He knew them all with their white and braceleted arms.
Knew them once, in the days before,
When women could come and go
Talking of Michelangelo.
He could not dare to eat a peach
(She’s a peach of a girl his mates would say,
But Prufrock was not made that way.)
Today and today are different.
It’s always today, tomorrow never comes
There’s never any jam or even marmalade
And the endless cups of tea are not
In delicate china with saucers so thin
A newspaper could be read through them.
There are bones, though, not to make china,
Not to make peace
There’s no more music from distant rooms
Only booming and flashing guns.
Syncopated like the ragtime from a music hall
(He knows the faces, saw them on his walks
Through the city where he stalked
Experiences and saw the men draw their pipes)
There are no bracelets now.
The white is not the living white of arms,
But the dead white of bones, of bleached coifs,
Of Sisters caring for all the men
Mothers-in-waiting, never to bear their children,
Nursing the men around him.
Officer, they say. Fit from walks,
Classed with the best by accent and study.
An easy billet, counting out the number of uniforms,
The tins of bully beef, the cups and the tea,
All counted by he who counted and remembered
The women who come and go
And he keeps counting. He’s not Prince Hamlet,
He’s more an ancient Roman than a Dane,
A scholar who watches from the back as the play
Is the thing played out before him.
This stage is all the world, a dug-in wooden O,
Where the men pop up to be caught
On the wire
Or by fire
Stopping every bullet with a khaki shirt.
Here, even here, there’s yellow smoke,
No panes will keep it out,
All pains will come when it burns the lungs,
Sears the skin, sinking,
a snake slithering up their rolled puttees
to kill all where they stand.
And he’s counting them now,
The dead, and the bullets to make more dead
(But they’re the enemy, we have to fight
Somewhere there must be some light.
“Put out that lucifer
Do you want to…”
The rest is silenced.)
He counts the shells
Sends them out efficiently --
Commenting quietly as the colonel decants
Whiskey in his tea –
Shaken by the standing dead
All of whom must be counted again.
In the village, they come and go
Marching puts up quite a show
And the women will wrap their arms,
Braceleted with rags for warmth,
Around anyone with bully beef or a tin of fruit.
(Picardy is lovely this time of year.
See the Ardennes. Visit Spa.
Get passionate in Passchendaele.
The mademoiselle from Armentieres
Was shot in her bed.
Once there was time
So much time
Time to grow old
(a time to be born,
but all around is a time to die)
There’s time to entrench, and time to eat rats
And time is never enough to stay
in a quiet cafe
to measure a life in coffee spoons.
Coffee is rationed. The spoons melted for ordnance.
Quartermaster. Accountant. Counting the dead
(and the bullets that killed them,
The shells for the howitzers,
The gasoline for the airplanes
An ace of aces counting every item,
Trying not to see a face with every canteen returned
Because it can no longer hold water.)
Let us go you and I and walk the grounds
Here the air is fresh, and my little room is in the basement,
Guarding the provisions, safe from trench fever
The mice aren’t so bad, breaking their teeth on tins.
Though sometimes I feel pinned against a wall
Wriggling with doubt because men around me are dying.
A captain is killed. He’s next in line.
For promotion, for death.
How do they differ?
The major takes him aside
And tells him pissing on a handkerchief
Works better than a mask for Chlorine gas.
The gas is odorless now. Sulfur and mustard
And nothing will stop it from burning.
He orders the men to do as they must
Go over the top
Go under the wire
Go into the rat-tat of machine gun fire.
Nothing is as bad as the burning,
Not even watching them burn.
He visits the men in the field hospital;
Recognizes the nurses, the VADs,
Not by name, but by type.
And late at night, as he lies in a cot
Beside the men he ordered to their deaths
To the men that lived through the inferno
And who will take their words out of Hades
He hears the nurses come and go
Talking of Michelangelo
The world antebellum springs before him
A world where he counted
The money his clients wanted to invest
The jewelry they wanted to insure
The sweets and the ices everyone ate
While music played in distant rooms
Covering the murmur of well-bred voices.
He’s counted the wounded,
Counted their wounds
Counted the medals
And the letters he’ll write to their families.
A step up for him, Major Prufrock,
Asked to join King Albert and the Americans
For one. last. push.
First there’s time for coffee,
For writing to a home he no longer knows,
For speaking softly to one whose arms he once knew
For smiling and taking her hand.
He counts them.
Two days away from death
(Two days and it’s always today,
There’s no future in it.)
They walk through the garden
Older in experience than years
She’s the temptation and the tempted.
What does it matter how he parts his hair?
The bottoms of his trousers are rolled –
It helps prevent lice, so they say.
There’s a tree in the garden.
There always is.
(And a little bit of Adam in every man.)
Autumn will come
Even if it’s always today.
On the tree, there’s one last peach --
Spared from the insects by the lateness of the season.
They reach for it together,
But she bites first.
He takes his bite from the same spot
Juice dripping down his chin --
A moment of peace is always a win –
One ghostly whisper of a smile,
A memory of a shared past,
And in that moment…