Dulse et decorum est
Pro patria mori.
—Wilfred Owen (1893–1918) *
In the security of my father’s grip
I learned how to honor,
listened as he explained why so many
simple white crosses and stars of David
dignified a hill not far from
our rented apartment.
We were strangers to that country
there for a year then back to the States.
My father reminded me how those soldiers
dead in a war I knew nothing of
could never go home.
In time I discovered the poets
of World War I—Rupert Brooke,
Joyce Kilmer, Wilfred Owen.
Their terrifying words, the horror,
took me back to Suresnes
and later to another white field,
markers laid out above Omaha Beach.
I walked among countrymen, heroes
who died in the first war of my lifetime,
a war that killed fathers, uncles, neighbors,
a war whose survivors came home
and kept secrets.
My hair wet with Normandy rain,
I stood as my father had taught me,
hand on my heart, head bowed.
Coup d’État, May 1958
The bad luck is that our parents
left Paris for three weeks just days
before the coup. Since then no mail,
no phone. Or maybe that is good luck—
the two of us, young teenagers, living here
in the 16th with Madame and her girls,
having to speak French all the time,
learning to eat artichokes with our fingers,
sent on after-school errands for olive oil
or baguettes only to find the shelves
Our teachers warn us to avoid the embassy,
but we go anyway unable to resist the lure
of American hamburgers and milkshakes.
We walk past drab green trucks
parked near Place de la Concorde,
trucks full of soldiers clutching machine guns.
Later, twelve of those soldiers greet me
at the Sèvres Métro, their MAT-49s
aimed straight at my heart.
Life is exciting more than scary
but what do I know of colonies and coups?
In college Monsieur Duverger
conjectures that you can’t win a war
if the country you’ve invaded
doesn’t want you there. Does he mean
his country in Algeria or mine in Viet Nam?
And how would I feel being the colonized
or the colonist, the one terrorized
or the one sent back to a “homeland”
never seen before? In another life
I could be the old woman in a black burqa
finding the body of her grandson
sprawled on the pavement
outside their Algiers apartment
or the young Parisian wife on a bench
in Luxembourg Gardens,
fresh with news of her widowhood,
her husband blown up by plastique.
In August of 1957, when I was thirteen, my father came home from work and surprised my mother, older sister, and me with news that we would be leaving in three weeks to spend a year in Paris. My father, a marketing professor at the University of Connecticut, had accepted a job with the OEEC (Organisation for European Economic Co-operation), an outgrowth of the post World War II Marshall Plan.
Our year in Paris profoundly changed each member of the family. My father continued to do consulting work in Europe, and he and my mother traveled to France as tourists throughout their lives. My mother, to her dying day, could identify every fruit and vegetable in perfectly pronounced French. My sister became a high school French teacher. I spent my junior year in college studying at the Sorbonne and ten years later taught economics for a year in Dijon.
With each year living in France and with every subsequent visit as a tourist, I continued to learn about language, culture, art, history, and, yes, war. As time passes, I always return to that eighth-grade girl, an American girl, at home in Paris ready to fill her open mind with something new.
was born in and raised in Connecticut. When she was in high school, her family moved to Arizona, and she currently lives in Tucson. After teaching for 35 years, she retired as Professor Emerita of Economics from the University of Northern Iowa. Her poems have appeared in The Avocet, Lyrical Iowa, Raw Art Review, The Ekphrastic Review, Beyond Words, Heirlock, Sandcutters, The Blue Guitar, Unstrung, Fine Lines, and MacQueen’s Quinterly; and in a number of anthologies, most recently Stories from the Heartlands and The Very Edge. Her first chapbook, Into This Sea of Green: Poems from the Prairie, was published in 2020.
Author’s website: https://www.janetmrives.com