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Work in Progress (2)

by James Graham 

Posted: 26 March 2011
Word Count: 191

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Last Words

My name is Judoc.
Summer has been good.
My kail is tall and healthy.
My father cannot walk now
or remember yesterday.

Last week my old horse
stumbled and is lame.
I have borrowed a mule
from my cousin Maël.

The Romans are coming.

I am Abdul Rahman.
Sunlight on the lake
dazzled me yesterday.
The vines are green.

Last week the marriage
of our elder daughter
has been arranged.
We pray, Inshallah,
for joy and a grandchild.

The Christians are coming.

My name is Jaroslaw.
I need to find
a special teacher
for my son Dawid.
He is autistic.

Last week a stray cat,
tiger-striped and fearful,
came to our kitchen.
We have let it stay.

The Germans are coming.

I am Corporal Lewis.
Last week I shot
a woman and her baby.
I made one decision.
I shot the woman first.

I am guilty
of obedience.

At base I’ve seen
a Fuck the Army show
but it’s not the army.
It was Nixon. Nixon
killed those poor folks.

It was the big shot-callers.
Fuck Kissinger. Fuck Nixon.
There’s mutiny now. Soon,

soon, the soldiers will be leaving.

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Comments by other Members

James Graham at 15:21 on 26 March 2011  Report this post
How about this - a poem that’s not finished, and may or may not turn out to be much good. Critical comments welcome. (‘I love this poem’ and suchlike won’t do. Not very likely anyway! )

The idea was to offer glimpses of ordinary people’s lives at different times in history - times when invading armies, sent by some of history’s bandits and psychopaths, were due to arrive and people were going to be slaughtered or forced to flee. In each section I tried to include two things: something about the people’s lives generally, plus something incidental - ‘Last week...’ - that just happens to have happened at that time.

There might be much better ideas than the ones I’ve got so far, e.g. for those incidental happenings, which have to be as immediate as possible, surprising yet timeless so that we can relate to them. Different moments in history might be chosen. Maybe only one moment in history should occupy the whole poem, so that one family’s situation can be brought to life at greater length.

It’s unfinished also because there’s something else I wish I could work into the poem. It’s the fact that the soldiers are not to blame. The ‘Romans’ for example weren’t Romans at all, but poor bloody infantry dragooned into service mostly from Celtic or Hispanic peoples. I wish I could find a way to make it clear that the murderers are not the ordinary men but the big shot-callers, mostly megalomaniac men on ginormous ego-trips. (E.g. Caesar, Hitler.) Any ideas on how that could fit into the poem, or should it be the subject of another poem?

I think I’ve got the names right - Armorican (Breton) in the first section, then Arab (Lebanon/ Palestine) and Polish. The ‘Christians’ are crusaders.

You probably have enough to do working on your own poems without working on mine too. But if you’ve time, I’d welcome your input.


firethorne at 20:43 on 26 March 2011  Report this post

Hi James,

I'm studying the poetry in this group and waiting until a time I feel I might want to try to write one of my own. I do learn rapidly and grasp principles quickly. I also process and cross reference facts and historical data at a relatively fast rate.

What I have found I like about the poetry in this group is it's a kind of like a pre-coursed set of links in the readers mind, nexus that give rise to understanding and feeling things that would otherwise take a much longer route to get , and a great deal more time to achieve , if I or anyone else had the inspiration to even think about the subject matter at this level .It's almost like a blast of meaning , and probably the nearest thing we have to telepathy at the moment. I don't think most general readers really appreciate what poetry is in this respect, and what a gift poets offer them. So thank you for that.

What strikes me here is, we have three distinct periods in history. The same event is happening an daily life is set against invasion or the violent, sensless destruction of a culture. You describe the everyday life and set it against this background The title suggests these are the last words of the speakers prior to this moment. ( Is that maybe a bit too definite ?)

For me ( and you're taking advice from a 'muratore', so be objective) , I think this poem is still in not at level where it hits the mark you have set for it , which is why you posed the question to us. For this to fully work in the way you I think you intended it to, then these periods of history have to link and show a underlying pattern in human experience, ie it doesn't matter what religion or culture we are , an invader or destroyer will always find a justification, and the people who are destroyed just want to live loving lives, take in the shimmering lake, find a school for a difficult child , or borrow a mule, and that is all that concerns us, and is a universal. This aspect comes through, but maybe what's bothering you is the link doesn't feel strong or rather the reader can't grasp the universal background of daily lives against the cycles of history.

Here's an interesting question , if the initial momentum of large events arise out of smaller, seemingly insignificant events, ie they are the sum total of all our actions
or inaction, then what is it in those daily things we do which brings the larger events about? How do tyrants get enthroned by people whose concerns are finding schools, borrowing mules and contemplating the sparkling water by a lake?- Is this a possible useful tension to put more energy into the poem?

