Sunday, March 4, 2012

The Muses Are Heard

One of the "big guns" that guarded the Atlantic Coast at Fort Wright, NY. 
“When the cannons are heard, the muses are silent. When the cannons are silent, the muses are heard.” -- from Truman Capote's The Muses Are Heard.**

Most anyone who writes knows that there are days when it is utterly impossible to summon The Muse. You may have everything else you need to write--your trusty laptop or favorite fountain pen, your favorite writing spot, your preferred writing quaff--but the words, the words just won't arrange themselves in a congenial manner. In the worst of times this lasts for months, in better times a few weeks. And then sometimes, just to be contrary, the floodgates open and you can't get the words down on paper quickly enough. Those are the extremes and luckily most of us exist somewhere in the moderately frustrated the middle. 

At any rate, I suppose you're wondering what is up with the gun, other than an extraordinarily literal illustration of silent cannons. I'm generally not big on guns, in fact, my only artillery references are typically in the form of a cocktail, the French 75--a powerful concoction of Champagne, gin, lemon juice, and sugar that is allegedly named after the French 75 mm gun which was considered to be among the first pieces of modern artillery. The gun above is actually a 12 inch gun that was stationed at Fort H.G. Wright on Fisher's Island, NY, part of America's Atlantic defenses for many decades. And it's at this point where this all begins to come together a little. As I said, sometimes the Muses can be very well camouflaged. This is the story of the Muses storming the castle, if you will. Of the Muses announcing their presence with heralds and choirs of angels. 

A few weeks ago I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to access an amazing collection of WWI letters sent home from The Front to the US. There are two years or more of letters, nearly one a week, that were sent from locations around France back to New England. The letters are newsy and even optimistic. They speak of French farming methods, girls, the Spanish Flu and references to The Bosch, The Huns, and Fritz. In the process of transcribing and inventorying the letters, I've become more than a little attached to the stories and the family of the young soldier. (Amongst my friends we call the subjects of my various research projects "The Dead Boyfriends Club," terribly low maintenance, the members are!) The young soldier was part of the Coastal Artillery Corps and fought in France, close to Chateau-Thierry and then in the Battle of the Argonne. While his letters never specifically say where he is (and they'd have been censored if they had given any locations) it's easy enough today to figure out a timeline of his regiment and where they were engaged in battle. As I've not been a serious student of WWI (beyond the compelling references in two favorite television programs, Downton Abbey and Boardwalk Empire) the dates didn't immediately stand out for me. But the wagoner's little hints and clues made it clear of their path. You see, my solider, Ernest, was a wagoner. He was responsible for the tractors, trucks, and other vehicles that carried the large American guns, like the 12 incher pictured above. He began his service to the United States at Fort H. G. Wright, learning about those big guns.

His story, as it's being reconstructed, is probably not that different from many American GIs of the time. Fortunately there's a lot of story to tell and it's going to be a wonderfully fun project as it unfolds. What I've been most struck by, though, is the transporting feeling his letters convey. You can feel the pull of the mud, the stench of the rot, and the bone-chilling cold of the dreaded evening spent on guard duty. And then there's the issue of modern hindsight...reading these missives you can feel the tension as they approach their objectives. The day I read the letter he wrote home to his mother where he mentioned the approach to what would be The Battle of the Argonne I had a knot in my stomach the whole day. I knew where the letters were leading and even a cursory knowledge of that battle is enough to make most shudder. I hated to think of this soldier, whom I had begun to feel as though I knew, hurtling toward this danger. And yet there, in this letter, Ernest is straightforward and reassuring to his mother and sister, telling them he is safe, warm, and in a trench with four others. It was a bit hard to fully comprehend, yet there it was, that typical and most American of traits, self-assurance laced with hope. 

Needless to say, I've chatted up anyone who will listen, spilling out bits and pieces of Ernest's tale. As it is fleshed out and filled in, there's much to be gleaned from both his experience in France and the larger story of his regiment. I think what's most compelling about these letters is not only that they present us with a first person narrative of The Front in 1918, but they also tell us a great deal about the news he gets from home. These letters are in part a poignant portrait of small town New England in 1917-19.

During one of my little chats about Ernest, a dear friend shared with me some of the story of his great-grandfather's experience with the Scottish Rifles in WWI. He sent me a scan of a letter his great-grandfather had written to his great-grandmother in 1916 and some of the beautifully worded condolence notes from Buckingham Palace. The letter is heartbreaking, and 180 degrees away from Ernest's newsy notes. My friend's great-grandfather, who seemed to foresee his fate, died in the summer of 1916, likely in one of the early engagements in the Battle of the Somme. I read the letter on the screen of my laptop with a lump in my throat and a saddened heart. 
Image courtesy of Kerry Buckley
To our modern ears the names of battles--The Argonne, The Somme...or Gettysburg or Antietam closer to home--can't help but conjure up horror and sadness. When we see those battles in a book or film there is a visceral, gut wrenching, physical response. To young men like my Ernest or my friend's great grandfather, Michael, they were a duty that lay ahead, an obstacle to be conquered on the way to getting oneself home. Something that had to be survived in order to return to home, to family, to the world they had once known. I mean no disrespect when I say that I think the lives of the Europeans were changed, nearly beyond recognition whereas the Americans came home to an altered world, but not on the same scale as that of their allies. 

I promise more to come on Ernest and The Great War, as the long-silent cannons allow the Muses to speak, loudly, and in the 21st century. 

** And if you've not taken the opportunity to read Capote's wonderful non-fiction story of The Everyman's Opera troupe staging of Porgy and Bess in Soviet Russia, The Muses Are Heard...then by all means, DO. It's unique and clever and completely Capote-esque. The quote that I've referenced is actually from a speech given by an official in the Soviet Ministry of Culture. A highly recommended read.