On war memorials

Tagged: Beauty / NotableAndQuotable / Politics / Religion / TheDivineMadness

Today marks 2 decades since the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center in NYC, the Pentagon in DC, and a third target that was spared because airline passengers forced a crash in Shanksville, PA. It also marks, with the recent US withdrawal from Afghanistan, at least a winding down, though possibly not a complete ending, of 20 years of war. It’s time to think about war memorials… sort of.

“Not as it was, but as it should have been”

My favorite meditation on war memorials is William E Stafford’s poem, “At the Un-National Monument along the Canadian Border” [1]:

This is the field where the battle did not happen,
where the unknown soldier did not die.
This is the field where grass joined hands,
where no monument stands,
and the only heroic thing is the sky.

Birds fly here without any sound,
unfolding their wings across the open.
No people killed – or were killed – on this ground
hallowed by neglect and an air so tame
that people celebrate it by forgetting its name.

I also cannot recommend highly enough the version John Gorka set to music [2] (and, for that matter, the rest of John Gorka’s pandemic mini-concerts on YouTube, which have been fabulous). He really captures the longing for safe spaces, peaceful places not disfigured by war. (Might have to go a long way, to some rather remote place to achieve that. I hear Lake Vostok is lovely this time of year… but that’s a different fantasy.)

Cut from similar cloth also is this Gorka song, “Let them in”. [3]

It’s based on a WWII-era sonnet by Elma Dean called “A Letter to St. Peter”. [4] She implores St. Peter, traditionally the guardian of the gates of Heaven, to admit the arriving souls of newly dead soldiers, with specific commentary as to how to heal and comfort them. It’s viscerally difficult for me to read without tears, having seen my country spend literally a generation at war, mostly pointlessly:

“Letter to St. Peter”, by Elma G Dean

Let them in, Peter, they are very tired;
Give them the couches where the angels sleep.
Let them wake whole again to new dawns fired
With sun not war. And may their peace be deep.
Remember where the broken bodies lie …
And give them things they like. Let them make noise.
God knows how young they were to have to die!

Give swing bands, not gold harps, to these our boys.
Let them love, Peter, – they have had no time –
Girls sweet as meadow wind, with flowering hair…
They should have trees and bird song, hills to climb –
The taste of summer in a ripened pear.
Tell them how they are missed. Say not to fear;
It’s going to be all right with us down here.

Gorka’s setting – with slightly revised lyrics – combines grief and regret for all the pain and death and loss, while desperately imploring divine kindness. The best summary I found of it was: “If Memorial Day needed a song, then this should be it.” Yeah, maybe Veteran’s Day, too.

Both of these anti-war songs are a bit of the divine madness to which I wish we would all aspire.


Notes & References

1: WE Stafford, “At the Un-National Monument along the Canadian Border”, The Way It Is: New & Selected Poems, 1998. Retrieved 2021-Sep-05 from the Poetry Foundation.

2: J Gorka, “Where no monument stands”, YouTube, home video made 2020-Sep-27, retrieved 2021-Sep-05. Gorka wrote the song in the 1980s.

3: J Gorka, “Let them in”, YouTube, home video made 2020-Jun-28, retrieved 2021-Sep-05.

4: EG Dean, “Letter to St. Peter”, The American Mercury 55:227 (1942-Nov), p. 592.

Written Sat 2021-Sep-11

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