For reasons that are not entirely clear even to me, I have been reading and listening to everything I can find about conditions leading up to World War I. I won’t even try to describe the causes; they can’t be tidily summarized.
According to the excellent instructor of a UC-Berkeley course I’m listening to via “iTunes U,” the emergence of Germany as a unified nation— its hundreds* of independent principalities, duchies, kingdoms, electorates, and other sovereign units having been conquered or cowed into submission during the 19th century, ultimately by Prussia under Otto von Bismarck — fractured the delicate “balance of power” in Europe. Unrest in the Balkans, the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire, and a complicated web of alliances that kept changing, even Europe’s network of railroads — these were factors, too.
Those in power seem to have thought that the war would be over in a matter of months. But no one had ever seen a war like this. Once it started, the politicians and the generals couldn’t figure out how to end it, the instructor says. “Earlier wars were over when either side lost a major battle,” he explains, adding that these “earlier wars” had largely been fought without the dazzling new technology of artillery, chemical weapons, aircraft, and trains… nor had they utilized the trenches that made occupation of enemy-held territory so damnably slow.
The official count of war dead is under 17 million, including 1.5 million murdered during the Ottoman Empire’s campaign of Armenian genocide. Many historians believe that civilian casualties—including those from disease—are higher than reported, however, and estimate that nearly 20 million people died as a direct or indirect result of the so-called Great War. The website www.centre-robert-schuman.org reports more than 40 million casualties—”20 million deaths and 21 million wounded. The total number of deaths includes 9.7 million military personnel and about 10 million civilians. The Entente Powers (also known as the Allies) lost about 5.7 million soldiers while the Central Powers lost about 4 million….”
*Prior to 1806, the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation… had included more than 500 independent states. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Unification_of_Germany
AS TWENTY MILLION DIED
It wasn’t even hate that made the armies
wait imperiled in the long scar spanning
boundaries, bisecting fields—the long
scar from the mountains to the sea.
Their hearts were far from the artillery,
the lethal gas, the twisted wire— in
Ireland, perhaps, beside the hearth,
a baby on one knee.
It wasn’t hate that made the nations
send their young men off to war, with
rifles and too little more. In parliaments
and palaces were pride and fear enough,
ambition, and this theory and that;
and as they strategized, exchanging futile
plans and making promises in
desperation, as they wagered though
the banks were dry, fate laughed and
damned their schemes and snatched her
human sacrifice. The princes and the
ministers of war stood by, resigned and
horrified by turns, as twenty million died,
and even now, when more than ninety years
have passed, no one is certain why.
Who could have known that it would last
so long? —this lottery of lives begun when
leaders failed to lead or to inspire and
armies marched despondently to where
the trains were leashed, impatient-
seeming, monsters straining with kinetic
energy, to chase each other, iron on
steel, with only minutes’ separation,
greedily devouring miles, as powerful on
the incline as on the plain, speed
unabated till they stopped at last,
expelled their loads, insentient
machines that they had always been,
though they had carried men but left
their hearts behind as if these sons,
these fathers, and these husbands might
thus tend the tidy fields and spend the
evening by the fire — such humble
aspirations, honest work and well-
earned rest, how could they possibly
accept the gray reality that fate,
unsatisfied, and war’s momentum would
determine otherwise? They did what
pawns have always done: Until their
countries were impoverished, until the
money to subsist was gone, they kept on
Many who survived were broken when it
ended (though in truth the giant only
slept); some would heal, some wrote in
poetry and prose of what they’d seen,
what they’d endured, what they had
witnessed of man’s inhumanity to man;
but there were those returning to the
land, if land remained, who never spoke
of it, and no one knows if they believed
that fortune had been kind in keeping
them alive or if, instead — their
comrades missing, maimed, or killed
by what they did not understand
sufficiently to hate— they wanted
nothing but oblivion and would have
gladly shared their fellows’ fate,
to perish in the ruined countryside
and lie amid the final stillness of
the twenty million who had died.
* * *
How to Write Poetry and Live Poetically
Free E-Course Lesson 36
Chapter 11: Living Poetically
Case Studies in Poetic Living — Riley
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Case Study No. 2 — The Life of Riley
When I met Riley, in 1995, he was living in a charming duplex — one of three that surrounded a grassy courtyard, where there were eucalyptus and grapefruit trees and flowering shrubs. By September of 1996, he — and his plants and antiques and yellow Labrador retrievers — had outgrown the small duplex, so he bought a three-bedroom house at the end of a cul-de-sac near a park in the central area of Tucson.
Riley and I had much in common: Both of our fathers had the name “Horace,” neither of us had a spleen, and both of our mothers were antique dealers. It was from his mother, Rachel, that Riley inherited his love for antiques. Rachel had given him, or he had bought from her, many of the chests of drawers, art prints, rugs, pieces of crockery, and century-old bottles he collected… although, when I was living in Tucson, he and I spent a great deal of time at antique fairs and in antique malls, and his collections have probably doubled in the fourteen years I’ve known him.
