by Paul Buhle
Above the Dreamless Dead: World War I in Poetry and Comics. Edited by Chris Duffy. New York: First Second 2014. 144pp., ISBN: 978-1626720657, $24.99.
(Swans - January 26, 2015) This is a nifty little volume, with wonderful, moving poems and comic art. But perhaps "nifty" is not exactly the word for memories of the ghastly slaughter, this time between soldiers in all sides of the war that no one expected. The following wars, up to the present day, have been waged largely against civilians, with the supposed civilized West (including the U.S.) arguably as active in the mass murder of bystanders as anyone else. The difference, since 1945, is that we Westerners don't mostly murder each other.
1914 was a different time. For one thing, poetry was still highly popular. In my own Midwestern home place, James Whitcomb Riley ("the Hoosier Poet"), incidentally a bosom-and-boozing buddy of Eugene V. Debs, was read to children at night, along with Bible stories. So we might expect that war, an eternal subject for verse going back to pre-historic times, should emerge strongly.
These are different from tribal hymns, and at least as far from "The Charge of The Light Brigade." Nobody is being celebrated, really. Certainly not the heroic willingness of some nation to command its young to battle. And the poems are not some collective statement. Rather, these present and represent the individual voices of poets -- drafted, recruited, or simply compelled to join up, reflecting upon their circumstances, what they see and feel about the chaos around them. Patriotism is conspicuously absent, and in its place, the sense that nearly everything said by officialdom about war is a lie.
The struggles against Fascism, most obviously the anti-fascist side of the Spanish Civil War, then the Allies against Hitler, then the guerilla warfare for the freedom of colonized peoples -- all these brought back a kind of glamour to sacrifice, and all manner of art associated. But with Vietnam, the disillusionment of the Great War (as it was called) came back to us full scale. Oliver Stone's films Platoon and Born on the Fourth of July, among other cinematic dark looks at the Southeast Asian misadventure, ushered in an era that brought millions of us back to borrowed memories of the 1910s.
Meanwhile, comics have changed dramatically, at least at the artistic end of the field. "Action" comic art, from newspaper's Terry and the Pirates to the violent comic book Americanism of the Second World War, has been with us since the 1930s. EC Comics, especially as written and drawn by Mad creator Harvey Kurtzman, offered a uniquely realistic take on war's victims (including the terrified soldiers). And for that matter, much of the continuing annual World War 3 Illustrated has treated militarized abuse with elaborate flourish and sweeping geopolitical perspective. This might all be said to be leading up to the "Trench Poetry" of Above the Dreamless Dead. WW3 co-founder Peter Kuper is indeed one of the artists here. But I am not so sure of any genre pedigree.
I say this because comic art based on poetry is something unique, sometimes done indifferently either as mere illustration or, alternatively, artistic near-indifference toward the text. Here, as in some of the best pages of African American Classics or Sabrina Jones on Walt Whitman in my own comic Bohemians, we see the words lifted up to new heights.
I turn to the work of Kuper because I know him best. Treating Isaac Rosenberg's "The Immortals," the soldier keeps killing but the enemies keep coming, convincing him against all rationale sense that something supernatural is at work -- until he finds the devil in the lice endemic to the trenches. Each panel is rife with stark horror. Hunt Emerson's two-pager riffs on an old and ironic war song as the poet urging his readers to think of him "where the worms creep -- waiting for the sergeant to sing me to sleep!" Carol Tyler, who had produced several splendid volumes about her father (who could never tell his family what he'd seen) comes back to him in 1963 with terrible memories, memorably the poetry of Robert Graves, the best known of the Trench Poets. And so on. Readers will find their own favorites, if "favorites" is the best word here.
I'm a pinch disappointed not to see the poetry of Robert Service (another childhood favorite) in these pages, but consoled that Country Joe McDonald recorded an album ("WAR WAR WAR") of the former gung-ho patriot Service recoiling at the horror of it all. Editor Duffy suggests that we can only understand so much of this trench poetry; the particular experience is so far beyond us. And yet, as he says, bearing witness is "the least we can do." I write these words thinking of Gaza, and the worldwide bearing of witness. It is indeed the least we can do.
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About the Author
Paul Buhle retired from college teaching to produce radical comics fulltime. His latest include Studs Terkel's Working, A Graphic Adaptation [reviewed in these pages], The Beats, A People's History of the American Empire (aka an adaptation of Howard Zinn's classic) and a pictorial biography of his childhood hero, The Art of Harvey Kurtzman. His last production (2011) is Yiddishkeit: Jewish Vernacular & the New Land, edited with Harvey Pekar, and reviewed in these pages. His latest comic is Radical Jesus (Herald Press). He is (among other things) a failed poet. (back)