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Reply to Victor Hugo

by  James Graham

Posted: Sunday, October 25, 2009
Word Count: 529

Bêtise de la guerre

Ouvrière sans yeux, Pénélope imbécile,
Berceuse du chaos où le néant oscille,
Guerre, ô guerre occupée au choc des escadrons,
Toute pleine du bruit furieux des clairons,
O buveuse du sang, qui, farouche, flétrie,
Hideuse, entraînes l’homme en cette ivrognerie,
Nuée où le destin se déforme, où Dieu fuit,
Où flotte une clarté plus noire que la nuit,
Folle immense, de vent et de foudres armée,
A quoi sers-tu, géante, à quoi sers-tu, fumée,
Si tes écroulements reconstruisent le mal,
Si pour le bestial tu chasses l’animal,
Si tu ne sais, dans l’ombre où ton hasard se vautre,
Défaire un empereur que pour en faire un autre ?

Victor Hugo

Prose translation from Penguin Book of French Poetry 1820-1950

Mindlessness of War

Eyeless drudge, idiot Penelope, cradle-rocker of chaos where obliteration lurches, war, O war, engaging the clash of squadrons, filled with the passionate sound of bugles, O drinker of blood, savage, withered, hideous, dragging man into this drunken orgy, thundercloud distorting destiny, shunned by God, where hangs a gleaming darkness, blacker than the night, collossal madwoman, armed with wind and lightning bolts, what use are you, giantess, what use are you, smoke, if your crumbling debris rebuilds evil, if you drive out the animal in favour of the bestial, if, in the shadows where your randomness wallows, you can unmake an emperor only to make another?

Reply to Victor Hugo

Hugo, you were revered. The grand parade
that Paris put on in your honour was,
as Gide remarked, quite well deserved,
hélas! You saw yourself, sometimes unwisely,
as a bearer of the truth. I know you can’t reply, being
dead, but I can’t help not having been there while
you were still alive. So: in this rant of yours, why

pick on Penelope? She fended off the suitors well enough,
tempted perhaps a time or two to ‘show herself’ and
‘fire them up’ - so what? Should the fun of weaving
a death-shroud have been enough? She kept good faith
while wandering Odysseus was busy having
an eventful time with cannibals and cyclopes,
not to mention bedding for a year with Circe
and seven with Calypso!

You wrote a beautifully-crafted, rather purple,
very distasteful poem about war. War happens,
so you say, because some crazy withered witch,
‘buveuse du sang’, ‘berceuse du chaos’,
drags men into a drunken orgy. Even God,
turned off by this apparition, walks away!

No sir, it’s not Penelope, or any female archetype,
or even the feminine side of man we’re looking at.

It’s man. Especially his propensity to think
that power is better than sex. It’s man the gender.

In war, men are pierced and broken,
women and children crushed by stone,
but this is not done by mythical giantesses
brandishing metaphorical thunderstorms.

It is not done by god or devil, but by such
as Alexander, Caesar, Bonaparte.As you
well knew: you weren’t a primitive,
some medieval poet gorged
on superstition, you’re as modern
as I am. You meant

well enough, as
nearly always. Better
to condemn war
than glorify it.
You do not tell

the old lie, but leave
Penelope out of it.
Leave women out of it.