Just picked up The Penguin Book of First World War Poetry, and this one, by the French veteran Benjamin Peret, really struck me with its casual, almost savage tone, and the marching sing song cadence. There was no idealism left at all by this point, nothing but fighting for fighting’s sake. All the romanticism of La Belle Époque is just gone, gone forever. We still haven’t gotten it back.
‘Little Song of the Maimed’
Lend me your arm
To replace my leg
The rats ate it for me
I ate a lot of rats
But they didn’t give me back my leg
And that’s why I was given the Croix de Guerre
And a wooden leg
And a wooden leg
Not sure when Peret wrote this, that Penguin book is short on that kind of information. Kind of drives me nuts. Anyway, though I don’t know when he wrote it, it has the feeling of after the war. All that pre-war ornate language is gone. People liked to write before the war, huge long wordy things full of detail and conversation. After the war everything is sinew and bone, a skeleton, a few words throwing long shadows. “Little Song of the Maimed” is like that, spare and long shadowed. Besides, Peret himself never received the Croix de Guerre (the French Medal of Honor). And Peret was never actually at Verdun. He spent most of the war on the Salonica front, which was messy enough it its own right. He kept both legs too. But he nearly died from dysentery.
Afterward they sent him to the Lorraine. I doubt there was much fighting though, not in Lorraine. The plains to the north faced all the concentrated violence. High explosives. Gas shells by the millions. Wilfred Owen wrote about them. Dulce et decorum est, he wrote, pro patria mori. He ought to know, too, because he did.
Peret used both his legs again when he fought on the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War. Funny, that. A war had left him writing terse, crippled, bitter verse and here he was going to war again. I guess he was still a romantic in a way. War has its own romance, they say, so manly and dark and scary and flare-lit. They glow like stars, like little suns, those flares, and everything comes into view and you freeze, they say. Don’t move. Don’t breathe. Become part of the scenery. Tracer bullets sweep the ground in an arc and you pray.
Or maybe it’s Revolution. Peret was a revolutionary, or professed to be. Revolutions bask in romance and glory and the people’s noble cause. Or so they say. I wouldn’t know. I’m not military material, the neurologists told me, and no revolutions ever came my way. Doomed causes are also romantic. Maybe Peret liked a doomed cause. In fact Spain offered all three, war, revolution and utter futility. You can imagine a poet getting caught up in it all. Just forgetting all about the rats and wooden legs and joining up. The rifle in his hands probably felt right, natural, like he’d missed it all along. He’d get a bead on a fascist, pull the trigger and there’d be one less Fascist. Ideology trumps pacifism every time. Whatever. Peret lived.
He lived through the next war too. That’s three wars. I wonder if he thought about Indochina, or Algeria. Wars, revolutions, and doomed causes. Ils ne passeront pas. It worked at Verdun. At Dien Bien Phu not so well. In Algeria they tortured, slaughtered and then betrayed their own kind. The pied noir took revenge, blowing up metros and whatnot and people. So much futility. Maybe Peret was too old to get involved. Or too busy writing. He wrote a lot then. An angry man.
Maybe by then he thought a lot about the rats. Maybe it all came back in tearful memories. The rats, the legs, the dead. The gassed.
I went looking for the ‘Little Song of the Maimed’ on the web, though why I can’t remember. There was a poetry website that ran the poem, all ten lines of it, and then added a couple score lines of notes. They explained the poem. It was quite literal. Where I read lend me your arm as give me a hand, the notes writer pictured it asking for an arm to literally replace the eaten leg. The engineering was not explained. I snickered. But to be honest, that’s where I found out the marching cadence bit, I was thinking it was like a child’s song, Alouette, gentille alouette. Alouette, je te plumerai. Tells you what I know about French songs. But you can hear the marching in it this poem, the rhythm of men keeping in step, or trying to, like you can hear Americans singing Mademoiselle from Armentières, parlez-vous, Mademoiselle from Armentières, parlez-vous. You didn’t have to know her long. To find the reason men went wrong, Inky-dinky-parlez-vous…. It’s a filthy song, full of fucks (the verb) and whacking all night. Back then the “off” wasn’t needed. One just whacked. Whacked plenty apparently. I had no idea whacking went back that far, three generations back in my case, probably four in yours. Grandparents don’t whack. Anyway, the Americans sang it all the way up to the trenches where they were shushed by snipers and machine guns. Flares lit the night and everything threw long shadows. No one moved. Not sure what they sang coming back. Maybe not a thing. Maybe they trod back in silence. Did they march back? When does an army stop marching?
