Douglas Burnet Smith is one of our best poets, with collections of deftly created lyrics (especially in Ladders to the Moon and Learning to Count) and a stunning anti-war long work, The Killed. His new book is an anti-war narrative sequence, set in 1915 during World War I, that swirls around the execution of teenaged Private Herbert Burden on a charge of desertion. Narrated by very young Canadian soldier, Lance Corporal Reginald Smith (the poet’s distant relative), the story intertwines Smith with the tragic fate of Burden, one of hundreds so executed.
Burden (the title punning on a surname and the freight of trauma) is built from a bundle of letters from the European front by Manitoba-born Reg Smith to his family in Canada. An intertwining story of narrator and victim speaks to us as if from the dead. Moving from battlefield to hospital in various parts of Europe, the tale unfolds in five parts, with the final part in the post-mortem voice of Burden, eighty-five years after his execution. Consequently, the dominant perspective is that of Reg Smith (only slighter older than Burden) whose testimony captures the pitilessness of war (muddy trenches, devastating bombardments, “guts worming” out of a body, a town “cindered with men,” “rats surveilling” and gnawing on corpses, a soldier’s grave disintegrating in the rain), as well as the fear, loneliness, and emptiness that contribute to a soldier’s shell shock. Tightly compact and coloured by irony, the book conveys a vivid sense of World War I trauma, first by physical signs (Burden’s slow trudge, arms wrapped around his shivering self) but more radically by psychological symptoms (an inability to “hold a thing / in mind, not even cadence / from a snare-drum”).
The poet’s technical mastery ranges from precise nomenclature and mots justes (“Vickers,” “daisy cutter,” “crump hole”) to a strategic use of consonance (“spike-bozzled, shivering in his skivvies in a shepherd’s hillside hut, surrounded by a family of cats”). At times, the reader virtually hears the low hiss of shells or a soldier’s wisps of breath. As the narrative proceeds from flashback to flash forward to the chilling execution of “deserter” Burden and then to an apocalyptic epiphany (where Burden’s fate is crystallized by the image of a single cloud deserting others to float away, no other cloud caring), the story never forsakes its challenging moral interrogation of jingoism, false honour, and callous insensitivity. Instead of glorifying battle heroism, Burden offers wry or poignant realism: dawn “the colour of trampled grapes,” “mouths open like bells, silence/leaking out” as thousands of white moths flit over tortured fields. Reg Smith’s nervous system is exposed in ways that bring to mind the greatest WWI poems of Wilfred Owen.
The ghost of Burden is allowed a brief posthumous reflection at the unveiling of a statue in his memory in 2020. The statue shows him without the cigarette he smoked at his execution; it does not show him saluting, pissing himself, or facing his appointed executioners any more than it depicts his refusal to be blindfolded—facts that contradict any imputation of spinelessness. The narrative points to every soldier’s metaphysical emptiness, as discovered in a tale that seems to change while always remaining the same sad story of fateful misrepresentations.
ARC HITS THE HEART HARD.