he has wandered into an unknown land
it needs must be, since he lingers there.
for an old-time step, and the glad return,
in the love of there as the love of here.
he is not dead-- he is just away.
Cold is the wind
through the doorway of the soldiers' house;
beloved the soldiers
who stood between us and the wind.
People forget that a soldier's death goes on for years-- for a generation, really. They leave people behind.
--Jayne Anne Phillips (1952- ) in Lark and Termite (2009)
Identification in Belfast
..."When they first showed me the boy, I thought oh good,
it's not him because he is a blonde--
I imagine his hair was singed dark by the bomb.
He had nothing on him to identify him
except this box of joke trick matches;
he liked to have them on him, even at mass.
The police were unhurried and wonderful,
they let me go on trying to strike a match...
I just wouldn't stop-- you cling to anything--
I couldn't believe I couldn't light one match--
only joke-matches...Then I knew he was Richard."
--Robert Lowell (1917-1977)
It's a painful life, now. It's like hell in slow motion, all the time. I don't try to escape grief. I face grief in an intense way in my writing, but not only in my writing. If I have to suffer, I want to understand my situation thoroughly. It's not an easy place to be, but so be it. If I'm doomed to it, I want-- it's a human predicament, and I want to experience it....
Anything that is calm and safe seems to me like an illusion.
--David Grossman (1954- ), Israeli novelist, in an interview with Jonathan Shainin in the Paris Review, Fall 2007. His youngest son, Uri, was killed in August 2006 during the Israeli offensive in Lebanon.
On the 8th of November 1987, twenty years ago today, a crowd gathered in Enniskillen, Northern Ireland at a monument for the war dead, for a memorial service on Remembrance Day. A bomb planted by the Provisional IRA, meant to kill soldiers and policemen at the service, went off ten minutes early. Eleven people, all but one civilians, died in the explosion and under the rubble, and one man left in a coma died 13 years later without recovering consciousness. Sixty-three people were injured. The Provisional IRA was forced by its own horrified supporters to apologize, and the incident has come to be seen as a turning point in the Troubles. The IRA lost support around the world because of video footage of the bombing and its aftermath. This led indirectly to more tranquility in the region, which is relatively peaceful today.
The most famous story to emerge from the massacre was that of Marie Wilson, a twenty-year-old girl who had been standing near the monument with her father, Gordon Wilson. They were buried under bricks.
We were both thrown forward, rubble and stones and whatever in and around and over us and under us. I was aware of a pain in my right shoulder. I shouted to Marie was she all right and she said yes, she found my hand and said, "Is that your hand, dad?" Now remember we were under six foot of rubble. I said "Are you all right?" and she said yes, but she was shouting in between. Three of four times I asked her, and she always said yes, she was all right. When I asked her the fifth time, "Are you all right, Marie?" she said, "Daddy, I love you very much." Those were the last words she spoke to me. She still held my hand quite firmly and I kept shouting at her, "Marie, are you all right?" but there wasn't a reply. We were there about five minutes. Someone came and pulled me out. I said, "I'm all right but for God's sake my daughter is lying right beside me and I don't think she is too well." She's dead. She didn't die there. She died later. The hospital was magnificent, truly impressive, and our friends have been great, but I miss my daughter, and we shall miss her but I bear no ill will, I bear no grudge. She was a great wee lassie, she loved her profession. She was a pet and she's dead. She's in heaven, and we'll meet again.
Don't ask me please for a purpose. I don't have a purpose. I don't have an answer, but I know there has to be a plan. If I didn't think that, I would commit suicide. It's part of a greater plan, and God is good. And we shall meet again.
I have lost my daughter, and we shall miss her. But I bear no ill will. I bear no grudge. Dirty sort of talk is not going to bring her back to life.*
Marie's father told the BBC that he forgave her killers and added: "I shall pray for those people tonight and every night."
"Gordon Wilson's quiet dignity had a profound effect on many people in Northern Ireland. He was later involved with initiatives to improve community relations in Enniskillen and eventually was appointed to the Senate in the Republic of Ireland. Gordon Wilson died on 27 June 1995 aged 68." --From the website of CAIN [Conflict Archive on the INternet], Conflict and Politics in Northern Ireland (1968 to the present)
Conor Carson, a schoolboy at the time, wrote the poem below to commemorate Marie. The red-paper poppy, an uncontroversial sign of respect for war dead in Britain (and Canada, Australia and New Zealand), is seen by some Catholic nationalists in Northern Ireland as a symbol of British identity. Marie and the other victims at Enniskillen were Protestant.
