Movement of bodies: the illustrated version

Fields, lexical and otherwise: Henry Reed’s sweetly funny WWII poem “Movement of bodies.”

As National Poetry Month draws to a close, here is more of the gentle humor of Henry Reed.  This version of Movement of bodies, published in 1950, comes from the Sole Arabian Tree web site, where you can find a recording of Henry Reed reading the poem.

If you remember this one from last year: I’ve added some more explanations of the vocabulary, as well as some of your comments!

LESSONS OF THE WAR

III. MOVEMENT OF BODIES
Those of you that have got through the rest, I am going to rapidly
Devote a little time to showing you, those that can master it,
A few ideas about tactics, which must not be confused
With what we call strategy. Tactics is merely
The mechanical movement of bodies, and that is what we mean by it.
Or perhaps I should say: by them.

Strategy, to be quite frank, you will have no hand in.
It is done by those up above, and it merely refers to,
The larger movements over which we have no control.
But tactics are also important, together or single.
You must never forget that, suddenly, in an engagement,
You may find yourself alone.

This brown clay model is a characteristic terrain
Of a simple and typical kind. Its general character
Should be taken in at a glance, and its general character
You can, see at a glance it is somewhat hilly by nature,
With a fair amount of typical vegetation
Disposed at certain parts.

Here at the top of the tray, which we might call the northwards,
Is a wooded headland, with a crown of bushy-topped trees on;
And proceeding downwards or south we take in at a glance
A variety of gorges and knolls and plateaus and basins and saddles,
Somewhat symmetrically put, for easy identification.
And here is our point of attack.

But remember of course it will not be a tray you will fight on,
Nor always by daylight. After a hot day, think of the night
Cooling the desert down, and you still moving over it:
Past a ruined tank or a gun, perhaps, or a dead friend,
In the midst of war, at peace. It might quite well be that.
It isn’t always a tray.

And even this tray is different to what I had thought.
These models are somehow never always the same: for a reason
I do not know how to explain quite. Just as I do not know
Why there is always someone at this particular lesson
Who always starts crying. Now will you kindly
Empty those blinking eyes?

I thank you. I have no wish to seem impatient.
I know it is all very hard, but you would not like,
To take a simple example, to take for example,
This place we have thought of here, you would not like
To find yourself face to face with it, and you not knowing
What there might be inside?

Very well then: suppose this is what you must capture.
It will not be easy, not being very exposed,
Secluded away like it is, and somewhat protected
By a typical formation of what appear to be bushes,
So that you cannot see, as to what is concealed inside,
As to whether it is friend or foe.

And so, a strong feint will be necessary in this, connection.
It will not be a tray, remember. It may be a desert stretch
With nothing in sight, to speak of. I have no wish to be inconsiderate,
But I see there are two of you now, commencing to snivel.
I do not know where such emotional privates can come from.
Try to behave like men.

I thank you. I was saying: a thoughtful deception
Is always somewhat essential in such a case. You can see
That if only the attacker can capture such an emplacement
The rest of the terrain is his: a key-position, and calling
For the most resourceful manoeuvres. But that is what tactics is.
Or I should say rather: are.

Let us begin then and appreciate the situation.
I am thinking especially of the point we have been considering,
Though in a sense everything in the whole of the terrain,
Must be appreciated. I do not know what I have said
To upset so many of you. I know it is a difficult lesson.
Yesterday a man was sick,

But I have never known as many as five in a single intake,
Unable to cope with this lesson. I think you had better
Fall out, all five, and sit at the back of the room,
Being careful not to talk. The rest will close up.
Perhaps it was me saying ‘a dead friend’, earlier on?
Well, some of us live.

And I never know why, whenever we get to tactics,
Men either laugh or cry, though neither is strictly called for.
But perhaps I have started too early with a difficult task?
We will start again, further north, with a simpler problem.
Are you ready? Is everyone paying attention?
Very well then. Here are two hills.


English notes

This poem is full of delightful plays on multiple meanings of words, most of which I’ll skip to focus on the lexical field of geographic terms.  Reed uses a bunch of terms that refer to elements of topography (Merriam-Webster: the art or practice of graphic delineation in detail usually on maps or charts of natural and man-made features of a place or region especially in a way to show their relative positions and elevations) as metaphors for a woman’s body.  Many of these are terms that a typical native speaker (including myself) wouldn’t necessarily be able to define specifically, although I would guess that most people would at least know that they refer to elements of a terrain, and might even be able to group them into two classes: ones that refer to elevations (high points), and ones that refer to depressions (Merriam-Webster: a place or part that is lower than the surrounding area :  a depressed place or part :  hollow ).  I’ll split them out in that way, then follow them with a few miscellaneous terms.  (All links to Merriam-Webster are to the definition for that word.)  For a reminder, here’s a paragraph from near the beginning of the poem:

Here at the top of the tray, which we might call the northwards,
Is a wooded headland, with a crown of bushy-topped trees on;
And proceeding downwards or south we take in at a glance
A variety of gorges and knolls and plateaus and basins and saddles,
Somewhat symmetrically put, for easy identification.
And here is our point of attack.

