Richard Warren

20thc British art and poetry (mainly), plus bits of my own – "Clearly I tap to you clearly along the plumbing of the world" (W S Graham)

Keith Douglas makes a ghost

IMG_0001I’ve been catching up with Desmond Graham’s 1974 biography of the difficult but brilliant Keith Douglas  (mentioned in passing in a recent post on Drummond Allison). Douglas was killed by an invisible splinter of shell a few days after D Day, aged 24. His Faber Complete Poems is still about, with an intro from 1987 by Ted Hughes. Hughes finds in Douglas a manly man, betrothed to Death, a poet-as-martial-artist, a Home Counties samurai, though this may say more about Hughes than about Douglas. But he does draw attention to the relentless labour with which Douglas chipped away at the rough block of his drafts, and he does rightly hail “Vergissmeinnicht” and “How to Kill” as probably the two best poems to emerge from combat in World War Two.

In his biography Graham reproduces one of the fourteen pages of drafts and revisions that went into “How to Kill”, and quotes from others. Comparison with the finished version is instructive. Here is something of the evolution of the first verse:

Under the parabola of his ball
the child turned into a man
looking in the air at the bright thing.
The ball fell in his hand; it sang
IMG_0002in the closed fist, Open, Open.
for the gift you hold is lethal

Under the parabola of his ball went
the child turning into a man
looking upwards at the thing
in the air. The ball fell: it sang
in the closed fist: Open Open
behold a gift, a lethal instrument.

Under the parabola of a ball
a child turning into a man
I stared into the air at the bright thing.
The ball fell into my hand: it sang
in the closed fist: Open Open
behold a lethal instrument.

As the child is turning man (and as a tennis ball is unlikely to kill), I take this as an image from the school cricket pitch; in the end the cricketer becomes the first person.

In an early version of what would become the third verse, Douglas seems to identify with the man who is to die:

I have committed sorcery
sorcerers are of the angels cursed,
for by sorcery the focus of love is diffused
so the waves of love travel into vacancy
it is sad to be a ghost.

Then a second verse is inserted which puts him at the near end of the rifle barrel:

In my dial of glass appears
the young man I have come to kill.
He smiles, and moves about in ways
his mother knows, habits of his.
The wires touch his face. I call
NOW. Death, like a familiar, hears

leaps out and turns to dust
a man of flesh. I have committed sorcery,
see how my hand turns black. I am accursed
who have the focal point of love diffused
the waves of love travel into vacancy.

My hand has made a man of dust
of a man of flesh: a sorcery
achieved by fragile mechanism.
Now, my face smiling in the prism
of another, he erases me.
It is easy to be a ghost.

Suddenly there is a man of dust
the live man gone as if by sorcery,
look down, some demon, and be amused
to see the focus of women’s love diffused
the waves of love will travel into vacancy
I am the creator of a ghost
it is sad to be a ghost.

“Sad to be a ghost”; “easy to be a ghost”; “creator of a ghost”: the writer’s identity flickers between killer and killed. But the “dial of glass” and the cross hairs of the “wires” are a rifle sight, and Douglas, though he had certainly killed in battle, was a tank commander. In the final version, though narrated in the first person, it is not Douglas who pulls the trigger, as indicated by the poem’s provisional title, “The Sniper”. The poem is a dramatic conceit, not autobiography. But, preoccupied with his own death in battle, which he regarded as inevitable, does Douglas write himself in as the young man blown to dust?

The last verse introduces another theme:

As a weightless mosquito who
meets her shadow on the stone
a puffball, enclosed in my own silence
as in a glass sphere, I am gliding
towards the minute when shadow and self are one
meeting unnoticeably as insects do.

The weightless mosquito touches
her tiny shadow on the stone
like a balloonist I
am borne along to die

The weightless mosquito touches
her shadow on the stone
with such an infinite
lightness, in a brief minute
my shadow & I will join
for the mosquito death approaches

The final version of this verse loses the first person voice, and death is generalised. Here is the published poem:

How to kill

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.

Self portrait 1944

Self portrait 1944

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.

It is remarkable how this sits fresh and effortless on the page, as if evoked whole and immaculate. It doesn’t occur to us that it was the culmination of a lengthy and painful struggle, for it doesn’t look like the result of a process of accretion. Or rather, it is as if Douglas has had to hack his way through a maze of misbegotten apocrypha, searching for the Ur-poem, stripping away erroneous associations and testing alternatives, pulling together themes that at first appeared quite disconnected, finally to uncover the poem itself as it always has been.

With “how infinite a lightness” the poem looks to have been done. “How easy it is to make a ghost”. Well, not really. It only appears to be.

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