I'm not sure I know the answer, but if that is one of the questions raised , then your poetic answer maybe has to examine that relationship.

It works enough as it is, but I'm wondering if there's another level that could be exposed here.

Maybe that is what you were wondering as well.

firethorne at 21:30 on 26 March 2011  Report this post




james ritchie at 13:12 on 27 March 2011  Report this post
I think Harba's suggestion adds a very interesting dynamic to what is already a fascinating idea. Most human beings are concerned with the everyday, food, shelter providing a stable environment for their children. They have no ambitions to steal the lives of others, to kill or subjugate, but have often found themselves the victims of those that do.

The problem is that the faeces of society often floats to the top and it could be argued that those who become victims are complicit in there own victimhood by not concerning themselves with the affairs of those they have allowed to take control.
Someone said that 'the meek will inherit the earth', well I don't see much sign of that just yet and if the innocents continue to allow the brown stools to rise to the top of the pool then they will be forever victims.

This could be a great piece.



V`yonne at 20:51 on 27 March 2011  Report this post
I like what there is James but it does feel unfinished - there's something more - something that goes slam dunk into the soul but it's not here yet. Troble is the form doesn't seem very sustainable over much more length than you have here so whatever it is it has to be said sooner than later - Just my two penneth.

FelixBenson at 10:58 on 28 March 2011  Report this post
Hi James,

The nature of this poem is fragmentary, but I agree with what has already been said by you and others, there is not quite enough to it yet. I liked the incidental happenings that you included. They seemed like omens though. At least the images that are less positive. The lame horse, the dazzled eyes and the fearful cat. Maybe it is my inclination to look on the dark side, but once I got the rhythm of the poem, and knew that some troops would be coming soon to destroy the life that had just been described, I returned to re-read and focus on the lame horse / dazzled eyes / fearful cat as images. All of which seemed to work for me as omens of what was to come, or their own troubles. So there was symmetry there. There is good and bad in their lives, and that is true, but still the lives seem too simply told somehow. Maybe the complexity or further layers could come through this idea of the soldiers. The point you want to make about the soldiers not being the real bad guys is a good one, so presumably they had last words too...? Before the men come who conscript them. There might be some mileage in this, possibly? it might give another point of view, which give the poem more surprise. Through their last words there might be some reflection on the megalomaniac men in charge...This could get a bit like a Russian Doll. You could give the last words of the guys that come to conscript too.

Not sure any of that is much help. But I look forward to revisions and ongoing discussion about this.


James Graham at 11:58 on 28 March 2011  Report this post
Firethorne, thank you for posting such a considered response. Yes, I feel the poem needs to work on another level - somehow to point to the idea you bring up, how ‘the sum total of all our actions or inaction’ affects major events, especially war and oppression; and/ or my idea of trying to show that ordinary soldiers, even if they kill masses of innocent people, bear less blame than the powerful instigators such as the crusading princes or Hitler.

I don’t think this poem can carry all that baggage. Everything points to a series of poems, each working with an aspect of the whole subject. Of course, it could also be a subject for a prose essay, but if it’s to be poetry it has to be ‘concretized’ - you have to zoom in on people feeding a stray cat.

I’m very interested in your ideas about cause and effect between the ‘daily things we do’ and large events. Is the perennial emergence of violent and cruel men of power something innate in homo sapiens? Is it simply that the vast majority who are not power-seekers are usually passive enough to allow ‘alpha males’ to do what they do? What happens when people are no longer passive and rise up in revolt? Either they’re defeated and punished, or if they succeed another oppressor (e.g. Stalin) rises to the top.

We need the means to ensure that men like Mugabe, Saddam, Blair and Bush (yes, mention them all in the same breath! ) cannot cross certain lines. An enforceable international law that could really nail them, and at the same time make sure other leaders governed in in a civilised manner. But who could guarantee all this?

I’m glad you’re impressed by the poetry you’ve read in this group. I hope it won’t be long until you join us.


I'll reply to everyone else soon. Burning the candle at both ends these days... :-)

nickb at 21:48 on 29 March 2011  Report this post
James, for some reason it kept reminding me of Brecht, it has that sense of foreboding. Actually there's a great play by Max Frisch called "Andorra" which is all about invasion and persecution, and your poem sets the same tone. It seems odd relating this to plays but it seems to me to be very theatrical - I can imagine each segment being performed as part of something bigger.

I'm not sure if such a wide historical sweep works in this form though. I think I agree with you that each section could be expanded and made to stand on its own. This might allow you to pull in some of the other ideas and complexities that are bursting out of what you have already.


