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A Soldier's Sonata

Atlee Washington
1915 - 1983



Article: The poetry of Atlee Washington, recovered


Atlee Washington was born in Northport, Ala., the eldest son of an African American Baptist minister who had pastored congregations in Niagara Falls and later, Chicago, where Atlee moved with his family when he was three. The city became his lifelong home with the exception of his time in the Army Air Force during World War II when he was sent to Tuskegee, Ala. (ironically very near his birthplace) and to his frustration of not seeing action overseas, Miami Beach. While many would have coveted those postings, it was for the eager African American enlistee his first conscious experience of the segregated South. Complicating that adjustment was his status as an officer (he had been sent to officer's training school almost immediately after basic training and was a lieutenant) in the segregated armed forces.

A Soldier's Sonata is in part an autobiographical account of that experience but somewhat more his imagined, and it is reasonably assumed, longed for account of battle in the ultimate good and evil struggle of the Second World War, informed in no small part by his decidedly left-wing politics at the time. The poem avoids reconciling those two notions - which had been expressed broadly in the African American community in the "Double V Campaign" (V for victory against totalitarianism abroad and V for victory against Jim Crow at home) - in favor of concentrating on victory over evil. Other poems, some of which remain lost, address the harsh reality of segregation and institutionalized racism in America.

I am not sure if my father wrote this entirely during the war or if he added to it during his time at the Breadloaf Writer's Conference at Middlebury College in Vermont in the early 1950s, or, contemporaneously to that, while at the University of Chicago where he received his Masters in English. There are some indications it was at least modified - a set of now lost galleys had his handwritten corrections on them - and the subtitle to one section, "Pearl Harbor Day, 1941," suggests it was written, or at least named, after there had been other Pearl Harbor Days. Also, the reference to the battle of Stalingrad is written more past tense than would have likely been possible at the time. More telling is the mention of two children writing to the soldier. He did have two children, my brother and me, but we did not arrive until the 1950s.

In any case, here is the main poem of "A Soldier's Sonata" as it was published in the July 1961 issue of Mainstream magazine.

- Robin Washington


FIRST MOVEMENT


So many thoughts and emotions come to trouble
the spirit ... so many occurences and objects in the
physical world brought their burden into me ...

There was happiness also: singing beauty of rain
... life adding to life, as though a girl sat laughing
on a grave ... flashes of the one human spirit self
consciously finding itself broken into bits and given
to each of us - broken and yet whole ... and the sure
faith that one dawn there will be a great day for us
all - such a morning as you never thought to see,
when the guns are still ...

These were things, among others ... they troubled
the spirit: at length they made a music there.




Sonnet

Now I, who lately cried for rest, return
my vision earthward in unquiet shame
knowing no poet honoring the name
has peace on earth, until his flesh is borne
slowly and cold to the last citadel;
so I will mix in all the goodly fray
great forces now are shaping ... the array
is mighty, and the struggle terrible.
With all have bled to help a fellowman,
the humble and the homeless ones: the throng
who are the least of these -- all who are not
fearful of blood to work a better plan
of life ... it is with these I cast my lot.




I

(Pearl Harbor Day, 1941)

The whistles blow again ...
when last I heard them sound
tones so imperative,
I knew the guns were silent on the fields
and in the roads of France;
and (afterwards I learned) throughout the world
folks broke out in song and dance.

But in our little backwoods house
my mother knelt with us and said
gently, let us pray.
By the window there she spoke
her words of gratitude;
we listened soberly, although
we scarcely understood.

The whistles blow again,
but now I understand ...
the golden snake has caught its prey,
the people and the land
will bleed ... but this
inhuman sacrifice
will not be lost:
it is a fertile seed we sow.
I am filled with sorrow, but no fear
is in me while I stand to hear
the whistles blow.


II

Spring walks to me through February mornings ...
I walk to spring:

under the ice
in deep-wandering roots
the fertile sap is stirring -
a living stream
warm as the milk
in the breast of a mother.

Spring talks to me through February mornings ...
I talk to spring:

sounds of cracking ice ...
the drip of water
from roofs ... the high lonely
cry of the wind ...
and my voice, heart-beats
against daybreak ... a breath
caught suddenly on the moment
when I know I may never walk
again with you in springtime -
with you, beloved.

Spring comes to me through all this February ...
I go to spring:

I know that leaves will gleam
in sunlight ... ice
will melt to leaping water ...
and these, the many voices of my heart
will find an answer.

Where I go I shall meet springtime
gladly ... living
and sharing with innumerable comrades
all over earth, the task
to make for all men and enduring spring
where no bombs fall.


SECOND MOVEMENT

III


No, this is not glorious fight
against evil; this is red dust
and red mud ... long endurance;
this is not night hung with dizzy flares ...
nor nights alive with shellburst ... nor clatter
of machine guns ... nor ack-ack
spattered through long sinewy searchlight fingers
nor lean sting of rifle fire ...
nor the loud scream a bomb makes
falling.

This is silence waiting ... day sky
blue as night sky against the moon ...
skies howling with grey rain.

When the Big Dipper wheels low
under the North Star,
why does your heart not burst?


IV


You come slowly
at first through uncertainties
like a wood-wanderer
in underbrush, tangled,
green and living ...
in the depths you finger out
numberless secret ways
where thoughts beat slow cadence
against silence ... beats
take life in sound,
and go skipping away into time -
jitterbugging in frantic rhyme.


