Poetry

Poetry Sunday: “Full Military Honors,”
by Elisabeth Corley

Commentary by Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor

The choice of today’s poem for Veterans Day is an obvious one, but I especially like that it does more than just pay homage to soldiers fallen in battle; it also carries an implicit critique of the wars that give rise to such battles, accomplishing what so many of us would like to do, support our soldiers as individuals without condoning war. How does “Full Military Honors” manage to be both homage and elegy? It works by means of a number of subtle but powerful craft devices: image, careful control of diction and syntax, and manipulation of sound.

Imagery is language used by poets, novelists and other writers to create images—sensory pictures—in the mind of the reader, and it includes figurative language designed to appeal to sight, hearing, touch, smell, and taste. [https://literaryterms.net/imagery] One type is metaphor’s direct comparison of two things, as in “My love is a rose.” A simile also makes a comparison, but less directly: “my love is like a rose” or “my love is as red as a rose.” Onomatopoeia is a form of auditory imagery in which the word uses sounds to evoke the thing it describes, as in Poe’s famous  “tintinnabulation of the bells.” Another tool in imagery, personification (sometimes also called anthropomorphism), endows animals and objects with human characteristics. [Id.]

Two other subcategories of imagery are pertinent to today’s discussion: synecdoche and metonymy. In synecdoche, a thing is referred to by the name of one of its parts. If you call your car “my wheels,” you are using synecdoche because a part (wheel) stands for the concept of the whole car. Metonymy is a bit different; it replaces the name of a thing with the name of something else with which it is closely associated—what you are doing when you refer to your car as “my ride.” Calling military officers “the brass” or a king “the crown” are examples of metonymy. Neither “the brass” nor “the crown” are actual parts of what they represent; rather, they are concrete images of things often associated with the military and with authoritarian power.

All are at work in today’s poem, opening with an image of an empty boot, upside down and swinging in a stirrup (called a “tree” in the poem and in the vernacular of horsemanship). Near the end, the boot returns, this time to rail against war. The boot is metonymy for the absent rider and soldier whose death is being mourned, and it represents something more: all dead soldiers, and arguably, even all military pageantry and its power to romanticize the horrors of war. Because the empty boot and riderless horse have, through time and custom become a widely recognized image of a fallen soldier, they belong to an especially potent category of image called a symbol.

The empty boot relates closely to another image that comes a few lines later, “[n]othing left of feet but multitudinous bones.” Here is an instance of synecdoche, the feet being just one part of entire human bodies that also decay quickly in jungle heat. In a way, that follow-up image interrogates the one that came before so that instead of being merely moved by the idea of the absent soldier, we are forced to consider more concrete and horrific implications of his absence. The boot is empty because the foot that once was in it was wounded and has decomposed, an association supported by the speaker’s refusal to consider what human traces—blood? bone fragments?—may yet linger inside.

Notice the way that the boot, then the foot, pave the way later for the “barefoot boy” to appear in the poem. In another instance of synecdoche, that boy represents more than a single person. He is one part representing a whole community of villagers and their agrarian way of life. In another context, “barefoot boy” might be a pleasant, bucolic image, but here, because we are reminded of the barefoot corpse, it is an ominous portent. One that proves true, because as the poem will make clear later, that boy and all he represents will become what the military calls “collateral damage.” The image of the boy flicking his feet against the flank of a water buffalo comes almost as a vision of Eden before the fall or Vietnam before the war, and it dissipates quick as mist in the series of elegiac questions that follow. In lines 15-18, the poem asks what is to become of the barefoot boy, and by extension, all civilians displaced, hurt, or killed by war, in a series of painful, elegiac questions: Where is the buffalo, and where is the boy, when resources are destroyed? The specter of famine is raised by  “[w]hen the town runs out of rice.” The image that follows, “runs out of lime,” is yet more chilling, reminding us that entire villages were consumed, and their inhabitants murdered, in this war. Like all these questions, the last (“What does the cortege tell”) is rhetorical, leaving readers to come up with their own answers if they can.

