14 November 2010

Simplify me when I'm dead...

The poet Keith Douglas died during the invasion of Normandy on the 9th of June, 1944. He was only 24. On this Remembrance Sunday, I wanted to quote from a couple of pieces of his. You may not have read them before. Compared to the poets of the First War, Owen or Sassoon, it is my impression that Douglas' work is rather less well known. Two selections, then, the second considering remembrance and what is lost when the lights of consciousness flicker out - and what is left behind in the memory, with its ambivalent, shrinking recollection.  The poem strikes me as fundamentally a friend of remembrance, however sketchily it may  be able to recall the subjectivity of each person who has come to dust in war or who dies in peace. It is also a friend to life's individual detail and history, behind anonymity, lost. The "minute men" recalled, attenuated, through the shrinking lens of memory nevertheless keep up an insistent refrain: remember me when I am dead. Firstly, however, I wanted to quote Douglas' chilling exegesis of combat, in a section from How to Kill:

Now in my dial of glass appears
the soldier who is going to die.
He smiles, and moves about in ways
his mother knows, habits of his.
The wires touch his face: I cry
Now. Death, like a familiar, hears

and look, has made a man of dust
of a man of flesh.

And secondly:

Simplify me when I'm dead
~ by Keith Douglas 

Remember me when I am dead
and simplify me when I'm dead.

As the processes of earth
strip off the colour and the skin
take the brown hair and blue eye

and leave me simpler than at birth
when hairless I came howling in
as the moon came in the cold sky.

Of my skeleton perhaps
so stripped, a learned man will say
'He was of such a type and intelligence,' no more.

Thus when in a year collapse
particular memories, you may
deduce, from the long pain I bore

the opinions I held, who was my foe
and what I left, even my appearance
but incidents will be no guide.

Time's wrong-way telescope will show
a minute man ten years hence
and by distance simplified.

Through that lens see if I seem
substance or nothing: of the world
deserving mention or charitable oblivion

not by momentary spleen
or love into decision hurled
leisurely arrive at an opinion.

Remember me when I am dead
and simplify me when I'm dead.

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