War! What is it good for? War! Carl Nelson’s volume of war poems may be one answer to the question

Carl Nelson’s volume of war poems may be one answer to the question

By Rosalie Tirella

One of the nicest guys you’ll ever meet, Carl Nelson, works as a teller in a local credit union by day. By night, however, and especially during the weekends, Carl is out scouring bookstores throughout New England for old or outof- print books – specifically those containing poems about war. Any war – ancient battles in China to guerilla fights in the jungles of Vietnam. His goal? To find and preserve the perspectives of the average soldier in war. The grunt. Or the villager whose home has been ransacked by the enemy or the father of a slain soldier. Carl hopes to complile hundreds of the poems he has found in a volume big enough to serve as a kind of reference book for college, even high school, students. Or for any one who really loves poetry. Carl, who lives in East Brookfield with his wife Marie and their daughter Annie, recently sat down to talk with ICT editor Rosalie Tirella about his mammouth undertaking – his labor of love.

Rose: You work in banking but your true love is …

Carl: Literature. … I actually only went to college a year when I graduated from high school in 1968. I pursued other things … . I was laid off from (a floral business). I had a chance to go back to college and I decided to do so. I went to Worcester State [in 1992] to finish my degree in literature and minor in journalism. I graduated in 1995.

Rose: And what drew you to war poetry? Carl: The second year in school, Professor Robert Ellis gave the class an assignment. There were several different topics, and the one I chose was the most obscure. Had I known I may have not gone with it, but I did. It was comparing three writers from World War I and an English poet, and the long, long quote that my teacher used in the assignment, when I went to look for the book, was no longer in print. It was a book by an English writer named David Jones. The book was called “In Parentheses.” The title was a metaphor for the interruption of our lives, socially, by war. Rose: And what year was the book written?

Carl: During World War I. … The main character in the book was actually dying at the end of the war, and his rifle butt, which in those days was made of wood, was being swallowed up by the trunk of a tree, just like the battlefield dead. Eventually there’s nothing there but farmland and other things. I was fixed on this book.

Rose: That’s a wild kind of image. Was it a poem?

Carl: It was written as an epic poem … . I went around to several book stores to try to find a copy. My teacher gave me a little extra time because he knew I wanted to read the book. I eventually found it and the sequel, which was called an { } by the same writer. My teacher kind of put a bug in my ear… .

Rose; Saying this was something you could kind of run with.

Carl: Right. So what started out as a hobby … .

Rose: What made you decide this was IT? Why were you so attracted to this topic?

Carl: I had five uncles in World War II and the youngest of the five – my mother’s brother – was actually killed. The youngest one, who was actually underage, my grandmother lied about his age so he could join his brothers, which was very common in those days, he was the only one who didn’t come back.

Rose: How old was he?

Carl: I believe he was around … 19. He was shot down in the Pacific, over the ocean. So what happened was, when I was young, my mother had all the letters they had written back and forth. … I have those letters.

Rose: So you were reading those letters when you were a kid. You were learning about war through those letters. Was your mom telling you stories [about the war]? So it was oral history and history [by reading] primary sources.

Carl: Yes, very much so.

Rose: You were actually primed for something like this ….

Carl: And not knowing it … . My uncles, they talked a lot about the war. One of my uncles that came back and never married after the war, he suffered a trauma from the war. He had spent some time living in my parents’ house. So I grew up hearing those stories. He was a bridge builder [in the army], which in those days went in [to a battleground] ahead of time, even before the artillery. …He spent a lot of time in a military hospital.

Rose: Suffering from what they called shell-shock in those days? Now it’s rightly known as a medical condition – Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Carl: Today it would be called that.

Rose: Back then they didn’t treat it; so he was bringing back all his pain to his family.

Carl:My father’s mother, who moved here from Sweden in the early 1900s, her youngest brother was gassed in World War I with mustard gas and spent about 15 years dying from that. He’s actually buried here in Worcester, in the old Swedish cemetery. continued on page

Rose: So there’s a history here – of your family being a family of soldiers.

Carl: Yes, I was very close to it and heard a lot of stories.

Rose: Does this project help you work through feelings, better understand your family?

Carl: Yes. You could see [pain] in some of my family. Certainly, there’s a lot of trauma associated with war. In those days, the battles were huge, and a lot of it was hand-to-hand combat. So it was very difficult … .

Rose: So how does this all relate to the war poems you were reading? World War II and I were something you know about, and you felt the poems were voices you wanted to preserve for future generations.

