In a Golden Age
before megaliths or mastodons,
Truth was Beautiful as well as True.
No longer, not since the Duel.
You might have heard this parable:
Falsehood was foul as the foulest
thing you can imagine but he had a weapon,
fought with Truth and severed his handsome
head. Truth retrieved the murderous machete,
wielded it, and soon the two opponents lay
decapitated on the sand. Blindly groping,
each one found a head, but not his own,
and ever since, Falsehood has worn a gorgeous
face while Truth’s is hideous.
Too tidy to be True? Maybe,
but here’s an example from the fifties and sixties.
Fighters in France’s colonies
are blowing up civilians
in the name of Freedom. Are they Terrorists
or Heroes of Independence? The violence
is observed from cafés in the capital
by rival intellectuals
John Paul Sand-trap and Albert Camelot.
Camelot used to be an actor.
His voice is warm and resonant. His prose,
like his physique, most elegant.
Sand-trap’s voice is dry as dust, his eyes myopic
and severely crossed. In fact, he is so homely
I feel there must be Truth in what he says.
He says Life begins on the other side
of Despair. He says Murder is a just
means of ending evil systems.
In the name of Creative Freedom he rebuffs
the Nobel Prize, accepted some years earlier
by Camelot, now in agony about the war
in the colony, his birthplace. He believes
in Justice and Dignity, but rejects Sand-trap’s
view of ends and means. Besides, he frets
about an old widow living
in Algiers among the bombs.
I love Justice, but I’ll defend my Mother
before Justice, says Albert.
I favor his position, knowing all along
that he’s so handsome he must be wrong.
Our War Hero
(Frederick Willems, 1916-1940)
From a tomb in Biarritz, he loomed
over his survivors —parents, friends,
two American cousines—
Martha and Louise,
my mother, my aunt. Each of these
taught a daughter and a son
to grieve for Frederick,
our cousin once removed,
removed forever, mort pour la France
as its armies careened toward defeat.
We four were kids, lacked respect
for sacrifice, and wondered why
a soldier would willingly
take a German bullet through the eye.
Frederick’s stricken mother —
her only son lost — framed
his croix de guerre
with other tokens of his honor
engraved with the words
Valeur, Discipline, Magnifique,
bequeathing them to one of us
(also a Frederick, as it happens)
living in the Hamptons.
Glutted with wartime reminiscence,
I wrote about the hero
(though I’d never known him)
in a memoir available on line
to studious surfers and search engines.
That’s how she found me —the lady
who gave me Frederick’s medals,
acquired from my Long Island
relation, who had never wanted them.
Neither had I, but I thanked her
and took them. It seemed only right.
As it was right for France
in defeat to thank him
for his futile martyrdom.
Now and then la République
sends its demi-goddess, Marianne, to visit
Frederick’s tomb. From his granite space
he contemplates her funny hat,
her Grecian dress.
“Merci, my son,” she says.
And he, still gracious at age 98.
tells her she’s welcome—
which is “for nothing”
in their Romance tongue.