Riley is not what you’d call religious, though he almost unfailingly practices the principles set forth by Martin Buber in his 1923 book I and Thou. (See Lesson 33.1, “What Do You Want?”) He beholds the world, in all its particularity, with reverence, although he does not care for cats and he has periodic attacks of road rage.
Here is an example of what I mean by reverence, as it applies to Riley:
I have an oak rocking chair, a modest little thing that has served four generations of Campbells. The chair had been smashed to smithereens (“shattered fragments,” from the Irish Gaelic smidirīn, diminutive form of smiodar, “fragment”). I would estimate that this chair was in at least twenty smithereens, some of them no larger than a toothpick. I had given up on finding someone to repair it, but I kept the pieces anyway, in a grocery bag.
Riley took the bag of shards home one day, not long after we met, and brought the chair back to me in one perfect piece within a week. If you could see it, I would defy you to find any trace of smithereen. With the limited tools then at his disposal (he now has a large workshop and a respectable, manly set of tools), he put every fragment back in its place, seamlessly. He had had to replace one of the curved back pieces, but he chose the oak so carefully and stained it in such a way that it is impossible to tell the replacement from the corresponding back piece on the other side.
There was a small, dark, discolored area on the seat that, as far as I knew, had always been there. Riley said, “I could have fixed that, but it’s part of the character of the chair” (or words to that effect). “The character of the chair” — What a concept! Riley taught me to see into the souls of inanimate objects.
Living in southern Arizona, Riley can garden year-round. When I visited him recently, he took pride in showing me the new raised garden beds, the brick walkway between them, the automatic watering system, and the handmade compost bin. That’s another thing we have in common: We can ooh and aah about compost.
In precisely the same way, he approached the restoration of a broken-down Hoosier cabinet and the reconstruction of an Eastlake bed (similar to the one pictured above), converting it from three-quarter size to full size.
I think he must have been a Druid in a previous life, because he has great reverence for wood, especially oak, and for all growing things, whether they’re in pots or in forests. There are dozens of potted plants in the house and dozens more on the covered patio. The vast majority are from cuttings he took from his own plants.
A little scary
In 2001, my sweet Monica, a medium-size mongrel my boys and I had rescued from the Humane Society, died at the age of 13. Riley buried her — reverently — in the bit of yard west of his house and planted three rosebushes over her grave. The roses are the color of coral, and they flourish every year. Riley has planted mesquites and acacias, asparagus fern and ivy, prickly pear and jalapeño peppers in the large back yard and the smaller front yard. Everything grows for him. He would no more neglect the care and feeding of a plant than he would of his yellow Labradors, Truman and Dani.
Riley sometimes refers to himself as “anal-retentive,” but he’s not, really — not quite, just as he is almost but not quite a perfectionist — because he can laugh at himself. Every job he undertakes — from making salsa to building a bookcase — is done lovingly and systematically, and he never hurries.
There is, however, a teensy suggestion of anal-retentiveness that is evident in the storage of his clothing, which is regimentally folded, or hung, according to type, color, and so forth. It’s a little scary for someone like me, who can never find socks that match.
More Riley facts
Riley always pays his bills on time and he never spends money he doesn’t have.
He knows the names of all the members (and the instruments they played) of every blues or rock band that performed from the 1950s through the 1990s. He owns, I am guessing conservatively here, 120 blues albums on CD.
He has a complete set of books by Mark Twain, signed by Mark Twain.
He was something of a rogue in his youth, and that’s all I have to say on that subject.
He is loyal. If you become Riley’s friend, you are Riley’s friend for life. Every spring, until recently, Riley went with five or six other men on ten-day backpacking trips in the Grand Canyon. He is one of the younger guys; several of his elders have developed back problems or knee disorders, so most of their hiking these days is done in the mountains that surround Tucson.
Riley has a graceful, athletic, quietly reassuring way about him. He is confident but never (hardly ever) arrogant. Without having to work at it, Riley lives more poetically than almost anyone I know. As his mother once said to me, justifiably proud of her son, “Riley is a gentleman, literally, in the best possible way — a gentle man.”
When he’s not at work or on a hike, you might find him refinishing furniture in the workshop, mulching the garden, reading science fiction, or (in season) watching college sports on television. Sometimes he takes Truman and Dani for walks along the dry bed of the Rillito River (there’s a trail about a quarter-mile from his house).
The Wallace Nutting photos, shown above, are typical of the kinds of framed prints Riley favors. He has dozens of prints of that ilk, including several Wallace Nuttings, usually in lovely antique oak frames. But despite all the art, the antique furniture, the valuable glassware (which I won’t even begin to describe) and pottery, and the lovely old rugs, the house is neither museumlike nor cluttered. It feels, and looks, comfortable, soft, pleasing in every way… unless you are allergic to or don’t like dogs.