Poem by R. Joseph Capet
A fell wind rifled the barley, unharvested and high,
which swayed in the starlit field, teasing the lavender sky.
The scent of the last blooms of summer o’er France still lazily hung;
the men lay asleep in the trenches, where the Marseillaise had been sung.
The moon settled light on a cloud, like a leaf upon the moor.
Augustin Lefavre dreamt of times before the war
when he’d heard Debussy in the concert hall in Lyons years before.
Now ’twas Wagner’s shrieking shells that pierced the autumn air,
the machine gun pizzicato’s bombastic Teuton flair
that echoed through the chilling wind of autumn’s mute Ardennes
as Augustin Lefavre, with collar turned, sat nursing his fountain pen.
He searched his mind for photographs of that long-lost summer’s eve,
when Corinne’s hair shone ’neath the moon like the petals of the trees —
when her sacred laugh had echoed ’round the bells of the silent church,
and the nightingale had sung her praise from its lofty, hidden perch.
He grasped for ethereal verses that this image could contain.
He sought th’unspeakable patter of the pelting winter rain.
He longed for that delicate couplet that at the start of his sonnet belonged.
He wanted to write a poem like Debussy wrote his songs.
But the paper he held was stained with ink in jagged little rows
and torn at the end of every line by the pen’s ferocious blows.
The meter matched the quickened pace of shells crashing in fallen leaves
or the sonorous roll of the thundering hooves of the valkyries’ chosen steeds.
His eyes raked the verses before him as he read them aloud to the east.
His pulse beat aloud in his forehead long after his reading had ceased.
With a twitch, all his fingers contracted; the poem fell fast to the ground.
A Sopwith some three miles distant was the darkening night’s only sound.
He raised up the torn scrap of paper as a necromancer the slain
and turned to each line of his writing to ask of each line whence it came,
but none would betray its creator, each stood defiantly bold,
and he knew that this Teutonic paean had come from his own Gallic soul.
He read over again the beginning, like the drums of a tribal chief,
with their low and monotonous echo, their menacing primitive beat.
This was not the delicate couplet that at the start of his sonnet belonged.
He was trying to write a poem like Debussy wrote his songs.
So Augustin scratched alien rhymes that had flowed from his treacherous hand
and marshaled once more what muses he had arrayed at his command.
He conjured forth the holy space of that grand and gilded room
where he’d last heard tumble off the keys the strains of Clair de Lune.
Then he touched pen to paper and watched the black ink flow
like oil from the armored engines rumbling down below,
and there, where his vowels should have sung like a fawn in the afternoon,
the consonants of an alien tongue chanted Tannhäuser’s baleful tune.
He struck through the lines with a flourish, filled with a terrible fright.
The black ink sprayed forth like the vapor that came to the trenches at night.
On autumn’s still, shivering field he desperately sought the sound
that served as his Persean shield to modernity’s funeral mound.
But then the overture from Faust descended through the pass,
like an evening mist to crystallize upon each blade of grass.
The darkened notes entwined themselves ’round dandelion stems
and let loose their seeds to take their flight from out the doomed Ardennes.
With foreign thoughts he slid his hand down to the pistol butt
and cocked the hammer gracefully, keeping one eye shut.
There was no delicate couplet that to this great saga belonged
and he would never write a poem like Debussy wrote his songs.
The 2015 Charter Oak Award for Best Historical
We are pleased to announce this piece as a finalist for the 2015 Charter Oak Award for Best Historical, honoring the independent press’ best writing on themes of historical people, places, events, objects, or ideas. The winners are selected by an external panel that judges all pieces blindly and selects the full list of 12 finalists from hundreds of entries. Alternating Current does not determine the final outcome for the judging; the external judges’ decisions are final.
R. Joseph Capet is a poet and theologian living in Monmouth, Oregon, whose work in multiple languages has appeared in journals and magazines as diverse as decomP, The Montreal Review, American Journal of Biblical Theology, and Sennaciulo. He currently lays up treasures on Earth teaching English to students in Latin America and treasures in heaven teaching Esperanto to anyone who will learn, while serving as poetry editor for P. Q. Leer.
Originally published on 7/14/15.