Unarmed combat: the illustrated version

Henry Reed’s WWII poetry remains sadly relevant in the age of Trump: “Things may be the same again; and we must fight // Not in the hope of winning but rather of keeping // Something alive…”

More of Henry Reed’s WWII poetry, in honor of National Poetry Month 2017.  Unarmed combat was published in 1945.  I found this version on the Sole Arabian Tree web site, where you can find an audio recording of Reed reading it at the bottom of the page.  English notes after the poem, as always.

LESSONS OF THE WAR

IV. UNARMED COMBAT

In due course of course you will all be issued with
Your proper issue; but until tomorrow,
You can hardly be said to need it; and until that time,
We shall have unarmed combat. I shall teach you
The various holds and rolls and throws and breakfalls
Which you may sometimes meet.

And the various holds and rolls and throws and breakfalls
Do not depend on any sort of weapon,
But only on what I might coin a phrase and call
The ever-important question of human balance,
And the ever-important need to be in a strong
Position at the start.

There are many kinds of weakness about the body,
Where you would least expect, like the ball of the foot.
But the various holds and rolls and throws and breakfalls
Will always come in useful. And never be frightened
To tackle from behind: it may not be clean to do so,
But this is global war.

So give them all you have, and always give them
As good as you get; it will always get you somewhere.
(You may not know it, but you can tie a Jerry
Up without rope; it is one of the things I shall teach.)
Nothing will matter if only you are ready for him.
The readiness is all.

The readiness is all. How can I help but feel
I have been here before? But somehow then,
I was the tied-up one. How to get out
Was always then my problem. And even if I had
A piece of rope I was always the sort of person
Who threw rope aside.

And in my time I had given them all I had,
Which was never as good as I got, and it got me nowhere.
And the various holds and rolls and throws and breakfalls
Somehow or other I always seemed to put
In the wrong place. And, as for war, my wars
Were global from the start.

Perhaps I was never in a strong position.
Or the ball of my foot got hurt, or I had some weakness
Where I had least expected. But I think I see your point.
While awaiting a proper issue, we must learn the lesson
Of the ever-important question of human balance.
It is courage that counts.

Things may be the same again; and we must fight
Not in the hope of winning but rather of keeping
Something alive: so that when we meet our end,
It may be said that we tackled wherever we could,
That battle-fit we lived, and though defeated,
Not without glory fought.


in due course: Merriam-Websterafter a normal passage of time :  in the expected or allotted time.  Reed uses it to have his drill sergeant say something that sounds both military (“in due course”) and silly, simultaneously–definitely a theme in this series of poems:

In due course of course you will all be issued with
Your proper issue

Checking out new uniforms
Getting your issue in Navy boot camp. Picture source: https://goo.gl/DqYe9r

issue: Reed goes whole hog with this one, using it three times in the poem, each with a different meaning, mostly ambiguous even in context.  There are many, many possible meanings for both the nominal (noun) and verbal uses of the word; I’ll give you only the ones that I suspect he means to play with here, all of them from Merriam-Webster:

  • Verb: British :  provide 2b, supply.  Now: Merriam-Webster says that this is a British usage, but the verb is most certainly used in that way in the US military.  Note the weird preposition that can occur here, although it doesn’t have to, at least not in the US.  In the poem: On Twitter: I read that all members will be issued with a new card valid for 10 years.  On the other hand, it’s perfectly fine without a preposition, too: in Switzerland every single male has to serve in the military between 18-20 years old. they are issued a rifle and keep it after serving  (Twitter)  Now that DeVos is Secretary of Education will each teacher be issued a rifle to guard against Grizzly bears?   (Twitter)
  • Noun: in the military, your “issue” is something that you receive, that gets distributed to you; in this case, it’s what you get in basic training.  That’s typically uniforms, basic supplies, and stuff like that.  Here’s an example from QuoraAt Army boot camp, the recruits first process in at the reception station. There, they are given their initial clothing issue, which includes BDU’s, dress uniforms, boots, black shoes called low quarters, belts, hats, coats, and even towels, socks, and underwear.  Another example: …we all received a complete Navy sea bag issue of clothing.  (How I learned about life: Navy boot camp, by Edward Olsen)
  • Noun: this word can also mean children, offspring, progeny.  
  • …and of course there is an issue in the sense of what Merriam-Webster calls a vital or unsettled matter.  

Here’s the third appearance of issue in the poem:

But I think I see your point.
While awaiting a proper issue, we must learn the lesson
Of the ever-important question of human balance.

ball of the foot: a picture will be worth a thousand words here.

to go whole hog: in closing, here’s one that I somehow couldn’t find a way to not use.  To go whole hog: Merriam-Webster defines it as to do something in a very thorough and complete way.  How I used it: Reed goes whole hog with this one, using it three times in the poem, each with a different meaning, mostly ambiguous even in context.

 

4 thoughts on “Unarmed combat: the illustrated version”

  1. To issue proper issue for whatever issue arises. I wish I had the correct issue for the issues I see erupting around me that I seem helpless to effect either with or without issue. And of course being without issue I am not. For I have four children and they bring issues of their own ….

    Liked by 1 person

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