
-Sir Thomas Browne
War of the Encyclopaedists, Christopher Robinson and Gavin Kovite (2015)
Nor do we doubt that many things have escaped us also,
for we are but human, and beset with duties…
-Pliny the Elder, the Original Encyclopaedist
Sparta, Roxana Robinson (2013)
The man who does not wear the armour of the lie cannot
Experience force without being touched by it to the very soul.
-Simone Weil, The Iliad, or, the Poem of Force
War Porn, Roy Scranton (2016)
Soldier, there is a war between the mind
And sky, between thought and day and night.
Spoils, Brian Van Reet (2017)
Low lie the shattered towers whereas they fell,
And I—ah burning heart!—shall soon lie low as well.
Dots & Dashes, Jehanne Dubrow (2017)
War feels to me an oblique place
the dear sound of your footstep
and light dancing in your eyes
would move me more than glitter
of Lydian horse or armored
tread of mainland infantry
The Stick Soldiers, Hugh Martin (2013)
He could not accept with assurance an omen that he was about to mingle in one of those great affairs of the earth.
Dust to Dust, Benjamin Busch (2012)
Stories are … in a sense, about ending and about endings, and of course they are also the heartfelt prayer, the valiant promise, that what we have loved might live forever.
-Frederick Busch, “Deaths”
My Life as a Foreign Country, Brian Turner (2014)
Too many lives go into the making of just one.
Retire the Colors: Veterans and Civilians on Iraq and Afghanistan, edited by Dario DiBattista (2016)
“They spent millions training me but they never taught me to come home.”
-Army Sergeant Caleb Joseph from Demon Camp by Jennifer Percy
Demon Camp: A Soldier’s Exorcism, Jennifer Percy (2014)
To understand original sin is to understand Adam, which is to understand that one is an individual and one is also part of the whole race.
-Kierkegaard, The Concept of the Dead
Dreams remained. For years afterwards in nightmares stark as archive footage. I was what I had been.
-James Salter, Burning the Days