Whitman, Tate, and the Proximity of War

Consider this poem by James Tate, from his book The Ghost Soldiers, titled “The War Next Door”:

I thought I saw some victims of the last war bandaged and limping through the forest beside my house. I thought I recognized some of them, but I wasn’t sure. It was kind of a hazy dream from which I tried to wake myself, but they were still there, bloody, some of them on crutches, some lacking limbs. This sad parade went on for hours. I couldn’t leave the window. Finally, I opened the door. “Where are you going?” I shouted. “We’re just trying to escape,” one of them shouted back. “But the war’s over,” I said. “No it’s not,” one said. All the news reports had said it had been over for days. I didn’t know who to trust. It’s best to just ignore them, I told myself. They’ll go away. So I went into the living room and picked up a magazine. There was a picture of a dead man. He had just passed my house. And another dead man I recognized. I ran back in the kitchen and looked out. A group of them were headed my way. I opened the door. “Why didn’t you fight with us?” they said. “I didn’t know who the enemy was, honest, I didn’t,” I said. “That’s a fine answer. I never did figure it out myself,” one of them said. The others looked at him as if he were crazy. “The other side was the enemy, obviously, the ones with the beady eyes,” said another. “They were mean,” another said, “terrible.” “One was very kind to me, cradled me in his arms,” said one. “Well, you’re all dead now. A lot of good that will do you,” I said. “We’re just gaining our strength back,” one of them said. I shut the door and went back in the living room. I heard scratches at the window at first, but then they faded off. I heard a bugle in the distance, then the roar of a cannon. I still don’t know which side I was on.

Stating the obvious, it’s a prose poem, and it centers around a kind of lucid dream regarding war (specifically the Gulf War). Stating the less obvious, this poem mirrors–to the point of being uncanny–Whitman’s “The Artilleryman’s Vision.” Both take place in a kind of lucid dream-state, both describe war-time violence invading the speakers’ intimate lives, both to some extent leave the whole matter open-ended. What’s different in the poems seems (to me at least) a product of the differences between Whitman’s Civil War and Tate’s Gulf War, and the vastly different ways they experienced their wars.

Looking at Whitman, the poem opens to the speaker with his wife at his side, and the gentle presence of his infant’s breath. It’s in this intense intimacy, as he emerges from sleep, that the speaker begins describing the vision that becomes the rest of the poem. It’s a jarring transition from domestic calm to large-scale violence. What’s interesting is the realism of the vision, and the specificity of the detail, down to “the young colonel” who “leads […] with brandish’d sword.”

It’s another thing entirely to look at Tate’s poem. There’s little to no exposition, just a plain statement of fact: “I thought I saw some victims of the last war bandaged and limping through the forest beside my house.” While Tate has eliminated the jarring transition we see in Whitman, the uncertainty of the observation combined with its strangeness and suddenness give a similar sense of disjointedness. Tate’s speaker, too, finds himself in a “kind of hazy dream,” from which he is unable to wake. This sets up a menacing tone, which is extended in the speaker’s interactions with the soldier-specters, which are filled with doubt and conflicting information. One soldier, like the speaker, could never figure out who the enemy was, while others are confident that “‘The other side was the enemy, obviously.” Even these soldiers, who are so sure they can identify the enemy, contradict themselves: the enemy was mean, they were terrible, but they were also very kind.

Whitman, importantly, mentions the enemy almost not at all, focusing instead on the chaos of the situation, “the cry of a regiment charging,” “the suffocating smoke,” and “ever the hastening of infantry shifting positions.” This being, of course, a civil war, I would imagine Whitman as well had trouble identifying the enemy. Toward the end, Whitman’s speaker is increasingly overcome with the valor of war, “rousing,” as he says, “all the old mad joy in the depths of [his] soul.” He ignores the dying, the wounded, instead ending on the rifles, the “bombs bursting in air” (mimicking, perhaps sardonically, the National Anthem) “and at night the vari-color’d rockets.”

The end of Tate’s poem is both strikingly similar and remarkably different. The speaker notes “a bugle in the distance, then the roar of a cannon,” similar to Whitman, but in the end he still doesn’t know which side he is on. Perhaps, despite the proximity implied in Tate’s title, this war is not so close to home. Whitman’s speaker took up the artillery, a soldier himself, and lost himself in it. Tate’s speaker was unable to begin the fight. He has experienced the war, presumably, through a television and the voices of newscasters, which allows him anxiety and uncertainty, without the (perhaps perverse) escapism of valor and heroics afforded Whitman’s speaker by his participation. So while the media has brought Tate’s war not only next door, but into his own home, there is surely a bit of cognitive dissonance in the inevitable disconnect he feels living it vicariously through a screen and others’ eyes. His decision, having spoken to the ghost-soldiers, to close his door to the violence raging around him is reasonable. It is, after all, the only choice he has. He may hear “scratches at the window at first,” but they will fade away eventually.

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