Carl: Absolutely. … For myself, I could say for the 1,500 or 1,600 years worth of war poems I have tried to put together here, are the World War I writers – especially the British. That was a period of time when poetry was very huge and very disciplined. Certainly the British writers were carrying on a long tradition of English literature and poetry. It’s incredible stuff. Incredible. So that drew me. …

Rose: During World War I, there wasn’t any TV, electronic media …

Carl: People read all the time. [back then] This was a very serious way of bringing the war home in an artistic manner. And when it was done by actual soldiers – and women were involved as well – there was a relativeness about the way they brought the message back. It was deep, emotional.

Rose: How so? Give me some examples. Who’s one of your favorite war poets and why?

Carl: [Flipping through some pages of one of his books] This is just a small excerpt. This is from a poem called “Starting from the Front,” and it’s by a Chinese author called Wang Hang, who lived in 687. It says: “From cups of jade that glow/ with wine of grapes at night/ drinking to pipers songs/ we are summoned to fight/ Don’t laugh if we lie drunk upon the battlefield/ How many warriors ever came back safe and sound?”

Rose: Let’s back track a bit.Where did you find all these authors? You said you wanted to unearth all these World War I poets.

Carl: One thing led to another.And as this sort of hobby grew, what I started to do was to go to every used book store I could get into and go straight to the poetry section and grab onto every book I could find.

Rose: So you went all over New England?

Carl: Yeah, I went every where. Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, all over here [Worcester County]. One book led to another. … . I got books from South America, China … . I suddenly started to see there was a thread that ran through all of humanity – for ever – about war. …

Rose: How many poets do you have?

Carl: I have a bout 600 authors between the thousand, 1,500, poems. …I tried to keep it focused in two ways. What I decided NOT to do was to focus too heavily on what I considered [to be] nationalistic poetry. [For example], I could probably find some Middle-eastern authors that embraced the bombing of the Twin Towers. … I don’t want to do that. There’s a lot more terror and a lot more pain and suffering associated with war and its outcome. So what I tried to focus on was the actual soldiers … and what baggage, what intellectual and emotional import they bring back from war.What happens to a soldier? How do they write afterwards? What does it mean to culture? The more I expanded, especially into other countries, I found that, really, the universality of war is not just that people keep going off to war. Rather, it’s the suffering and the cost. … [Picking up a book] This is a really strange book. Again, I just found it in a used book store. It’s a late 1800s, early 1900s book, of Rumanian gypsy poems called “Bard of the??? ” In it, I found some very emotional war poetry. As often, all over Europe, especially in World War II, gypsies were hated. I found some great poems in there.

Rose: Talk about the book some. They were just writing about war in general?

Carl: Right. They were probably Rumanian folk tales that were probably handed down orally. They were collected here, as it says, from peasants. I’ll just read one: “When all the leaves have fallen still on the bough/some two or three remain/ Through the winter these poor leaves remember/ that they must have the pain of falling when sweet spring is in the sky/ He slept beside the furrows and I came and watched his sleep/Hard by the village they had fought/ And so they brought him dead into the village/The battle was the first they fought and he was the first who fell/ Beneath the trees they laid him/None ??? had without his grave and hear the battle’s din/ When they came upon the morrow’s morn to dig his grave, he sorrowed that he must go down to it, not knowing and impotent to ask/ which way the fight had gone/ into his grave they shut him fast/and told him naught of it/and ever since he still doth ask himself which way it went and where can he sleep in peace/ when all the leaves have fallen still on the bough/ some two or three remain/and through the winter these poor leaves remember/that they must know the pain of falling when sweet spring is in the sky.” That’s just gorgeous. That’s gorgeous. And that’s obscure. You don’t get much more obscure than Rumanian peasant folk tales. And so, hopefully, this two volume [work] took on a life of its own.

Rose: Based on what you read, do you think humankind will always go to war and that’s just part of our psyches? That we’re capable of doing these horrendous things?

Carl: Yup. And the greatest writers have the hardest time with it. … I think there is a common thread. As that Chinese poem I read [implies], does anybody ever really come back OK? They [soldiers] all carry incredible stories. …

Rose: Do you think you’ll have some Iraq War poems in your volume, too?

Carl: Yes, I hope to.And if it doesn’t make this particular volume at this time …I can just continue to expand. One of my hopes is that because of what I went through [as a college student] trying to reference that writer who was out of print, what I would like to do is create this anthology [for college libraries].… .

Rose: So the volume is going to be comprised of an introduction by you and the poems.

Carl: Yes.

Rose: So what kind of progress are you making?

Carl: Right now I am working with three of my teachers from Worcester State. Two are still there. One does publishing, and one of my other professors is working with me on the introduction. My former teacher, the one who got me turned onto that original war poem by David Jones, he’s offered to help me as well. Try to steer me in some direction. …. .

Rose: How many poems do you plan on including in your volume?

Carl: Several hundred.

Rose: Did you show any of this to your relatives or any of your relatives who’ve experienced war?