Elevations

bond1
The famous “grassy knoll.” I got this off of a JFK assassination conspiracy theory website, but have no idea to whom it should actually be credited.

knoll: Merriam-Webstera small round hill :  mound.  The term grassy knolla small hill covered with grass, is closely associated with the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, particularly with conspiracy theories about it.

headland: Merriam-Webstera point of usually high land jutting out into a body of water :  promontory

plateau: Merriam-Webster: a usually extensive land area having a relatively level surface raised sharply above adjacent land on at least one side :  tableland

Depressions

palouse-river-gorge
The Palouse River Gorge. Picture source: https://goo.gl/zkU7CN

gorge: Merriam-Webstera narrow passage through land; especially :  a narrow steep-walled canyon or part of a canyon

basin: Merriam-Webstera large or small depression in the surface of the land or in the ocean floor.  As I speak a bit of French, it’s difficult not to make the association here with le bassin, the pelvis.

b5_1211
Picture source: armystudyguide.com, https://goo.gl/SNBe4g

saddle: Merriam-Webstera ridge connecting two higher elevations; a pass in a mountain range.  In English, this has the same connections with sex as it does in French: J’en ai-t-y connu des lanciers, // Des dragons et des cuirassiers // Qui me montraient à me tenir en selle // A Grenelle!

Phil d’Ange points out that…

A few notes on some English/French topographical terms : “plateau” and “gorge” are exactly the same and have the same meanings . “Basin” is just one of the common English misspellings, here for “bassin” . But “un bassin” is also used in topography, not only to mean the pelvis, and is applied to large depressions . In France you have “le bassin parisien” and “le bassin aquitain”, rather wide surfaces . On the other hand we have nothing like a saddle in topography . “Une selle” is never used in that way, and I’d add that it is not related to sex either, except in specific occasions like the old song you quote . There are other words associated to horse riding that are common about sexual activities : monter, chevaucher, etc…

Others

wooded: Merriam-Webstercovered with growing trees

engagement: In the context of the poem, the most obvious meaning is the military one of a hostile contact between enemy forces (Merriam-Webster).  Presumably Reed is also playing here on the more commonly-used meaning of a commitment to marriage (my best guess on all of the crying trainees).

You must never forget that, suddenly, in an engagement,
You may find yourself alone.

The French cognate has a much wider range of uses/meanings than the American English word.  As Phil d’Ange puts it:

A word about “engagement, a French word that has the same meanings : military and commitment to any activity with a moral virtue : social, political, humanitary causes and for some weird reason to marriage (I guess it can be a humanitary cause in some cases) . Seriously “un engagement” is also a promise, a commitment to any act, moral or not : “Il a pris l’engagement de réparer ma voiture avant lundi”, “… l’engagement de me prêter 1000 €” . And it also means hiring an employee . “Engager” a housemaid, an accountant, a bodyguard ( that’s my daily life ha ha ) .

The situation seems to be different in the United Kingdom, where the range of meanings/uses of engagement is closer to that of French.  Osyth put it this way:

We use engage in that way too …. I would ‘engage’ a butler or a garage to fix my car and I might be ‘engaged’ to do a piece of work for a magazine. When a couple is preparing for marriage they are ‘engaged’ which makes it alarming or appropriate depending on your feelings about the marital state (or more likely your own experience) that we also engage in combat!

tactics versus strategy: tactics are short-term–a tactical nuclear weapon is one that you would use on the battlefield.  (Not very fun to think about, is it?  When I tell people that some aspects of the peacetime military seem kinda silly and they ask me for examples, I always tell them about our “what to do in case of nearby nuclear weapon explosion” drills.)  In contrast, strategic nuclear weapons are meant for the bigger picture–the stuff that you would use to hammer the other guy’s country in such a way that he becomes unable to continue fighting at all.  My tactics in my professional life mostly consist of making schedules to ensure that I don’t miss deadlines, while my strategy is the set of papers that I plan to publish in the next few years.  From the poem:

Strategy, to be quite frank, you will have no hand in.
It is done by those up above, and it merely refers to,
The larger movements over which we have no control.
But tactics are also important, together or single.
You must never forget that, suddenly, in an engagement,
You may find yourself alone.

to be at peace:  “Calm and serene. My daughter was miserable all week, but she’s at peace now that her tests are over.”  (TheFreeDictionary.com)

How Reed uses it in the poem (quite brilliantly):

After a hot day, think of the night
Cooling the desert down, and you still moving over it:
Past a ruined tank or a gun, perhaps, or a dead friend,
In the midst of war, at peace.

to fall out: in a military context, the most common meaning of this is  to leave one’s place in the ranks (Merriam-Webster).   From the Military.com web site:

Fall out

The command is “Fall Out.” On the command, you may relax in a standing position or break ranks (move a few steps out of formation). You must remain in the immediate area, and return to the formation on the command “Fall In.” Moderate speech is permitted.

How it appears in the poem:

                                              I think you had better
Fall out, all five, and sit at the back of the room

One thought on “Movement of bodies: the illustrated version”

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