PART 3: the the second world war
|How to Kill by Keith Douglas
Under the parabola of a ball,
a child turning into a man,
I looked into the air too long.
The ball fell in my hand, it sang
in the closed fist: Open Open
Behold a gift designed to kill.
Now in my dial of glass appears
the soldier who is going to die.
He smiles, and moves about in ways
his mother knows, habits of his.
The wires touch his face: I cry
Now. Death, like a familiar, hears
and look, has made a man of dust
of a man of flesh. This sorcery
I do. Being damned, I am amused
to see the centre of love diffused
and the waves of love travel into vacancy.
How easy it is to make a ghost.
The weightless mosquito touches
Her tiny shadow on the stone,
and with how like, how infinite
a lightness, man and shadow meet.
They fuse. A shadow is a man
when the mosquito death approaches.
|'parabola': here, the curving flight of a thrown object
'the ball': a real bullet or grenade: a child's toy turns into an adult's deadly weapon
'dial of glass': the gun sight which the gunman looks through to take aim at his target, like the view finder of a camera
'The wires': the cross-hairs of the gun sight
'a familiar': a spirit or a demon that can be summoned on command by the person with power over it
'sorcery': witchcraft, magic (usually unkind)
'fuse': unite, melt together (the idea of a blown fuse may also be present)
'diffused': scattered in all directions
|Keith Douglas was born in 1920. His father fought in the First World War, and in the Second World War Keith chose to fight too. After only a year at university he joined the cavalry (he loved horse-riding), but like the rest of the cavalry he actually trained in tanks. As well as an excellent horseman he was a keen rugby player; he also started writing poetry in his teens.
Keith Douglas was injured by a landmine during the battles in Egypt, and was taken to a hospital in what was then Palestine. He took the opportunity to write poems while he recovered, and then went back to active service. He was killed during the Allied invasion of Normandy. He was only 24 years old.
Some people have said that he would have been one of the century's greatest poets if he had lived. Keith Douglas himself said that most of the poetry of the war would be written only after it was over, whether by soldiers or civilians. He knew that this war had involved civilians to a much greater extent than ever before, though he did not know that an estimated 27 million civilians would be killed by the end of the war - double the number of soldiers killed.
This is another poem that shows how an impersonal, distanced view makes murder in battle possible. The title suggests that somebody reading the poem will learn how to kill: but the real instruction is in the awfulness of killing. In its time this poem was 'modern' in its manner and use of language, and still isn't all that easy. It packs a lot into its four verses.