Above the Dreamless Dead
Above the Dreamless Dead is a wonderful book that pairs poets of World War I with cartoonists of today, who are looking back on what was once known as the Great War, “the war to end all wars.” Clearly, it wasn’t.
The title comes from a poem by Wilfrid Wilson Gibson called “The Dancers.” Gibson, like Rudyard Kipling’s son John, was rejected by the military for bad eyesight but later managed to enlist and went to the front. (Gibson survived; young Kipling did not.) “The Dancers” refers to dragonflies observed by a soldier in the field; he calls them “dainty demoiselles,” briefly escaping brutal reality by focusing on their beauty.
Unceasingly they dart and glance
Above the stagnant stream—
And I am fighting here in France
As in a senseless dream.
But he cannot escape for long.
A dream of shattering black shells
That hurtle overhead,
And dainty dancing demoiselles
Above the dreamless dead.
The poem is deftly “adapted” by Chicago-based cartoonist Lilli Carré, who shows the “dainty dancing demoiselles” lifting the soldier above his own shadow.
The poets who actually fought in the trenches, or got to the front in some capacity, are known as the Trench Poets, though other poets, like Thomas Hardy and Rudyard Kipling are also included here, providing context and perspective. The most famous of the Trench Poets are Rupert Brooke and Wilfred Owen, who died in the war, and Siegfried Sassoon, who survived, shattered by “shell shock.” Owen is “adapted” by George Pratt with dark, impressionistic grays, and Brooke is adapted by Simon Gane in traditional panels that tell a story, but an ironic one, as is the poem, “Peace.” I love Gane’s choice to illustrate “all the little emptiness of love!” with a soldier’s hand turning face down his beloved’s photograph, just before he heads off to war, where “the worst friend and enemy is but Death.” And James Lloyd does a beautiful job with “Repression of War Experience,” by Siegfried Sassoon, about shell shock as the legacy of war, providing also a testament to soldiers since, who suffer from what we now call post traumatic stress disorder.
I admire this book because it encapsulates the war so well, not getting bogged down in too many details, as the cartoonists are interpreting from a safe distance. Indeed, as Eddie Campbell says in his note at the back, “It is a bit preposterous us thinking we can illustrate this stuff that we know nothing of—sitting here in our air-conditioned rooms trying to imagine the horror of being knee deep in mud with your feet rotting off.” But, amazingly, they do imagine that horror, and very well, selecting, as Campbell does here, and as the poets do, exactly the details that will make the horror, irony, and despair of war resonate with us now.
My favorites, I admit, are the gentler imaginings of Hannah Berry and Sarah Glidden, interpreting poems by Wilfrid Wilson Gibson and Isaac Rosenberg. Berry shows us Gibson’s short and sweet musing in “The Question.” The poem begins, “I wonder if the old cow died or not.” Berry brilliantly jots the poem down on “Pigeon Post” message paper and depicts a soldier biking a basket of carrier pigeons to the front. Indeed, pigeons were crucial messengers in World War I, and the pigeon dubbed Cher Ami (later determined to be a female despite her male name) was awarded the Croix de Guerre for her heroic service!
Glidden illustrates Isaac Rosenberg’s “Break of Day in the Trenches,” giving us the story of “a queer sardonic rat” who scurries from English to German soldier alike, more likely herself to stay alive than they. Glidden shows the story under the story, deeper even than the trenches, where the rat diligently feeds her young. Up above, in the world of the poem, the soldier says, “I pull the parapet’s poppy,” a bright, red, once living thing, “to stick behind my ear.” Interestingly, “In Flanders Fields,” by John McCrae, which made poppies so famous as a symbol of this war, and remembrance of veterans ever since, is not included in Above the Dreamless Dead. But its resonance is present in Rosenberg’s poem:
Poppies whose roots are in men’s veins
Drop, and are ever dropping;
But mine in my ear is safe,
Just a little white with the dust.
While the poems are made absolutely clear by the cartoonists’ interpretations, the back of the book does provide a word glossary, short explanatory notes, short biographies of the poets and cartoonists, and a further reading list. I especially appreciated the gloss on Stourton Tower, which features at the end of Thomas Hardy’s famously prescient poem “Channel Firing,” interpreted here by Luke Pearson. In the poem, the dead awaken in a churchyard near the English Channel, thinking it’s Judgment Day, but it’s only “gunnery practice out at sea,” the world the same as it was before, “All nations striving strong to make / Red war yet redder,” and all this before the world war, the so-called Great War, had begun. At sea, the practice guns start up again, “Roaring their readiness to avenge / As far inland as the Stourton Tower, / And Camelot and starlit Stonehenge.” We go back and back, in the history of war and peace, terribly aware of the endless echoes.
And if the guns didn’t wake us from the silence of starlit Stonehenge, Hunt Emerson does, with his raucous rendition of “I Don’t Want to Be a Soldier,” a bawdy song that contains the line, “I don’t want me bollocks shot away.” Emerson’s panels for this and “When This Bloody War is Over” provide much-needed comic relief, as surely as those drinking songs did during the Great War.
While the war began in 1914, the United States of America did not enter the conflict until April of 1917. As April is coming right up, reading this book might be a way to commemorate both the Great War and National Poetry Month.
Kathleen Kirk is the poetry editor here at Escape Into Life. She is the author of several poetry chapbooks, including ABCs of Women’s Work (Red Bird, 2015), with two more forthcoming in 2018: The Towns, with Unicorn Press, and Spiritual Midwifery, again with Red Bird. Her poems appear in many print and online magazines, including After Hours, Confrontation, Poetry East, Redheaded Stepchild, and Sweet.
Author photo by Ave Rio