Train of Thought

Okay, I don’t like to dwell on the past; but, I have WWI on my mind of late. I have a whole backlog of charming ‘life in Italy’ posts that I’ve been meaning to write as soon as poetry month is under control. The one about how my daughter is afraid of the recorded voice of “the train lady” that emanates from the train station below our house or her first experience with the Feliniesque small circus. Then there’s the possible post that has a photo recipe of how to make real Ragu like an Italian.
But, instead, I’m still thinking about WWI. I started writing a poem about Georges Méliès, one of the first film-makers, the father of special effects and author of the first political film: L’affair Dreyfus (1899). I knew nothing about Méliès until, in the course of my work as a translator and language coach I was working with Dr. Barbara Grespi. Now, Barbara is one of those insanely intelligent (she’s written books on cinema history), sophisticated, and stunningly beautiful Italian women who makes someone like me feel like, well, a putz.
Anyway, I must not be too much of a putz, because she was asking me to work with her on an English language presentation about tarot iconography in the films of Georges Méliès. We were SKYPE’ing and I said George who? She said, “He’s famous for the film of the Moon with the rocket in it’s eye.” Sure enough, I wiki-ed and then Youtube-ed and came up with familiar images.
In the process I also got a bit of information stuck in my head like a piece of spinach between a canine and a bicuspid. Méliès made tons of films but then went bankrupt and sold his film business. Then he started making and selling toys at Gare du Montparnasse (a big train station in Paris). Five hundred of his films were confiscated by the French army in WWI in order to recycle the celluloid into heels for soldier’s boots.
Finally, last week I started writing the poem that had been poking and shifting in the back of my head for over a year. I wrote 10 lines of blank verse and then I sat still and started again. It all came in rhyming couplets (which I rarely use and then never one after the other) and it turned into the first eight lines of this sonnet that looked at me and then spat at my feet, asking: “why are you writing about a toy maker and a special effects man when the ground is full of the blood and bones of the people who died wearing those boots?”
It suddenly felt as if those dead stood up and cried in me, all at once. And the poem doesn’t do them justice, there was Siegfried Sassoon for that. I know that it’s not worth crying over anymore, those who died in the confused slaughterhouse of WWI would be dead now even if there hadn’t been a war; it’s too late. Still, I can’t quite shake the sensation of hopeless frustration at being unable to either stem or adequately memorialize such loss.