James Graham at 19:28 on 30 March 2011  Report this post
Kirsty, your idea about the soldiers' 'last words' appeals to me very much. Thank you for that. It hadn't occurred to me. I'm now thinking along the lines of their thoughts at a time when there's a revolt or mutiny during combat. Russian soldiers in 1917 walked away in their thousands from the front line; some hijacked trains to take them home. GIs towards the end of the Vietnam war mutinied all over the combat zone; I have a book somewhere about that. Some of these soldiers understood their situation very well, not only the shortcomings of their officers but the wider context of the war.

There's material here for an additional section to be added to this poem. Up to now I was thinking anything else that needed to be said would have to be said in a separate poem. Not necessarily so.


Thanks to everyone else. More replies coming up.

James Graham at 17:15 on 31 March 2011  Report this post
Thanks to all for your helpful comments, and I'm sorry I haven't replied to everyone individually. They all added up to something - to this revision. I'm very unsure about it, having written it more or less spontaneously in the last hour. Does it move the poem forward at all?



Fuck the Army was a satirical show featuring Jane Fonda and others. It made a small contribution to the anti-Vietnam War movement, and to the widespread mutinies which took place in the last year of the war.

FelixBenson at 10:51 on 01 April 2011  Report this post
Hi James

Interesting rewrite.

This section is a surprising addition. It's direct and acknowledges a complex scene:

I am Corporal Lewis.
Last week I shot
a woman and her baby.
I made one decision.
I shot the woman first.

This part stopped me in my tracks and made me consider that reality - of the one decision he could make, and what it means. A level of humanity in this brutal situation. It gave Corporal Lewis depth.

The ending - the mutiny and the soldiers leaving, I thought that worked, giving it symmetry with the earlier sections of the poem which tell of the soldier's arrival. I hadn't heard of the 'Fuck the Army' show before, but this provides an effective bridge or link to the final passage i.e. the soldiers' realisation about who is to blame - the 'big shot-callers' and that the only end to this cycle is mutiny rather than obedience.

The only part I am not so sure of is this:

I am guilty
of ignorance.
I am guilty
of obedience.

The lines are undoubtedly true. And there needs to be some words from the soldier after the passage of about killing the woman and child, however I wondered if these statements were too bald? I know that the effect that you are aiming for is:

as immediate as possible, surprising yet timeless so that we can relate to them.

which is why the language in this poem is spare and direct. Theses lines I have highlight are consistent with that approach, but I wonder if there is enough surprise in them. Especially after the previous passage, which really does surprise. Maybe there is a more challenging way to show what Corporal Lewis acknowledges about himself?

I'm not sure about the above - these are just my first impressions. But I will re-read and see what else occurs.


V`yonne at 10:52 on 01 April 2011  Report this post
James - been busy sending out emails (you should have got one ; re EDP) This has come on. It goes somewhere new now. I like the way it begins with older wars and modernises and I rally liked the lines
I made one decision.
I shot the woman first.

because they make a crucial transition in the poem from a place where soldiers are a passivew force doing what they are forced to do by the inevitability of an imminent threat, to one instance of what could be considered a less brutal decision - not making a mother see the death of her child...showing that there are choices and then on to the eventual choice NOT to fight.
I am guilty
of obedience.

I didn't understand the reference
Fuck the Army show
but I'm not sure it matters.
I did get that each individual soldier tries desperately to justify his role
but it’s not the army.
It was Nixon. Nixon
killed those poor folks.

even though there could be no army if they didn't join up - it's cognitive dissonance writ large to say it's not the army.

I'm not sure how much of that retreat was the soldiers - rahter than world pressure and the folks at home and all those body bags but the end is really effective now.

James Graham at 19:36 on 01 April 2011  Report this post
Kirsty, I see your point about those lines. A simple solution would be to leave out ‘ignorance’ and just have

I am guilty
of obedience

which has more surprise element than the other. He is guilty of obedience to propaganda at home in the US encouraging him to enlist, as well as obedience to inhuman (not to mention contrary to international law) orders. Obedience is closer to what the poem is saying. Plus: ‘guilty of (wilful) ignorance’ isn’t a contradiction; we might reasonably accuse someone of that, so it’s not so surprising. But ‘guilty of obedience’ is more of a paradox, especially in the military context but in other contexts too.

But it may be a lazy solution and I will give more thought to what Corporal Lewis might tell himself.

The shooting of the mother and child comes from my reading about the My Lai massacre, though the soldier’s decision is, as far as I know, my own invention.

Oonah, there’s ‘cognitive dissonance’ in spades. It’s true, of course, that ‘there could be no army if they didn't join up’ but maybe that’s what this GI means when he says he’s ‘guilty of obedience’ - including obedience to the call to enlist in the first place. Maybe he shouldn’t say ‘it’s not the army’ but rather ‘it’s not the soldiers’ i.e. ultimate blame lies not with the soldiers but with political leaders. This was never more true than it is of Nixon and Kissinger; just before Nixon was elected, Lyndon Johnson had constructive peace talks going, but Nixon scuppered them.

