Friday, November 20, 2015

Borges and “Korea, 1953”


    I wouldn’t have chosen to write the poem “Korea, 1953,” but I woke with old Korean thoughts buzzing about in my head, giving a good imitation of depression.  What I wrote didn’t match any preconceived ideas.  I strove merely to get the buzzing out of my head. 
    Then later I picked up an old copy of The New York Review of Books (1-9-14) and read Michael Greenberg’s “The Daggers of Jorge Luis Borges,” his review of Professor Borges: A Course on English Literature.  What I read so explained my poem that I wondered if I had made a mistake and written the poem after I read the article, but that wasn’t possible.  I began it last night but didn’t finish the article until this morning, and last night I got no further than,
    “Readers of Professor Borges may be taken aback, as I was when Borges jumps from the Norman Conquest of 1066 straight to the eighteenth century, bypassing Chaucer, Milton, Shakespeare, and every other English writer for a period of seven hundred years.  The writer Borges alights upon after this leap in time is Samuel Johnson, who lamented the loss of English’s Teutonic character, believing that the language had been degraded by the Gallicisms of the French.”
    Even this, I believe was read after I wrote the poem, but perhaps not.  At the very least I hadn’t read this paragraph with understanding, nor to the end.  Greenberg goes on to write, “This invasion of Latinate words would expand the language immeasurably and come to comprise about two thirds of modern English.  But for Borges this meant the sacrifice of an austere language of precision and action in favor of one stocked with abstract, vague, and overwrought locutions – the very elements in Spanish that he struggled against in his own work.”
    Borges thereby explains the concluding portion of the poem:
    “. . . He had his
    Place amongst them now

    And could stay as long as he
    Wished and some wished he would,
    But he had anxious thoughts littering
    His system, looking at each
    Morning critically in other
    Ways than those, not letting
    Him finish at all.”

    Borges has at least provided one possible explanation for what happened to me, why I was unwilling to stay in the Marine Corps, why I even looked forward to returning home in 1953 – except one, if one is a young Marine, cannot choose to create war.  I was over there anxious to be in one, something Borges would have approved, but it was winding down, and then a truce put an end to it.  I could have stayed in, but I didn’t enlist to be in the peace-time Marine Corps.
    Years later on the C-17 Program I worked with a fellow who retired as a Captain in the Corps.  He had worked his way up the enlisted ranks and then gone to OCS.  One day we discussed what my career path might have been.  I told him that the only inducement I was offered in order to get me to stay in was the rank of Staff Sergeant.  He said that would have been excellent.  Rank was hard to get after the truce was signed in Korea.  I probably would have become a Tech Sergeant by the time “advisors” were being sent to Viet Nam in the early 60s.  I undoubtedly would have been sent over there.  In this conversation I might have benefitted from Borges “image . . . of an invented figure in his own preoccupation with the idea of an alternate self.  He sometimes spoke of a second Borges who was born the same day as the first Borges, bore his name, but was a different person.  This second Borges was an observer or spectator of the ‘real’ Borges – the profounder Borges – whom the second Borges has come to identify with a character in a movie or a play . . . .”  Except Borges was blind and Helm was sitting at a desk at Boeing speculating with a retired Marine Corps captain.  Helm had become the observer or spectator.  He was no longer “real” in the Borges sense.  But I doubt that Borges was “real” either.  Perhaps he retained more war-like convictions than I did, but perhaps because of his poor eye-sight he was never able to be in the military or fight in a war.  Perhaps if he were sitting there with the captain and me, perhaps he would have disparaged my choice.  Perhaps he would have envied the possibility of becoming a Staff Sergeant and being sent to Viet Nam as an advisor and then being in the actual fighting.  But as it was, Borges though of an age to have been in World War I, waited out the war with his family in Switzerland. 
    Greenberg writes, ‘I have felt epic poetry far more than lyric or elegy, Borges told The Paris Review in 1966, ‘perhaps . . . because I come from military stock.’  But in fact he is unexpectedly stirred by the Saxon elegies of the ninth and tenth centuries . . .”  When I joined the Marine Corps I had one uncle who had been a Marine  and another who had been in the Navy during WWII.  Later on I learned that my great-grandfather, Schyler Helm had been a Sergeant in the Illinois regiment during the Civil War.  But I wonder if there is really anyone who could not say something like that: that they came from military stock?  
    Borges admired the 1872 epic poem The Gaucho Martin Fierro.  “The rhythm of Martin Fierro was drawn from the payada, a kind of gaucho field song with a driving eight-syllable line.  The payada would provide the basis for the guitar-sun ballads known as milongas, which in turn would give way to the tango, Argentina’s most recognized artistic form.
    “Criollo, gaucho life, like that of the characters in the Saxon epics, was marked by an unassailable code of violence.  Death was never far away; nor did the gaucho – who ideally at least, lived in a cult of courage that Borges championed and admired – want to be.  This presence of death, as in the Saxon epics, provoked an elemental expression that he wished to emulate.  He strived for a warrior-like stature, or some equivalent of it, in his work, believing that it could lift us out of what he called the ‘nothingness of personality’ with its picayune neuroses and personal complaints.”  Borges sounds like George Patton here.  I wonder what he would think about PTSD.
     I wasn’t in combat, but I often find thoughts of Korea and my time there flitting through my mind.  I wonder what my thoughts would be like if I had been in combat.  And I wonder what Borges thoughts would be like if he had been in combat.
    I’ve never regretted enlisting in the Marine Corps, but then I’ve never regretted getting out after my enlistment was up and entering college.  Staying in the Corps would have resulted in the “nothingness” of raking the gravel in the front of our Quonset huts (it seemed to me at the time); whereas the literature, history and philosophy I studied seemed far more a “something.”  Did Borges regret his life?  A poem by Edwin Arlington Robinson comes to mind:

Miniver Cheevy, child of scorn,
  Grew lean while he assailed the seasons;
He wept that he was ever born,
  And he had reasons.

Miniver loved the days of old
  When swords were bright and steeds were prancing;
The vision of a warrior bold
  Would set him dancing.

Miniver sighed for what was not,
  And dreamed, and rested from his labors;
He dreamed of Thebes and Camelot,
  And Priam's neighbors.

Miniver mourned the ripe renown
  That made so many a name so fragrant;
He mourned Romance, now on the town,
  And Art, a vagrant.

Miniver loved the Medici,
  Albeit he had never seen one;
He would have sinned incessantly
  Could he have been one.

Miniver cursed the commonplace
  And eyed a khaki suit with loathing;
He missed the medieval grace
  Of iron clothing.

Miniver scorned the gold he sought,
  But sore annoyed was he without it;
Miniver thought, and thought, and thought,
  And thought about it.

Miniver Cheevy, born too late,
  Scratched his head and kept on thinking;
Miniver coughed, and called it fate,
  And kept on drinking.

On the other hand perhaps Michael Greenberg’s review didn’t do Professor Borges justice.  I ordered the book and may have another opinion later on.   

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