Archival Features, Poems

Mary Jo Salter: “Song of the Children”

From the Spring-Summer v3.n1 issue of Poetry Northwest, “The Political Issue,”  we’re featuring Mary Jo Salter’s “Song of the Children.”

According to Salter, “‘Song of the Children’ is one of the few poems I’ve written that was ever, in any sense, commissioned. A French friend was helping to put together an international anthology of poems about war, and asked me to try to write one. I saw I had been censoring myself: I had wanted, in some way, to write about the Iraq war, but had held off simply because I had no clue how to do it.  The poem—which is partly about not knowing how to speak or write adequately about violence—got written, but the anthology was never published. I was fortunate that Poetry Northwest was interested in my attempt.

“I don’t know what makes for successful poems about war, though I’ve thought for years about this. Homer wrote the Iliad a good five hundred years after the Trojan War, so we can’t say that only those who participate in a war can visualize it. On the other hand, most of the best poems about World Wars I and II were written by soldiers: Owen, Graves, Hecht, Jarrell, Reed.  They gave us complicated, unpredictable feelings, in fresh language.

“I hope my reader also thinks about the white page on which poetry is written. Poems about war can and must be written, because all of life is material for poetry. But any poet who thought the act of writing a poem sufficient to discharge her moral duties would be sadly mistaken.”

Song of the Children

April 2005

Two years since the spring
of the invasion, a well-conducted
symphony of fireworks on the screen,
I sit at home, half-humming
a tune from miles away inside my brain.
I think I know, at least, the song’s refrain—
In the end it’s about the children
In the end it’s about the children—
What’s wrong with me? The music isn’t coming.

“What is the grass?” the child asked Whitman,
gathering strangeness in his outstretched palms.
“All flesh is grass,” said Brahms
in well-aimed thunder, merciless and grand.
What is this hook
the child is left with, he who lost
two parents, and a sister, and a hand?
Who bears the cost?
How can I tell him—I who can barely look?

A shrug then: fate is fickle;
so many soldiers won’t be getting older;
as another year’s worth of recruits
hoists its rifles, shoulder to young shoulder,
another pen rests on my ink-stained knuckle.
I have been spared, it seems, for another year
to compose the awkward rags of my regrets—
In the end it’s about the children
In the end it’s about the children—

Another year has curled
in on itself;
under the wheels of Humvees caked
with dust, the turning, half-cocked world
is skewered on its axis.
My pen is angled too—is glad enough
to bleed into long ranks and files of taxes:
before my country’s army rolling forward
I write my check, the white flag of a coward.

Mary Jo Salter‘s new book, A Phone Call to the Future: New and Selected Poems, was published this spring from Knopf. She is a professor in The Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins University.

“Song of the Children” appears exclusively in the Spring-Summer v3.n1 Issue of Poetry Northwest. Subscribe today

image: Norman Rockwell for Life Magazine (NYPL, public domain)