The Battle of the Somme began a hundred years ago today at 7:30 a.m. The British soldiers fighting there included many who had enlisted in "Pals" regiments--those made up of football clubs, civic clubs, coworkers. Many who went to France did so in a spirit of excitement and righteousness of purpose. They would drive the Germans back and rescue France.. The reality of the battle was that 20,000 men were killed in the first minutes. Many more died charging into German machine guns which were supposed to have been destroyed by a weeklong artillery bombardment. After the Somme, any sense of optimism, of purpose, was destroyed as well. Many felt the war would go on forever.
Three days ago, while I was reading about the Somme Offensive, a student of mine stopped by, He's a veteran of fourteen years in the Army, including several combat deployments to Iraq. He's told be about battle. He's told me about some of the people he had to kill. About the friends and troops he's lost to combat or suicide. I have learned to mostly listen. So, a first draft, a fragment:
for M.A., U.S. Army
My darkness is not like yours, though it is darkness.
My father died alone in a travel trailer
a big bottle of Bombay Sapphire half drunk
in the cabinet, a note pinned above the sink
about how all his exwives were there with him
though he knew they could not be.
The operation was a simple one: insert a valve
to replace the one in his heart
that had never worked quite right.
And they put him under and he woke in another world
where daughter and son and brothers scattered everywhere
were in the same room, where the vein cut from his leg
for the double-bypass was a strike from a bandit's knife
I could not help him. The last thing he told me
"stay home and take care of yourself"
and he never knew I had outlived my own cancer and chemo.
Around me now, his tools. Tape measures with his name
circular saws. Each time I reach for a screwdriver
I wrap my hand where he had gripped
so I go out into the garage and find myself
standing there for how long I do not know
with a screwdriver in my hand
rolling the loop of my father through my head
passing him tools when I was four
hoisting air conditioners when we both were hale
remembering once again that he is dead.
This is a part of my darkness. It is not the part
where I faced death at three a.m. and realized
one day I would be an absence. But I know you, too,
have thought about something like that.
This darkness is those young ghosts
who hold us in place,
stunned converts to mortality
until we turn and face the living again.