But who can march with a wooden leg? the reviewer pointed out. He thought the whole idea just ridiculous. Apparently that was the meaning of the poem. I kind of thought the reviewer missed something in the poem. Like everything. But it wasn’t my website, it was whoever’s. Let him say what he wants. Even swap a leg for an arm.
On another site a commenter says the rats are symbolized the desperation for food during World War 1. He went on to say that the leg is a reference to the human soul. And innocence. He left it at that. Food, lost soul, innocence. Someone else said it’s about losing – and trying everywhichway (sic–but I like it) to get it back…but in the end, nothing can substitute for what you had, before you lost it, and you are left with rat fur between your teeth, and wooden arms for legs. Other people said other things too, but it’s hard to top rat fur between your teeth and wooden arms for legs.
I think the rats were just rats. The wooden leg a wooden leg. And the war was a brand new maw of Baal, devouring whole civilizations like they were nothing.
That got florid there, that whole maw of Baal thing. I apologize. I read Salome once. Actually twice. Within a year or two. I can’t remember why. Flaubert, incidentally, was epileptic. That’s a non-sequitur to everyone but me, so never mind. But he was. And civilizations did up and disappear in that war. Imperial Germany, Imperial Russia, the Ottoman Empire and my own personal favorite, Austria-Hungary. My Dad’s side came from there, before the war opened. They were German. In Slovenia. I doubt there are any of them left there now. The war also bled French and British empires white. As was the kingdom of Italy. None survived the next war intact. Austria-Hungary ceased to be entirely. The war busted up countries, brought forth famine, revolution and a plague and left collective European civilization on the verge of implosion.
Jazz filled the void. Jazz and movies and cars and flappers and sex like you can’t believe. The Americans had so much money, they threw it at everything. They played hot trumpet and threw money at everything. The Depression was a decade away. After that it all went to hell and Nazis filled the void. Nazis. Go figure. I can’t. No matter how many times I read the why’s, I am still bewildered. Mussolini was a joke. Europe was full of little jokes, from Romanian Iron Shirts to Moseley. Wacky little fascist jokes, strutting and wearing shiny uniforms and killing people here and there. But the Third Reich wasn’t funny. Stalin was even less funny. But that was all in the future. We’re in the twenties here. The shell shocked twenties. Europe a hollowed out wreck and Americans throwing money at everything. The jazz was sure great, though. And all the sex. No matter how awful it was outside inside there was always somebody blowing a hot trumpet and kids getting laid. This was the pre-code days in Hollywood, the Weimar days in Berlin, and Paris was Paris and London was, well, London.
It’s so nice now, Europe. Less rats. More legs (some very attractive legs, in fact). And the war? What war? People don’t eat rats anymore. The raise them. Fancy ones. Men in tattoos and women with black finger nails with rats on their bosoms, affectionate, sweet. The people coo, the rats nuzzle. All is perfect. A little weird, maybe, but perfect.
Meanwhile at Verdun the rain comes down on the cemeteries, tended, marble, hushed. Under the big monument is a pile of bones, thousands and thousands of bones. No one has a clue whose bones they are, or what bone goes with another. It’s just a big pile of bones. That’s where that leg would be. A little gnawed on maybe, but it’s there.