Monday, May 10, 2010

Poetry Bus Goes To War

The WWII Canned Food Queen

I have put up a storehouse of food
more food than I could eat in a year of gorging
more food than my neighbors could eat
if I were to share

They eat boiled tongues of Jews in labor camps
says Mrs. Mayer at the dry-goods shop
and they eat soup made of boiled shoe leather
but they’ve always been a little strange, the Mayers

I buy my jars there, the paraffin, and the sugar
but so many things a body can’t buy anymore
like butter, thank God the Russells make their own
and they take my canned goods in return

I don’t go to the Mayers’ store as often since
she started telling tales from some relation
who “got out” she says, the world has gone crazy
she says, but my Roger’s over there

He’s saving the world for democracy
although I haven’t heard a word from him
in a worrisome long while, but I suppose
they keep him fairly busy in the Airborne

Imagine, my Roger jumping out of planes
he was such a frightened little boy, afraid
of the dark, and I don’t think they sleep in tents
they’re taking France by storm I hear

We’ll show those Germans a thing or two
and get it all sorted out over there soon enough
Well my mister will be wanting his supper
and I believe I’ll serve my apricots

Bought several lugs for almost nothing
last summer and it was a hot week in the kitchen
but I love these little orange balls in a row
I love my rows of jars, I love my precious food

With this poem, I’ve joined TFE’s Poetry Bus world tour. Our stalwart driver this week is PJ Nolan. Our assigned task is to go through a bunch of photo archives, using a secret number, then use that same number to land on one photo, about which we write.

I did a complicated bit of counting, and my photo is from the U.S. National Archives, created by the Department of Agriculture Extension Service.

A note about this poem: A generation of women came out of the Depression saving everything, and as the U.S. went into World War II, they continued to do everything possible to be frugal. My relatives were among them. I admire their courage and dedication.

But they were also unaware of the Holocaust and skeptical of the horrors described by American Jews. They were naive about the utter devastation in Europe for various reasons, one of which was the American propaganda machine. Another reason was the almost complete lack of on-the-ground news in mainstream radio and newspapers.

They were given a simplistic view of what lay in Europe. The 82nd Airborne mentioned in this poem, for example, suffered enormous losses during the D-Day invasion of France, with half its men killed or wounded in the ferocious fighting. My narrator's Roger might well have been killed in the first three days of landing behind German lines.

So this poem is not a celebration of the achievements of the heartland's housewife during the war. People were starving and dying in Europe by the thousands, the tens of thousands. And the housewife didn't know.

To see other attempts at photo-prompting, visit our illustrious driver.


Brian Miller said...

nicely done chris...i hope you have a marvelous mothers day today!

Marion said...

Wow, this was really good! You caught the feeling of the war and the need for a pantry full of canned goods so well. I'm in awe of your talent!

Happy Mother's Day, dear Chris! xo

Anonymous said...

Very homey. Much appreciated. Before my time, but it brings images of my parents.

Happy Mother's Day

TechnoBabe said...

This was a tough one to write I think. Great job.
Hope you have a wonderful day today.

lakeviewer said...

Very evocative! It takes us all back, to the backfence chatter, the war over there. Well done, Chris.

Happy Mother's Day.

Marla said...

Happy Mother's Day, Chris.

I'm thinking of you today.

Jasmine said...

A great picture. Very evocative. My nanna would talk of rations and sing old tunes from the war. So much sadness, yet so many prized memories too...

Anonymous said...

I love canning and I love my rows of jars too.

Magpie said...

What a feeling of self satisfaction it gives to see those jars all lined up. I loved canning and feeling like I was providing for my family...growing my garden and then "putting it up" for lean times. What a wonderful memory you've given and a beautiful job you've done.

Happy Mother's Day!

Syd said...

We will do some canning this summer. Have a happy day Chris.

Dianne said...

You captured the ignorant NIMBY bigotry well...

Karen said...

You really bring this one to life, Chris. All those little details add to the feel of the time and the voice of that narrator trying to deal with the unimaginable.

P Nolan said...

What a clear voice, with all the conversational asides and inflections! Liked this. Thanks for riding the bus :-)

Julie said...

Excellent poem. It's a great character portrait but also a powerful historical perspective. I love the conversational tone of the narrative. It works well and makes the impact of the story even stronger, because it's an "everyday" voice.

My first thought when I was reading is how very fortunate I am. I have some older relatives who tell stories about WWII, and you've really nailed the essence of their voices, the difficult times, and horrors of the death camps. My older relatives still save everything, including many jars of canned food. They know what hard times are.

Wonderful work. Thanks so much for sharing, Chris!

Poetikat said...

That is brilliant! The combination of rumour and introspection is wonderful and I love those internal rhymes you've incorporated into the ingredients. Well done!

The Bug said...

I especially enjoyed this because I'm currently reading a novel set around WWII - the perspectives of two women in Germany and England. It was written by Elizabeth Wix (don't know if you've seen ewix around?). VERY good.

the watercats said...

beautifully done! I often wonder how every day people would cope if a similar situation arose today.. are we as strong as we used to be? god forbid!
really enjoyed your word weaving

Anonymous said...

Looks familiar. I think I grew up with that basement!

Jeanne Iris said...

True, before 1941, the U.S. nursed a blind eye, and many who suffered through the Great Depression were still in the process of storing. However, once the U.S. entered WWII, many American soldiers contributed with their lives to the cause of justice.

My father, shot by a German tank in the Battle of the Bulge, was one such man. He married my mother after the war and didn't speak much of his ordeal over there to my siblings and me. My uncle was one of the nazi camp liberators. He, too, did not speak much of his experience... but we knew.

BTW, we had 3 fruit trees and raspberry bushes on our small piece of property, south of Detroit. Every year, my mother would 'put up' the peaches and raspberry jam, and give away jars of preserves to our neighbors.

Thanks for writing this.

Argent said...

I love how you wove together the commonplace details of jam-making, lack of butter and so on with the rumours and speculation about what was really happening in the war. My father-in-law was in the british Airborne and managed to surviv D-day with the loss of some of his close friends. It all seems such a long way away now. Modern war is so much more immediate with embedded journalists and live feeds and so on. A very thoughtful and well-crafted piece.

Titus said...

This is stunning. You have conjured a real person, the narrative voice is so strong and alive, and as all the above have said, to entwine this character with the US perspective on WWII as well as memories of the Great Depression is really no mean feat, and it is so intelligently done.
Brain and heart in this one, big time. I really enjoyed it.

Have also been most impressed by the whole prompt - going around has been like a world tour, with the photos that have turned up.

steveroni said...

Friend just returned Sunday from Washington DC where he was honored by (country) France, for being in the first wave at Omaha Beach on D-Day, H-Hour...

All my older cousins were "over there"--

What memories you have stirred in me this day, Chris...some are sad ones.

NanU said...

Wonderfully done!
It's so easy to say and do outrageous things when you have no idea, when you have only your own blinkered world to go on.
How many times have we unwittingly done the same?

Scott said...

i feel as if I was given just one little sliver of a look into what it must have been like during WWII. It kind of made me sad and worried. I'm glad I had this experience this morning.

Jingle said...

Happy Belated Mother's Day to Moms in your life.
Well done poem,
enjoy your gift!

Totalfeckineejit said...

I can only say 'Fantastic' For me, this is simply one of the best poems you have written.