Carl:No. All of my uncles who were in the war have now passed on.

Rose: Did your uncles talk at all about the war with you? I know the World War II generation is very stoic.

Carl: I’ll tell you a funny story. Back in the middle ‘80s, I had two friends who were veterans of World War II. One served in the Pacific and the other served after D Day … in Germany and France. We were actually drinking buddies in a local pub.We used to hang out and just talk. The one who served in Europe is very grandiose, wild, a little bit like the character of Yosarian, who was the main character in [the book] “Catch 22.” He said there was a period of time when they were all in foxholes and they were just bored stiff, but they could hear cannons and firing. So they weren’t firing every minute, the whole day long. It went days and days just sitting like that. Because they had absconded or just been given, by the locals, a lot of alcohol, they’d drink themselves silly some days. So he got up to relieve himself, and some German fired a rifle shot. It [the bullet] went right by his head, and he just started yelling, not realizing – he was drunk – that he was yelling back at the German. Obviously, the German spoke German – probably not English. He didn’t know what he was saying. But my friend was swearing at him, saying: Why are you shooting at me? I’m just going to the bathroom. It’s a very funny part … . It humanizes the thing. He made it back home and he had a good life as a steelworker. My other friend was in the Pacific; his ship had actually been sunk by Kamikazis. He never spoke about the war.

Rose: Because it was so brutal?

Carl: Right. On Memorial Day when there are all these emotional programs on television, he would leave. He had a very hard time with all of it. He didn’t want to talk about it at all. So you could see – it was the same war. Two men … and one suffered much differently than the other. Like “Catch 22,” one had humorous human stories, tried to make some sense out of it, the other one just could not open that door. He was a lovely man. I think both passed on.

Rose: Did your mom at one point know you were working on this?

Carl: Yes, actually they [his parents] did.They were still alive when I went to back to Worcester State. …

Rose: Is this something for young people?

Carl: I actually do. I don’t think poetry is dead. … Young people tend to embrace a lot of poetry. I know a lot of young people who write a lot, and write a lot of train of thought kind of things that seem like poems. Rose: Do you have any Worcester poets or Worcester County poets?

Carl: I won’t know until we get actual copyrights. …

Rose: So you cover World Wars I and II

Carl: The Vietnam War, European wars, the Civil War, the American Revolution, even writers as famous as Herman Melville and Walt Whitman. Even the Chinese poet from the seventh century.

Rose: Do you think there’s a difference between Americans’ perception of war versus the Brits? America is such a young country. Did they look at war in a different way? Was the optimism there whereas it would be different for a place like China – a place that’s experienced war for thousands of years?

Carl: I like the way you put that. There was an optimism. You’re right. And you can see that. And there’s also an optimism in the nationalism associated with the things that I read. And that’s one of the reasons why I chose not to go that route. Even one of my favorite writers ever, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Emerson is the one who coined the phrase “the shot heard ‘round the world” in one of the famous poems about our beginnings in the United States. And I chose not to use that because, yeah, it is a kind of rahrah kind of poem.

Rose: You were looking for the soldier’s perspective.

Carl: Yes, I think it’s much more realistic.

Rose: When you’re on this basic level, what do they care about? What are they looking at? Family? Home? Where they go when they die?

Carl: How the war will be remembered. And what effect it will all have at the end. It’s easy, I think, to think about war in the immediate. Of course, as you know, in the last century we have even referred to one war as “The war to end all wars.”

Rose: With the Bush administration, they are hiding aspects of this war, they are sanitizing the Iraq War. With the Vietnam War, Americans were able to see these very bloody, graphic images of war on their TVs – courtesy on network new shows. Not anymore.

Carl:We didn’t see a lot of it, during World War II, even during thee television era. … It was presented in a different was. I think it was the writers, who held onto reality, were able to write down authentic pain and suffering … . … The whole world has children. The majority of people who go off to war are young – and always have been. … .

Carl: There’s a quote, it’s a very cold quote: “War is to a man what motherhood is to a woman.”

Rose: Oh, that’s awful.

Carl: Mussolini said that.What you realize though is that – I’m also a fan of a lot of psychologists. … We, obviously as men, will never create life. But we can play the same kind of power game in taking it away.

Rose: So it’s like penis envy – men have “birth envy.” It’s like: We as guys can’t create life, so we’re going to destroy it.…

Rose: Do you think your volume of poems could be given to soldiers coming home from Iraq?

Carl: Absolutely. I intend to contact some veterans groups. …There’s a reality and a connection here [with the poems]. [The Iraq War veteran will be able to see] I am not the only one who’s suffered. Other people have. This is the way humanity feels. I am not alone in this. It wasn’t for nothing.…