* You can hear Gordon Wilson's 1987 BBC interview here.
Enniskillen, 8 November 1987
Under the statue
of the Unknown Soldier
a man prepares
a bomb. He is
an unknown soldier.
The patron saint of warriors
Between the unknown soldiers
is a wall.
It is the gable
of St Michael's Hall.
This was Remembrance Sunday.
They came to hear
the bugles in the square.
They did not count
the unknown soldiers there.
Today there were no sermons.
said later it had not
gone off as planned.
Under the bricks
she held her father's hand.
Today there was no Last Post.
Her last words
were "Daddy, I love you."
He said he would trust
God. But her poppy
lay in the dust.
The protector of unknown soldiers
The father is at the grave.
A bell peals.
The name Michael
means "God heals."
--From the anthology A Rage for Order: Poetry of the Northern Ireland Troubles, ed. Frank Ormsby (1947- ) (pub. 1992)
fierce with grief
a line of children
led by a small coffin
mourning the young
a sight beyond tears
beyond pious belief
in the Land of Goliath
Psal. LXXI. v 20. Quantas ostendisti
mihi tribulationes multas & magnas,
& conversus vivificasti me!*
Tear, Earth! Tear in two! Your mountains break and cover
the wholly disheartened spirit!
The lightning and ache and need
and woe are frightening!
and harsh longing bites!
You ever-lit lights of the cities of heaven!
Oh make my legs stand! Oh do not help my legs!
Since the thunderous wedge of pain
cuts the power of fear!
Good God! Only for me the strict Judge
what have I not seen of your fury!
What have I not heard of scorn and abuse!
Are my eyes lent to me
so that I should count nothing as harsh trouble
nothing as torture?
Every day my ears are yelled full
yes even my dim soul!
Can I, can I not escape?
Can the clear starry night, can the sun not refresh me?
Will every red dawn of every evening hour oppress me?
Reiss Erde! reiss entzwey! Ihr Berge brecht und decket
Den gantz verzagten Geist!
Den Blitz und Ach und Noth
und Weh’ erschrecket!
Und herbe Wehmut beist!
Ihr immerlichten staetter Himmel Lichter!
Ach bescheinet meine Glider! ach bescheint die Glider nicht!
Die der Donnerkeil der Schmertzen
die die Krafft der Angst zubricht!
guter Gott! Nur mir zu strenger Richter
Was laesset mich dein Grimm nicht sehen!
Was hoer ich nicht fuer Spott und Schmaehen?
Sind die Augen mir verlihen
Daß ich nichts als herbe Plagen
nichts als Marter schauen soll?
Taeglich rufft man mir die Ohren
ja die matte Seele voll!
Kan ich! kan ich nicht entflihen?
Kan die hell-besternte Nacht! kan mich nicht die Sonn erquicken?
Sol mich jede Morgenroett’ jeder’ Abendstunde druecken?
[*For you showed me many and great fears, and make me live again. In the King James version of the Bible, Psalm 71:20: "Thou, which hast shewed me great and sore troubles, shalt quicken me again, and shalt bring me up again from the depths of the earth."]
[Christine McFadden's four children were murdered by her ex-husband in 2002. Christine recently remarried and this year she gave birth to twin girls. She talked to Oprah Winfrey about her surviving to love again.]
Melanie, Stanley, Stuart, and Michelle were the best things that ever happened to me. Even in their short lives, they exceeded any hopes I could have had for them. Yes, I know I have to go forward now. By marrying and bringing these two girls into the world, that's what I'm choosing to do....
And even now I still feel like hell is only a step away. But I choose not to step into it.
--from interview in Oprah magazine, April 2007
You, whose forebodings have been all fulfilled,
you who have heard the bell, seen the boy stand
holding the flimsy message in his hand
while through your heart the fiery question thrilled
"Wounded or killed, which, which?"--and it was "Killed--"
and in a kind of trance have read it, numb
but conscious that the dreaded hour was come,
no dream this dream wherewith your blood was chilled--
oh brothers in calamity, unknown
companions in the order of black loss,
lift up your hearts, for you are not alone,
and let our sombre hosts together bring
their sorrows to the shadow of the Cross
and learn the fellowship of suffering.
--Henry Christopher Bradby (1868-1947)