Dispatches

Trench Poetry

Gregory Betts

All the windy ways of men
Are a smoke that rises up.
Alfred Tennyson

I took a bus, which seemed a normal bus when I got in, just a city bus you pick up from any street corner in any city anywhere. I was wearing typical tourist garb, I suppose: comfortable clothes, as if I expected to walk a lot, an embroidered maple leaf on my bag and a camera around my neck. I took a picture inside the bus, I don’t know why, and the flash malfunctioned and it turned out fuzzy and dark.

The bus wasn’t crowded, and what was there gradually thinned out until I was the only one riding. We passed small rows of neatly tucked, uncoloured houses that seemed welcoming enough. The driver kept calling out the names of the stops, and then looking in the mirror to see whether I was moving and he should pull over. The houses outside were beckoning, insubstantial harbours, and if I had an aunt living in one of them I would be warmly welcomed here. I had no aunt.

The bus turned a corner and a field opened up. The driver called out the name and then paused, looking into his mirror at me. Then he said in English, “The Flanders Fields,” and I stood up. I felt like I was nowhere, caught suddenly enacting a meaningless ritual, like photographing somebody else’s sphinx when a thousand better pictures line the walkway to it, all for sale. I blushed in embarassment, which heightened when I realized I had thanked the driver in English.

There were no houses here, but a few were visible nearby. The fields could be anywhere and would look geographically indifferent. I didn’t know what I should do, and even though I saw a pathway down the road, I walked straight from the bus stop into the long grass and the field. The Fields.

It was a nice enough day, which I thought about as I tried to imagine the bloodbath that had taken place here. I walked, wondering when the bus going back to the hostel would come. Other people on the path seemed to look at me as if at an exhibit, or worse. The last thing in the world I wanted was to be an exhibit, or worse, so I turned toward the spots where I could be farthest from the path but also farthest from the houses that bordered the field on either side.

I had concocted a ritual that I was determined to fulfill, one that my uncle had undertaken some years ago, and I didn’t want anybody to see. I wanted to sit down somewhere alone, read the poem by Frank Prewett, my great-grandfather’s patron saint, and then leave. But all I could see were houses, and everywhere felt wrong. What was I searching for? A little voice that would decree authenticity? I thought of the young Jews I had seen in Germany, performing an oath I didn’t understand, in the concentration camps, as a group with a leader, with a program, and I thought of the tourists who booked trips here with the menus preplanned. Here I am, I thought, with my country sewed into my bag so that I won’t be misrecognized and tortured for a war crime my country didn’t commit. I thought, was the thing, and realized that I was thinking and wasn’t being, and that by history, which is why I was there, I might as well sit anywhere because eventually it didn’t, the story of my doing, matter in any high serious way. I had come. I could tell my uncle anything I wanted. I could show him the bus pass. He might smile paternistically, with a small sadness in his one good eye.

I sat down in a belly in a hill and read the poem. I smoked a cigarette. I read the poem out loud—only the first half—and wished I had brought a bottle of wine, or a baguette or something.

I knew that I was sitting in what had been a trench, now smoothed over with grasses, and I saw the houses. I pictured myself playing the neighbourhood bogeyman games here: Capture the Flag, Eaten by Rats, Death by Gas. What do these fields do to property values around here?

I read the poem Frank Prewett had written and wondered how or whether he could write here. I couldn’t see the Germans. I smoked another cigarette. I got up and caught a bus back to town, with a different bus driver. When I gave my seat to an elderly woman with grocery bags, who looked relieved, I left my camera on the seat. She gave it back to me and I took her picture. She smiled, a great big embracing beautiful smile, and I caught it on film, my second picture of the day. The flash was a thousandth of a second late, but not too late.

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Gregory Betts

Gregory Betts is the author of seven books of poetry, most recently Sweet Forme (a data visualization of the sonic patterns in Shakespeare’s sonnets). His next books include a collection of visual poems, Foundry (redfoxpress), and a new monograph, Finding Nothing: Vancouver Avant-Garde Writing, 1959-1975 (University of Toronto Press). He is the curator of the bpNichol.ca  digital archive and a professor at Brock University.


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