V


No heroics ...

I would rather be seeking out
the intimate secrets of your womanhood,
sharing the pulse of your blood,
pressing the goodness out ...
I would rather from dusk to dawn
be lost to the searching shells,
lost in the dreamy smells
of flesh I am lying on ...

to be with you in blue shadow -
forgetting the grey
death in the outer human world ... to lie awake
in secret song until the day shall break
and the shadows flee away ...

No heroics ...


VI


The dream is not blue winter night
under the blankets soft and white
as snow;
the dream is not a wish (hung by a hair)
falling too soon into the darkness where
other dreams go;
this dream is that imperishable span
of life men know
when beauty chokes the inarticulate heart of man:
the dream is his intrinsic self
roguish with that tantalizing elf,
the ivory mischief ...


THIRD MOVEMENT

VII


The world is at war, but most
of the world does not know:
only man in his prideful woe.
And the innocent children of men
are crushed out, like flowers
when the marching boots stamp over them
(The flowers know ...
but sometimes from a trampled stem
blossoms laugh again.)


VIII

They have drowned us in a sea of tears
from our own eyes;
we will drown them in a sea of blood ...
smashing their wise
conceit ...
breaking their skins
and our likewise;
but we will no more drown.


IX


I can tell you this: be sure
black men from Alabama
with the sun hot in their skins
are no longer strangers to the white
students from Oregon;
they are caught in the same trap,
and making the same fight
against loneliness ... against
tears for the hometown's twilight lullaby,
for a night with the girl,
for the kid-sister's bright eye
where the jitterbugs whirl.

In the pangs of this upheaval,
through the flux of war,
truth sifts down slowly, like
raindrops, falling when the rain is over,
from the willow leaves ...
so we learn to our dismay how small
the distance is between man and his brother -
how artificial the wall -
how difficult to smother
are the germs of living.


X


This is the night of the full moon
where you walk among the hills ...
where you stumble on the gutter ... where you lie asleep ...
where your rifle keeps guard against dawn;
a full moon laughs over the streets back home
on the woman who waits ... on the one who cannot wait ...
This is the night of the new moon
in the foxholes of New Guinea ... in the sweat
a man give to the jungle ... in the blood
a man gives to a bullet:
the full moon
on your helmet is a thing the ... Japs will love.*

Do you, moon, remember Stalingrad
where the Nazis found no further east -
death, but no further east? - when the naked
spirit of man wrung with anguish and rage
at the raped land - the corpses answering to the wind's
touch on the freezing willows ... answering too
the mutilated stone-eyed skeletons
still walking in blasted woods, hoveling in earth
but breathing no despair, no surrender ...
when the Man saw the nature of the beast -
that defecation prowling in human form -
lightning of anger fired his soul ... ten thousand
hammers of hatred beat magnificently:
(Cry, Death to the invaders! - Blood of the blood
that flows in us - and you, sad Little Homeland,
behind us the river sleeps - we yield no farther!)

- were you, old moon, up there above the city,
shining on that new-forged man of steel
whose homely love became relentless strength
to hate - whereby to lay aside all hope,
all tears and yesterdays, and all tomorrows ...
to hold one stubborn inch of stony rubble,
hurling a stroke which shook the plunderers
to pause, and puzzle in bewilderment -
falter - and reel in wondershock of terror ...
do you, moon, remember when the screams,
the howling and the thunder, the cries
fell suddenly into tired quiet there ...
when bombs fell no more, when the sky
sifted stillness and the kindly snows
over the gutted city, resting now
to catch its breath, and spreading out
strong weary limbs against the frozen Volga?
... Well, we remember Stalingrad:
it is part of our heritage.
And the full moon is live now
on the roof tops ... on that roof under which
all the life my life breathed when
two children breathe:
I pray for you each night ...
I love you ...
It was life the mail-call brought that time,
not just a letter done with baby fingers.

So laugh, full moon,
and for a moment I will laugh also,
then sleep the night away until
the bugles blow
daybreak ... the grimy business ...


XI


The black world about us now is filled
with no misery;
men have killed life,
which jumped so gladly in the veins;
comrades, it is our high destiny
to break the final link of Fascist chains.

The old world dies: we will not bring it back,
for we have learned the terror of our strength.
Against black,
tortured, unforgiven yesterdays
we nurtured seeds of fuller life ... at length
the season comes: we plant the furrowed ways.
And no man living, no one yet to live
can hold us back ...
whether he, with fellow blood-hound Nazis,
slaughter Lidice;
whether beneath polite purr-spoken phrases
he murder China;
whether he splash our blood across the wide
unresting Volga;
whether he be in Commons or in Congress,
we know him well;
we know him when he denigrates the eagle
into Jim Crow -
we know him when the proud and regal lion
assumes the jackal.

Be warned:
we know our enemies ...
we are not fooled ...
This war is indivisible ... we
are indivisible: we are the multitudes
of earth, and the earth is ours - its fullness.


XII


Know ye, O men
who handle the guns,
in town or field -
and you courageous women, all
strong in strength that does not yield:

the lines are tightly drawn,
the old taboos must fall:
one freedom, full, complete
the earth - that is the goal.

I, too, carry a gun!




* I personally find distressing, and apologize to anyone offended, for the word "Jap" in Part X. Though it is easily defended as a product of its time found on any newspaper headline, my parents took pride in not following the conventionalities of their day. It's also possible that I'm missing the point and his use of the pejorative is as commentary.