Thursday, November 20, 2008

History : a lost beach ball among smashed bottles

By Ted Burke

A poem describing an ambivalent response to a tepid commemoration of an important WW2 Omaha Beach by By Piotr Florczyk , is the sort of poem that almost succeeds too well towards the author's intended end. It's one thing to find yourself skipping pop cultural references you grew up with when discussing things with those thirty years your senior
-- your audience wouldn't know what you're talking about--and it's a quite another to realize the important facts and reasons of our defining moments greeted with a yawn. There is a surreal tone to how this is laid out, more Fellini, I think, than Dylan, but odd and quietly unnerving all the same. It strikes me as a situation where there is an on site ceremonial attempt to revive the memory of the Great Battle for a far removed generation that might well have the collective idea of WW2 as a backdrop for Indiana Jones movies, a comic bungling of Good vs.Evil.

We have, in fact, a site of a terrible and crucial battle where so much was at stake and the sacrifice of a generation dedicated to patriotic service was inestimable the memory of which is receding into the historical archive as references fewer and fewer recall first hand. The important fading event mingles with a drifting attention span that conflates matters, dithers and ponders an absurd connection between past horrors and the calming banality of what these beach now seems, dark, rained on, cold, only as violent as the weather and tourist attitudes

There is a tendency for collective memory to extend only so far after a generation's sacrifice for the good graces of their country. What had been vivid, immediate, absolutely crucial to be dealt with resolutely , what had been shared as a sense of urgent mission, inspires just a tad less with each succeeding generation, until the critical elements of a Great War and Vindicating Victory become like cliches and stock events from various pulp fictions and their derivative; young people coming up five or six decades later might come to know World War 2 as a template for old and new Hollywood movies, as a only a cartoon like battle between competing stereotypes. Dates are blurred together, names misplaced, place names of bloody struggle are widely known but fewer people these days know why , or care. The telling of the carnage and the stakes becomes a drone that invites quizzical responses.


Returning here, it hasn't been easy
for them to find their place in the black sand—
always too much sun or rain,
strangers driving umbrellas yet deeper

into their land. The young radio host said so,
speaking of the vets. When the sea had come,
some curled up inside the shells;
others flexed and clicked their knuckles

on the trigger of each wave, forgetting
to come up for breath.

There is the presence of one who remembers, of course, perhaps someone who'd been there as soldier, observer, or the adult child of a veteran who'd grew up with a father who came home changed and who managed to confer the profound events and consequences to his family. There is distance here, in the ears of someone listening to a radio voice intone deeds and dates while the eyes gather in a view of the beach and the events it once hosted; a lachrymose reading of the facts is the backdrop for a recollection of steely nerves coiled to the the breaking point.
The telling of this historical summation comes across suggests tedium, an over familiarity of a saga that's been told , glorified and considered from different ratios for so long and so often that there is a desperation for a digression, a distraction, a resounding need for the ceremony to collapse upon itself. It's a tale over told, a memory over burnished, further removed from flesh and blood recollection; though we all know the historical facts of the event, the bloodletting, fewer of us know what we're talking about. This is rather like an announcer's bored professionalism, full of false enthusiasms, make- believe earnestness, prop department gravitas. It's a pitch one hears and though realizing what emotions and sentiments the spoken cadences are supposed to suggest , none the less recognize the make believe emphasis that disguises an intractable boredom. The audience in turn is bored and considers the commemoration as bad entertainment instead of sincere tribute to those a nation owes a debt to. The poem, powerful as is, presents the irony that arises when even nostalgia fails to elicit a genuine response.

"Genuine response" , that fleeting issue of authentic awareness of the Great Good that was defended against the Great Evil, might well be impossible as generations roll on and history is taught and told in increasingly fragmented ways. Something is missing at the center of the tribute the well intentioned might bring:

But he didn't
give us a name at the start or the end.
Nor did he explain how to rebury a pair of
big toes jutting out from the mud

at the water's edge. In the end, it's a fluke.
A beach ball gets lost. And a search
party leads us under the pier, into the frothy sea
impaling empty bottles on the rocks.

The enormous inanity of daily life goes on, and as one moves along looking for the scars that marked a culture for decades to come there is , instead, dislocation of the facts ; history is an anonymous parade of shadows playing melodramatic charades against the wall of a collective memory. What we do find, though, are those things we make for our consumption and leisure and which we cannot hold on to either, a lost beach ball, smashed bottles. History, it seems, has poured out of the dustbin and gathers at a shoreline that cannot gain be made pristine.