Got your emails, thanks.


James Graham at 11:12 on 02 April 2011  Report this post
A couple of small changes - deleted

I am guilty
of ignorance

and thought of an improved last line.


clyroroberts at 14:46 on 07 April 2011  Report this post
The only thing I can add is that I get held up on the ".... are coming" lines. They seem to dislocate the stanzas somehow. Perhaps, given that each previous stanza is taken from an ordinary person's point of view, each person from a different time and culture, perhaps they could be given their own way of expressing the coming horror.

eg perhaps

(the german) - last night, thumping german guns, squealing tank wheels, louder .

that kind of thing maybe.

Then those last lines of the american soldier would be the peak of a wave.

Having said that - despite their power, these two stanzas would become extraneous, part of another, linked piece maybe. They seem to read like a separate poem to me.

At base I’ve seen
a Fuck the Army show
but it’s not the army.
It was Nixon. Nixon
killed those poor folks.

It was the big shot-callers.
Fuck Kissinger. Fuck Nixon.
There’s mutiny now. Soon,

Just some thoughts.

James R

firethorne at 20:50 on 07 April 2011  Report this post

This made me think of the term theater of war . An invading army turn up and suddenly what a culture took as generations-long stability of hills,village homes gets totally mashed up. It's all now obvious that buildings are just ( very personal) scenery. The guys that do it haven't a clue why they are doing it and the people who they are doing it to even less. when its over like a troupe of actors they move on leaving the damage behind, and plead they have had to act out some insane role with real life consequences.

"Situations defined as real are real in their consequences"- Howard Becker

"Son, this aint a dream no more it's the real thing"- Bob Dylan

Both written kind of around the time when Americans were questioning the whole militaristic nature of the the USA's role in the word . Maybe echoes and reflections of war but applicable.

To shift your poem from a historical link between cultures to examining how the process of 'acting' a role becomes a reality, and how once enacted the actor denies he believed in the real consequences shows us a good deal about the nature of human choice .However this tells me nothing that wasn't established at the Nuremburg Trial where it was established that following orders is no defence if you happen to have committed war crime. However what the poem does is spread the Nuremburg principle across history.

Frustratingly the poem still doesn't bring all themes together and make that explosive woomph of enlightenment which I think you were looking for, which links it all together.

To me, you have gone after a secondary target. The primary is still that elusive expression of the interrelated cycle of history in which the balance between the complacency of people going about everyday life ( which I believe we have an absolute right to ) and people believing they can get a way with mass murder of the complacent, because they are following the orders of madmen and psychopaths and tin-crowned dictators, maybe can not be contained in this poetic structure but only alluded to . I don't think Nixon is 'enough' to link back to all the other who go before him and come after him. Which I believe was your original goal.

To show the massive dissonance between killing a woman and her child and what remains of your human spirit that hasn't been broken out of a man in army training , then it succeeds to a point.

The primary is elusive and I suspect one of the biggies.



The primary is still that elusive expression of the interrelated cycle of history in which the balance between the complacency of people going about everyday life ( which I believe we have an absolute right to ) and people believing they can get a way with mass murder of the complacent, because they have convinced themselves are following the orders of madmen and psychopaths and tin-crowned dictators, and not their own murderous , destructive impulses which are released because they have willingly undergone a process of de-inhibition at every step of the way and they have had choices leading up to the moment the kill.

If you turn things upside down , no one is being 'ordered' to kill , it's just reassuring for them to believe they have been told to do so by someone they accept as authority, in the given situation they find themselves in . That's how nutters get people to do things en mass.

Maybe this aspect can not be contained in this specific poetic structure but only alluded to?

FelixBenson at 21:05 on 08 April 2011  Report this post
Hi James
There have been a lot of different comments and further ideas here. I'm not sure whether a further viewpoint is a help or a hindrance. I think that this poem is still evolving, but I do think it is evolving in the right direction.

I like the revision of just having

I am guilty
of obedience.

That has more impact. The last lines too - more elusive, more suggestive of the wider scope. Taking the poem up from the specifics of the Vietnam War and the soldier's mutiny, and drawing together what you are trying to say about all those conflicts.

I think there are other useful comments here, and more ideas for fine tuning but I don't think the final passage should be in a different poem. That's where the poem moves up a level.


James Graham at 11:37 on 28 April 2011  Report this post
I'm going to leave this poem aside for now. I think it has got to a stage where it's viable, but often the best thing to do is to give a poem a break and come back to it.



Thanks to all for very helpful suggestions.

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