A Rare Poet Recalls His Youth and The Pacific War

(Swash, Paul Elisha, The Troy Book Makers, Troy, New York, 60pp, 2009, $11)

I heard my stepfather talk about trench warfare as a marksman for the 69th Regiment in World War I. Voices such as his are now silenced, except in the poems of Wilfred Owen and Rupert Brooke and Siegfried Sassoon.

Tony Barnstone’s prize-winning epic Tongue of War reminds us of this as he brings to life the voices of the Pacific war in poetry. And now the 10-part HBO series The Pacific is recreating some of those voices.

But we can turn to an eyewitness poet for an account of that war, one in danger of being overlooked. In many ways Paul Elisha’s Swash parallels Barnstone’s work. Where Barnstone gives voice to the many, Elisha tells us how he experienced the enormity of the same period.

Elisha saw what the men in The Pacific see. Elisha, a decorated combat veteran, landed in the first wave of eight amphibious invasions with a special forces communications unit. His is a voice that should be remembered.

He is now a well known and much revered commentator on WAMC Northeast Public Radio in Albany, New York. He is the originator and host of Bard’s Eye View, part of the station’s daily Roundtable, and he has interviewed many fellow poets, myself included.

Elisha’s characteristic language is like his radio presence, deferential, courtly at times. His poetics is demotic, subdued, reminiscent at times of C.P. Cavafy-the prosodic demeanor of a scholarly gentleman. He is not interested in pyrotechnics. He is not interested in showing you what he knows about poetry but rather what he knows about life.

Nor is he interested in trading on his warrior credentials, as he might have been tempted to do to call attention to Swash. He has not lived a long, honorable life and seen horrific things to indulge such a cheap end. He approaches the war as the boy he was, then as the man that perforce he became, and finally as the ruminant that a long life and poetic disposition makes him.

Swash has a quiet integrity that in a more contemplative world would have prompted media attention alongside Barnstone’s more ambitious work, not merely because Elisha fought in the war but because it shaped his sensibility as a poet and lover of poetry. This is why, I am sure, such eminent poets as Peg Boyers, Robert Pinsky and William Jay Smith have praised Swash. I had Swash at hand when I wrote about Tongue of War in this space, and I regret that I did not undertake the much larger task of speaking of the two works in the same breath. I was carried away by the grandeur of Barnstone’s vision, by the immensity of the task he had set for himself, and although I knew that I already admired Swash and intended to reread it, I was at first deceived by its palpable humility. I was distracted from its ultimate achievement by its own quietude. That is often the case with the finest poetry; it is easily overlooked in comparison with more dramatic work.

Toward the end of Swash a significant pun occurs in the title “In Quest” because the poem is in fact an inquest. I don’t know if it will have the same effect on others that it has on me, but the minute I read the first stanza a great Homeric sea swell lifted me up and bore me into the poem:

What were they after, prows pressing past where myopic pontiffs decreed they dare not venture?

There are the authorized versions of war, the accounts of the victors, the consensus of historians, and then there are the real stories. We know damned well that neither Helen’s beauty nor the lust Paris felt caused the Trojan War. We know equally well that the Crusaders didn’t do all that slaughtering and sacking for a splinter of wood or a cup. What we don’t know as well-not yet, because the historic sea spray has hardly settled-is that Imperial Japan had more reasons to go to war than the bloody-mindedness of its leaders. We had been crowding Japan, and Japan needed oil.

A poem can go a long way on the heat of the moment. That this is true accounts for the sting and thrust of Arthur Rimbaud’s poetry. That Owen, Brooke and Sassoon died young inclines our ear towards them. That Randall Jarrell was still young when he wrote the five-line “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner” chills us to this day. But there is much to be said for the poem written in a more meditative state. The Iliad and The Odyssey, which may have accumulated over time, are imbued with the grandeur of historicity and reflection. Instead of being tossed this way and that by the mere account of Poseidon hounding Odysseus, we can think about why he did it. And herein is one of the virtues of Swash: the poems are finely distilled. They have worked their way through an alchemical laboratory in Elisha’s mind, and he has taken time to discover which elixirs best activate the poems’ crucial elements.

“Where War Is Waged,” a poem that appears on page 49, this aspect of Elisha’s work here emerges as sharply as the crack of a rifle:

In “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” Hemingway wrote of a dead expatriate’s legacy to his nephew: Legend embedded in a note about a leopard found by climbers, its body perfectly preserved in ice, far above Mount Kibo’s tree-line. No one could divine a reason or account for what, in any season might entice it there, where a leopard shouldn’t have been.

In the whatnot of my own lifetime I discovered the answer on a Micronesian dot when, sprawled at the water’s edge, a pledge to retake this bloody place or die defied certain logic arrayed against us.

Here is Elisha’s dominant metric line, enjambment, refined speech and the attitude towards life, all defining his poetry. He is willing to say how it was to be there on one of those hellish, rat-infested islands, but he is more interested in knowing how it relates to everything else he has experienced, in this case Hemingway’s famous story, a story whose metaphysical subtleties I have found to my dismay often elude readers. Much of Elisha’s work, not merely in this exquisite poem, is about being that leopard. Not just climbing up there past the tree-line, but dying there, and lying there for others to find and ponder.

There is notable musicianship in Elisha’s poetry, not surprising in light of his work as a composer and host of classical music programs. This is poetry acutely aware of the relationship of poetry to music and mathematics. With Richard Albagli he composed Drums and Echoes for spoken chorus and percussion, a 1999 work dedicated to the war correspondent Ernie Pyle.

There are a number of coincidences between the ongoing television series The Pacific and Swash. Both works address another, almost forgotten America, a time when racism was officially sanctioned, and not just against African-Americans. Indeed one of the more unsettling aspects of watching the First Marine Division in the series is its lily-white complexion. Both works speak to the ruthlessness of war not just at the front but to our interiority as individuals and cultures. War is not only authorized genocide, it is also authorized mass rape of the pysche, if not the body. No one is ever the same. There is in a real sense no home to which to return, because the home one took to war has been destroyed. The poems again and again convey this sense of dislocation and grief.

A swash, the poet tell us in a footnote to his first poem, is a narrow body of water lying within a sand bank or between a sand bank and the shore. Perhaps this is all we can hope a poem will be. Or a book. But there are worlds within a swash, as there are in a crack in a wall. In his title sonnet Elisha reveals to us that the sea is his matrix and also alpha and omega. This lovely sonnet ends with a line that will echo throughout the book:

Awash, just out of reach, the prize we seek.

Like a soldier killed on a Pacific beach or the elderly reckoning what they sought and what they found. Poems, one way or another, are always about a prize just out of reach. Whether they fall short of the poet’s expectations or exceed them, the prize is always just beyond our fingertips, glistening in the wet sand.

Unlike Here, Bullet, or Tongue of War, Elisha’s war comes upon him slowly in the midst of his youthful contemplations of his uncle’s wife, the place of a Jew in a determinedly WASPish culture-witness the Gentiles Only sign in his poem “Last Resort”- a New Deal parade, Philco “cathedral” radios, family ghosts. The boy is growing up as the war crowds in on him.

Elisha is a formalist of a notably unobtrusive kind, a kind of neoclassicist as opposed to a modernist. Sometimes language is the story. Sometimes a poem’s architecture is what it has to say. But Elisha is a contemplative, relying on certain formal conventions to impart what he has learned.

He does not want to tell us about or imply his own heroism. He simply wants to say, This is what I was thinking and feeling when the world blew up in our faces, and I went to war hoping that what I had felt and thought would not be wasted on a distant shore. It wasn’t. We have this profoundly moving and elegant book as testament.