Disasters of War: A Modern Triptych

Steven Willett

In Memory of Francisco Goya, Los desastres de la guerra




I. Habit

Habit moves the lover’s hand, the torturer’s

   instruments, the doctor’s knife; habit

squeezes the trigger of the full stop and marches

   armies down paths that plural into grave;

habit pens the zek in his cubicle, backlit

   with boredom, and habit drinks the night

flooding like lacquer, depthless and lachrymose,

   the intellectual at his vanity;

habit cancels separation and irons death

   into smooth sheets of memory skin;

habit unhinges suffering and turns the eye

   away from starving faces under

the brush and eddy of postulating flies,

   flies so thick they turn eyelids to stone.

We laugh with habit at love betrayed and trust

   dishonored under our rusting gaze;

we search to find the back of Medusa’s eyes

   where all her frozen images live

that we might know, shadowed by her woven snakes,

   the stone-engendering joy of hatred.

Nails, fires and crowds are driven, lit and roused by

   habit masked in harsh, hate-hardened faith.

Mobs bellow with anonymous rage, screams boil

   from bodies in fire’s anatomy,

nails searching between the radius and ulna

   find the golgothean gap to hard wood.

Yehohanan son of Hagakoi died from

   iron nails two thousand years ago,

the implacable judgment of Roman law,

   and habit drove them as it drives us

now to feed flesh on the indifferent beak of war

   clacking, clacking insatiably

on this anarchic flesh that clothes us with ardor

   and clogs us with stultification.

Habit once burst into flame on the bramble bush

   without scorching its thorns, sharp as nails,

and left unalterable and implacable law

   to name “I shall be that I shall be.”

Sweeping across heaven, the Medusa weaves her

   serpents into storm clouds billowing

with the cortical convolutions of the brain

   she mimics in its thoughts and desires:

violent in death as false in peace, twisted

   with all the intricacy of deception.

Sweeping across heaven, the Medusa-headed

   storm clouds deafen fire-pointed thorns,

hollow eyes fixed below, fixed in their study of

   all life on this grain and amber earth.

Nothing escapes the hollow eyes. One almost hears

   the turbulent, writhing clouds whisper

“My gift is no longer senseless stone, shadowed

   beneath my gentle, guileless serpents;

in place of stone I offer the scattered white

   of bones colder than coldest stone.” 

II. Vertebrae

The vertebrae lying scattered among burnt weeds

   are never simply white, bleached with death,

but faintly brown under the sun staining heat,

   under the black sear of the cold moon.

They lie where machetes and clubs scattered them,

   but the skulls suffered a rendition,

piled with other skulls in screams silent as stone,

   or lonely with grass tonguing their jaws.

Stars, moons, sunsets, desire, hatred and lust once

   coursed through the joints fluting their clamor.

The voice of the vertebrae flute never falls

   silent, but we lack ears to hear its

hollow pipe now stripped of nerves and living flesh,

   the vertebrae flute of extinction.

We’re deaf to the harmonics of suffering Homer

   heard so clearly that the drone of flies,

flies pustulating like ulcers on dead bodies,

   could never extinguish its music.

From its procreant cradle war feeds centuries,

   piling dead upon dead so high they

stifle our ears to everything but the drone

   that clusters faces in a black crown.

Millennia on millennia of gravestones stock the world;

   their legends crawl across the white stone

aimlessly in gaunt, bone black, infested words

   wandering over memories of the lost.

The letters, seen from a thousand years away,

   dance with the grace of discarded things.

Faces turn away. Year after year, no one

   visits the graves. Only masons work.

Their chisels, forged by the song of vertebrae,

   cut words sinuously as a spine.


III. Ash

Ash is the color of war, the color charred

   heads assume shriveled into rictus.

They stare from burnt-out cars, framed by window shards,

   when hellfire stripped bodies to puppets,

sprawling them eyeless on toothed glass, teeth ashen

   in the lipless cavern of the mouth.

The eyes on a target eight thousand miles away

   see only ash on the video display.

Eyes along the gun sight see flesh exploding

   in a cacophony of color;

it lacks the comforting gray of a gorgon

   eye to darken the dismemberment.

Unfurled flesh and flayed bodies weigh memory

   with color that resists silting ash.

Memory never sleeps in sleep. Argus-eyed it

   searches down to the deepest torment.

Those who pull the trigger never imagine

   what Furies will insinuate their mind.

Some struggle home to families, others die

   exiled, abandoned to bureaucrats,

who cast their smoky ash in trash dumps to drift

   more nameless refuse over refuse.

The rest tend shattered bodies, the afterlife

   of dreams, that wake forever in pain,

or find oblivion with the leaden stop that

   never lies its way to the cortex.

Hate too claws from that cortical chrysalis,

   spun by war, breaking into shadows

somnambulant with death in the morning sun,

   serene as they shrink backward from light.

Ash rises, the breath exhaled from crematoria,

   filling the air with mouthfuls of pain.

Bodies scooped from the warm ovens fill bags for

   the dump, fogging night with gray gangrene,

which slowly gnaws away the darkness to leave

   blackened lesions no light can amputate.


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3 Responses to Disasters of War: A Modern Triptych

  1. Deap says:

    Looking forward to a reprise of “Happy Days Are Here Again” and it is our current leader’s duty to take us back to the happier times before Nancy Pelosi deliberately declared war on us after tearing up Trump’s SOTU address.
    Take us back to those times, Trump. Life after this election year covid craziness. Remind us of who we were, and who we want to be again.
    You have enough time before Jan 20 to re-set the mood to those optimistic days. Biden promised he would fix ‘covid”. Let him, but you set the tone for where you took America and make him honor your legacy.

  2. Leith says:

    The painting of the pyramid of skulls was by Vasily Vereshschagin. He was a former Imperial Russian naval infantry officer turned painter and war correspondent. He put down his paintbrushes in Samarkand to help repulse attacks by an army of Muzaffar al-Din bin Nasr-Allah. He was awarded a Cross of St George for his bravery there. Yet that painting of the cairn of skulls and some other woraks were considered anti-war and led to his work being banned at one time in Russia, Germany, and Austria. Two of his paintings hang in the Brooklyn Museum: ‘The Road of the War Prisoners’ and ‘A Resting Place for Prisoners’.
    IMHO Vershschagin’s work deserves more acclaim than Picasso’s ‘Guernica’ or Goya’s ‘Third of May’ .

  3. Escarlata says:

    This sound very tragic indeed, thus whay we must avoid war at all costs, civil, cold or whatever kind…
    Today has been the Great Conjunction…Let´s hope something goood awaits us…
    Merry Christmas to all!

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