From the Diary of William Andrew White, à Lajoux, Jura, France, décembre 1917
A powerful rain
dins down these mountains,
rinses peak snow into hellish streams,
floods gully and pitfall.
Graves yawn open now everywhere.
A Somme Christmas….
I’m down to the last crumb of cake—
and no wine—
We dark men are sent to—
are meant to—
stand under this inundation,
this dark, hard-driving wet,
and sweat hard, axing logs,
our drenching making harder the drudgery,
but also making slippery the axes,
so that it’s harder to make a dent
in the liquefying woods,
and easier to make a dent in your own legs—
or a friend’s—
or in a friend’s lagging head.
Aye, we’re at loggerheads
our Christian brethren Canucks,
here in France, but nigh Geneva—
the Christmas crèches and chocolates—
in the milk-topped, neutral,
unconquerable, Swiss Alps.
We’re here because of a battering ram
that let us butt our way
into the White Man’s War—
belligerent clans and bellicose states—
to feel the privilege of perishing
to preserve George V,
but also so we can see ourselves stand tall
in our sons’ eyes.
I’m here so that Coloured Christian Canucks
are not destitute of a down-home preacher.
I serve the King Eternal—
His fiery Crown,
His blazing Cross.
I have relinquished Domesticity
to live fully at ordered Liberty,
advancing my Ministry,
to even minister to wounds
gashes and pleurisy,
pneumonia and tuberculosis—
what kill us—
Canadian Forestry Corps infantry—
the No. 2 Construction troop—
far from the Huns’ bullets,
barbed-wire, bombs, bayonets.
But our poor lungs are spent
in the duty to lop forests—
to splinter wood for rail ties—
so porridge-faced poilu can choo-choo to the Front
and take potshots at the Krauts
after beer and bacon,
tea and tobacco,
wine and whores.
Irony: We serve where Hannibal romped
and ramped elephants upon Rome—
and where Dictator Napoléon
tamped down Haiti’s insurgent L’Ouverture….
But glacial History freezes us out.
The Western Front is due north
so the bad news trickles south.
I hear it’s a mishmash of Conjectures—
bad plans, bad commands—
hollers in dirty horse French (joual)
or hoarse, hacking Cockney—
so, in a day, thousands prove
toppled into mud pits—
to be chewed open by rats’ teeth.
Utmost scarlet brims each trench.
Still holding half a brow,
half a jaw,
an abortive helmet sprawls,
or a fragment of a boot
(a shredded sock, some toes attached),
but is multiplied thousandly.
Or one sees gas-poisoned saints stagger,
with bandages for eyes.
Or the half-dead stroll like Zombies,
eyes rigid in sighting an invisible horizon,
heedless of gun flash,
either courageous fools,
or displaying nerves never sham.
Still, angry grey storms of lead
scatter headless homicides
in Antichrist’s charnel-house church—
the ruddy meal of the battlefield—
the narcotic, necrotic feast,
ideal for vermin, racailles.
I’ve heard that shells thud the earth so hard,
corpses jiggle with the shock,
and skeletons protrude suddenly
where earthy fires flue smoke—
and flames limp, sprint, hop, skip—
in a darkling sky;
or the ghastly merde of chlorine harries,
those alive enough to breathe and fall,
wriggling in mire,
facing Death’s temporary Cataclysm.
All about rampage Vickers guns,
and nervous horses stamping every inch of turf
with shank-spurting gore,
while blasts and detonations
boom and boom and boom….
Imported—as if conquerors—to France,
we black men decamped to this war
with drums barking, bagpipes braying,
by lynch-mob threats and KKK frets,
only to discover our old-new discipline is Toil—
unreneged Negro Slavery—
to roustabout mid thrusting thorns
and muscle down trees,
pulsing sweat flooding
our backs, our faces.
Until light-bodied mosquitoes
bear us lightly away.
Verily, it’s Disease that slaughters us:
A brother goes droolingly rabid;
his face springs curving tears;
he lisps prayers and spiels curses;
then succumbs, in fits, urine spasms,
after a rattling whisper.
With mine own tears,
I try to warm his cold, drying bloodstream—
his chilling body—
the wax treasure becoming a cadaver.
(It’s good that,
Tenderness is legal.)
As the African chaplain,
as the single Coloured Officer (thus far)
among the male millions
the British Army fields,
it is my task to prepare us black men
to be Christian soldiers,
and deliver Death to the Kaiser’s kin
and expire, kinless, ourselves,
if so’s our Fate.
Today’s sky is a vault of water—
and the earth is unfathomable mire;
our dark shadows, flashing more-or-less fasces,
slash the rain.
When it ends, we see the mountains breathe
white clouds and snow,
and as the sun sets like the lit end
of a cigarette,
clouds lap up its light
with grey Finality.
Still, I’ve enough left to write—
this inky candle-light—
such as what lit up Christ,
weeping at Gethsemane,
and soon thereafter
illuminating the Apostles’ quills.
Now, we see through a glass, darkly,
until Death smashes that blood-stained window
hiding Heaven from us.
[Kelowna (British Columbia) 30 septembre—2 octobre mmxiv]
[“From the Diary of William Andrew White, à Lajoux, Jura, France, décembre 1917.” In“The White Man’s War.” The Ottawa Citizen. (Saturday, November 7, 2015: D8.]