The poem does not answer the questions directly, but it does tell us the effect of that cortege and empty boot, inducing pity and fear and grief in spectators. Until line 19, the rebuke for the waste of human life is implicit, but it becomes explicit in the next-to-last line when the boot acquires a voice and “rails at the bootless journey.” The pun is painful, “bootless” referring literally to the dead soldier now without his boots and also an archaic term meaning “futile” or “in vain.” But something in us romanticizes senseless tragedy, and so the living—we “students of history”—are entranced by the sight and “fall under its spell.” Here is where “Full Military Honors” finally has it both ways by acknowledging the power, beauty, and pain of the riderless horse ritual at the same time it cautions against falling in love with the sight.

The poem also carefully controls diction, grammar, and syntax to make its point. Let’s look first at how its sentences employ subject. Subject is not the same as point of view, the perspective from which the poem’s story is told. Except for one brief entrance of an “I” in stanza  2, the point of view in “Full Military Honors” is omniscient third, the speaker at a remove and commenting on what is being seen. The poem may be ekphrastic, inspired by the author’s having viewed a photo or video of the funerary scene it describes, but the Poet’s Note here makes me think that instead it reports from life.

In the first two stanzas, the sentence subjects are: “boot” and “he” (referring to the horse), with no human subjects until the first and only instance of “I” in line 6. In the third stanza, the sentence subjects are “the world” and “nothing”—general nouns representing both ends of the spectrum of, well, pretty much everything we know. In stanza 4 the subjects are “boy” and “he,” and in the last stanza they are “the buffalo,” “the barefoot boy,” “the cortege,” “foot,” and “students.” Except for the “I,” the boy, and those “students,” the agency in the poem is carried by objects, animals, or a human body part. And what do the human subjects do with their agency? The I does not “want to know” what is in the boot, the students are entranced by a romantic illusion of war, and the boy is about to die. In this poem, the living are in denial, deluded, or doomed, and the truth is told by the dead. The verbs chosen for the poem are equally telling: “moves,” “lacks,” “want,” “shrinks,” “goes,” “flap,” “go,” “is,” “runs out,” “tell,” “rail” and “fall”—a litany of futility, diminishment, and loss.

I’m also impressed by the way this poem employs sound, the music subtle but powerful. It’s free verse (no metrical or end-rhyme pattern) organized into five stanzas of variable lengths having 4, 3, 4, 3, and 6 lines. (You can also read it as having four stanzas of 4, 3, 4, and 9 lines.) There is a sense of a pattern, then, but one that is neither fixed (as in a received form) or consistently followed, perhaps intended to enact the way we feel at military funerals, yearning for a way to make sense of the tragedy. Another source of music is Corley’s restrained use of end rhyme. Full end rhymes open (“side / “ride”) and close (“tell” / “spell”) the poem. Beyond that, lines are rich with internal rhymes and other repetitions of sound. Consider the buried rhyme of “go” with “buffalo” in lines 14-15, and how the nasal -n resonates through stanzas 2 and 3’s “down,” “don’t,” “want,” “in,” “bone,” “jungle,” and “bones.” “Multitudinous” is a remarkable word whose five syllables are onomatopoeic, making the visceral sound of what it describes—a plurality of bones. My favorite example of this poem’s music is the consonance of  “backward boot” at the beginning and “barefoot boy” near the end, those initial hard -b sounds beating out a tattoo evocative of the drums that accompany military corteges.

The speaker seems to turn, at the end, away from the scene, as if she or he shares perspective with that “brave foot” (and by extension, with the dead soldier) inveighing against the futility of war. The poem stops short of declaring this outright, but my sense is that the speaker is not among those who fall under the spell of the cortege, or that if she does, she at least falls with an awareness of doing so. Once again, the poem is—remarkably—able to have it both ways, and I offer it today in that spirit, thanking the soldiers who give their lives for our country and also abhorring the wars that lead to their sacrifices.

 

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