Let us not concoct healing potions for the dead

This week marks Veterans’ Day in the U.S., with related Armistice and Remembrance days elsewhere, so since I’m about to publish a book taking place during a war, I thought a few words here were obligatory. November 11 celebrates the end of World War One, not Two, so I didn’t have any pressure to bring Time Goes By out by tomorrow (thank goodness; I still have to fiddle the cover together (sorry. pun. you’ll see)). The Second World War has more resonance in my country than the First, because although we were latecomers to both we were given a push in 1941 and a long period of blood, sweat, toil and tears resulted. I have a tendency to write entire novels to express the thoughts and opinions others might get off their chests in essays or tweets, but for the veterans out there, of WWII and later conflicts, simple words: thank you.

My family, like so many others, contributed to the 1940s war effort, both at home and overseas, and it would be interesting to write about that, but Time Goes By documents other aspects of the war experience. It was, in fact, pretty much on purpose that I set the war-relevant parts of the book in Europe and Africa and during 1940-41, before the U.S.’s entrance. That, and of course Rick and Sam’s exchange in Casablanca:

“If it’s December 1941 in Casablanca, what time is it in New York?”

“What? My watch stopped.”

The first of December, I believe someone calculated: the week before America went to war. One of the things I love about this movie is that, filmed in 1942, it didn’t know how things would turn out; that’s an effect impossible to recreate in the 21st century, writing about characters who visit from the 22nd, but I’ve done my best. Wars are not just a list of battles and a tally of who won and lost; they’re a day-to-day slog through horrific uncertainty and banal deprivation and little joys and triumphs with the legs kicked from under them. Which makes them very attractive to writers, a striking backdrop to all sorts of human drama; and yes, I’ve done this too, bringing in my actors from the future to strive with each other in this powerful setting, but it’s because it’s so powerful that it doesn’t let you keep it in the background. World War Two, if not exactly a character in its own right, is a force that warps the lives of everyone who intersects it in fiction as it did in reality, and my protagonists are no exception.

Those who fought on battlefields and at sea and in the air were not the only ones deeply immersed in this conflict. There are soldiers in my story – brave and cowardly, heroic and selfish, official and unofficial – but there are many more people who fight in other ways, or try not to get involved but can’t help themselves, who become victims or create them or try to come up with new methods of saving them. Wars are made up of stories more than they are of statistics or battle plans, which makes writing about them both easy and difficult. Easy, because even the mundane actions of life resonate with poignant booms and whispers, and death and its breathtaking finality are ever-present co-authors, scrawling down built-in climaxes; difficult, because of the pain but also because the writer feels insignificant, sensing the vast scenery in front of which her story is taking the stage. So, you shrink your viewpoint, knowing that the sound will clamor all the same; so you remember that every tale is important; so you acknowledge your dilemma in the text so everyone can see it. You wish all of the horror hadn’t existed for you to write about; you chide yourself every time you think how compelling it all is; and you thank everyone involved, those who lived and those who died and those who wrote about it before you. And you keep on typing.

You’ll be able to read what I typed in a couple of weeks, but since I had the “Poetry!” thought early this morning and read a lot of World War Two poems, I thought I’d quote a couple – women’s voices, here, because they are important to me, and express some of the same ideas I hope to get across in my writing.

First, by Anna Swir, Polish poet, resistance fighter and military nurse (translated by Czeslaw Milosz and Leonard Nathan):

I Carried Bedpans

I worked as an orderly at the hospital
without medicine and water.
I carried bedpans
filled with pus, blood and feces.

I loved pus, blood and feces—
they were alive like life,
and there was less and less
life around.

When the world was dying,
I was only two hands, handing
the wounded a bedpan.

And secondly, an excerpt from “The Walls Do Not Fall” by Hilda Doolittle.

Let us measure defeat
in terms of bread and meat,
and continents
in relative extent of wheat
fields; let us not teach
what we have learned badly
and not profited by;
let us not concoct
healing potions for the dead,
nor invent
new colors
for blind eyes.

We have seen how the most amiable,
under physical stress,
become wolves, jackals,
mongrel curs;
we know further that hunger
may make hyenas of the best of us;
let us, therefore (though we do not forget
Love, the Creator,
her chariot and white doves),
entreat Hest,
Aset, Isis, the great enchantress,
in her attribute of Serqet,
the original great-mother,
who drove
harnessed scorpions
before her.

Hitch up the scorpions, ladies and gentlemen, and have a thoughtful Veterans’ Day.

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