Desert Flowers (Keith Douglas, 1943)
Living in a wide landscape are the flowers –
Rosenberg I only repeat what you were saying –
the shell and the hawk every hour
are slaying men and jerboas, slaying
the mind: but the body can fill
the hungry flowers and the dogs who cry words
at nights, the most hostile things of all.
But that is not new. Each time the night discards
draperies on the eyes and leaves the mind awake
I look each side of the door of sleep
for the little coin it will take
to buy the secret I shall not keep.
I see men as trees suffering
or confound the detail and the horizon.
Lay the coin on my tongue and I will sing
of what others never set eyes on.
I once attended a lecture on English poet and World War II soldier, Keith Douglas, at the University of York, U.K. when I was a graduate student there. I don’t even remember why, and I am inclined to think I attended on a whim. I knew nothing of Douglas. His name was not familiar to me. Perhaps a professor had encouraged me and others in my class to attend. Perhaps I simply wanted to make the most of any and all literary opportunities York had to offer. I was still very new there, and everything was fresh. If I remember correctly, the presenter was a doctoral student, not even in possession of his doctorate yet, and he was soft spoken, understated, and rather dry. Yet, his chosen focus for his talk was Douglas’ poem “Desert Flowers,” and as he read and discussed this brief poem I nearly gasped aloud at the line, “I see men as trees suffering.” That line has never left me, and in light of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine this week, I found myself reminded again of this imagery. My aim with this week’s post is to draw upon this vivid war poem as a form of bearing witness to the current suffering in Ukraine, and I hope you will find here an invitation to bear witness as well.
Keith Douglas admired many of the World War I poets, such as Isaac Rosenberg, killed in 1918 and referenced in the second line of “Desert Flowers.” “Desert Flowers” is thought to have been written while Douglas was recovering from being wounded by a mine in a north African campaign. He convalesced in El Ballah General Hospital, Palestine, where he likely penned the poem in 1943. Douglas was killed at the age of twenty-four as the Allies invaded Normandy, three days following D-Day, on June 9th. “Desert Flowers” anticipates not only his death but also the way that his death will cause his perceptions of war, as captured in his poetry, to carry further, and with greater influence, after the tragic cutting short of his young life. “Lay the coin on my tongue and I will sing/ of what others never set eyes on.”
Douglas’s line “ I see men as trees suffering,” is replete with metaphorical significance. When I first heard it at the lecture, the name of the presenter now lost to time, I immediately recognized it as a reference to the biblical passage in the book of Mark in which Jesus places his hands on the eyes of a blind man at Bethsaida, giving him sight. The King James Version in Mark, Chapter 8 reads:
23 And he took the blind man by the hand, and led him out of the town; and when he had spit on his eyes, and put his hands upon him, he asked him if he saw ought.
24 And he looked up, and said, I see men as trees, walking.
25 After that he put his hands again upon his eyes, and made him look up: and he was restored, and saw every man clearly.
The blind man “sees men as trees, walking” (8:24). Keith Douglas, disoriented on the battlefield, poised between life and death, sees men “as trees suffering.” The blind man’s declaration that he perceives men as “trees, walking” signifies the beginning of his healing, while in Douglas’s harrowing reality, the same verse communicates trauma. What he sees is suffering. Is it men? Is it trees? He can barely make it out, and in this netherworld, perhaps it does not really matter. That is the point. Everything is blurry in this bombed out ether.
I have an affinity for an unexpectedly placed biblical allusion, be it in a song (such as my favorite, Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”), or in literature, or in really any kind of art. Douglas’s application of Mark 8:24 is breathtaking to me in its ironic unexpectedness. A biblical story of healing, of vision being restored is turned on its head to convey confusion, opacity, and loss. The man on the battlefield is losing control over his senses. The details are “confounded.” The horizon is muddled. Sacred bodies of men feed flowers and dogs. Dogs speak. Trees feel and suffer. The night renders men able to see reality too clearly and robs them of sleep. All is disillusionment, chaos, and suffering. Much is inverted, unreal. Unreality becomes reality.
Keith Douglas’s “Desert Flowers” is a startling example of the power of art to thrust us swiftly out of our own lives and into another perspective. In four brief stanzas, Douglas removes me, as a comfortable reader, out of my peaceful life, and positions me square in the center of the bewilderment and demoralization of war. This is the genius of art. Not only does this poem contain a prophetic quality, seeming to allude to Douglas’s coming death more than once, but it appropriates the biblical account of the blind man to devastatingly communicate the horror of war by casting the triumphant Mark account in painful relief against a soldier’s desperate landscape.
As much as I enjoy writing about the simple, gentle, undeniably beautiful things in life, the truth is that sometimes life feels less like being miraculously healed from a lifelong condition and more like awakening in a stupor at night on a war-torn field, confused and in despair. Life holds both of these realities. That is the truth, and agency, armed with truth, supplies its own kind of beauty. The more we can discern and act on truth, the more beauty we can find or create amid all the ugliness. And the more we can enter into the suffering of others, the better able we are to act and make necessary change for a better world. Denial, while perhaps seemingly pleasant for a time, is never beautiful. Well timed, thoughtful action carried out in love in the midst of pain and despair is beautiful.
I see Ukraine suffering. I read the stories and see the photographs and footage of the desolation, and I want to do something about it. For ideas about how to help Ukraine, consider the option suggested here:
How does art help you enter into the experiences of others? What photography, paintings, literature, performance art, or other art forms could you seek out this week to help you bear witness to the experiences of people in Ukraine? Will you join me in pursuing some of the ideas mentioned in the articles above to act in love in support of Ukraine this week?
References and More Reading
Keith Douglas: 1920-1944 A Biography by Desmond Graham. Oxford University Press. London. 1974.
Carol Rumens. The Guardian. “Poem of the week: Desert Flowers by Keith Douglas.” June 9, 2014.