A Memorial Tribute to
Brian C. Pohanka
(March 20, 1955 - June 15, 2005)
of an Idealistic, Noble Soldier
Brian's memorial tribute continues from Page 1: The
Great War (World War I)
I came to know Brian better, I shared with him some recent poems I had
written, and he shared with me his interest in the Great War (World
War I) and his fondness for poetry from that era. On several occasions,
Brian had visited WWI battlefields in Northern France on the Western
Front. In an email dated May 26, 1999, Brian wrote:
very pretty poem -- well done -- from the heart and soul as all good
poems should be, I think. And with reference to Nature -- always something
collect poetry of the First World War -- such a hellish thing for
anyone to pass through, but even more so for poets, or those with
Owen I especially like -- and when I was in France I read two
of his poems, including my favorite, "Spring
Offensive" at his grave near the village of Ors. He died
a week before the Armistice....
May 28, 1999, Brian continued in his commentary about the Great War
soldier poet Wilfred Owen, and also responded to my message regarding
Civil War author Ambrose Bierce. Additionally, he expressed some concern
about his speech to be delivered at Gettysburg for the upcoming Memorial
picked up a recent reprint of Wilfred Owen's collected letters yesterday
at Borders Books. I had never owned a copy, tho[ugh] I'd used one
in a library. John Stallworthy wrote a solid, if somewhat dated biography
of Owen -- but the recent biographer of note is Dominic Hibbard who
has written two studies of Owen -- both very good. The second of them
I picked up last year in France, on the Somme -- wholly appropriate,
of course! Bierce was a different character -- a cynic -- distilled
vinegar -- but what a wit, with a very finely honed humor, on the
dark side, but one a very fine teacher I once had was fond of, and
passed on to me. And I have many of Bierce's works. It is all wonderful
stuff -- spirit-balm -- or mustard plaster -- as the case may be.
But a big part of my mind-set, psyche, soul, whatever that indefinable
is. And I hope as I speak at Gettysburg I can pass on something of
that -- the older we get the greater sense of that passing on, something
-- ought to be there, though I daresay in most it's not, just a sort
of "huh?" -- but Life is much, much more than that, of course.
Rambling, but I think you know what I mean!
was eager to share information on books he had read about Wilfred Owen.
On June 6, 1999, he wrote:
you for noting the Wilfred Owen web site. I am very glad that you
are as taken with his work as I am.
There are a number of biographies of Owen. Jon Stallworthy's Wilfred
Owen, and several books by Dominic Hibbard -- who is the present
day authority on Owen -- these include Owen the Poet and Wilfred
Owen: The Last Year.
Certainly while a poet for many years, it was not until the fateful
meeting with [poet Siegfried] Sassoon
at [the hospital in] Craiglockhart that Owen began to write the best
of his poems -- and I think he surpassed Sassoon -- at least I prefer
Owen and I think he has stood the test of time very well indeed. His
pararhyme is especially well done I think.
He has many fine poems, but as I noted, "Spring Offensive"
is my favorite. It was one of his last, perhaps the last that he wrote,
and was not quite finished when he was killed. I love the line about
the "buttercup blessed with gold our slow boots coming up"
-- and the mix of natural beauty and sad wonder at the beauty -- with
nature trying to hold back the men from going "over the top"
into the explosions -- "hell's upsurge" -- and so on.
He thought of himself as a "ghost" -- there is that terrible
fatalism -- but turning it to great work -- like so many he was distanced
from the sense of the world, life, by those horrors -- but the passing
through and enduring of them he consciously turned to as inspiration
for his work. Sad and wonderful. I think he took upon himself that
Doom knowingly -- and was not bowed down by it, but in a sense embraced
it. More of the tragic greatness of the man, as his was not at all
the nature of a warrior.
June 15, 1999, Brian continued with his analysis of Owen and explained,
among other things, why he liked biographies:
think the thing about Owen -- beyond the power of his words -- that
I see is that he was so little cut out to be a soldier -- that being
plunged into that horror made his words and reflection of it all the
more powerful -- and once he realized that fact -- that he was a human
barometer of that hell -- by assuming the fatalism but also a duty
to speak of it even at the cost of his life -- that shows very rare
courage indeed. Rather than avoid the war-demon, he met it head on,
though he well knew it would likely cost his life. It is hard enough
for a trained professional warrior to face all this. One reason I
enjoy reading biographies -- the intersection of lives and souls with
events beyond the control of anyone -- I think History can be likened
to the weather -- with Wars as hurricane,earthquake, etc. And how
any one person reacts to the cataclysm cannot be known until it happens.
continued with the same thought on July 2, 1999:
there is something of a haunting aspect to Owen's work -- a certain
fated aspect to his life and death -- Without the benefit of the type
of education available to the upper class, he pursued his passion
for poetry and I think really surprised Sassoon when the latter realized
this enthusiastic little officer with the "grammar school accent"
could indeed write very well indeed. The way he took upon himself
the suffering for his men and for his art was truly noble in a sense
far above patriotism....
and Other Great War Writers
commented about writings from the Great War era in this message from
February 3, 2000:
would certainly agree that there is a harsh, grim, ironic, cynical
and fatalistic bent to much of the WWI writing -- of course it evolved
into that once it became clear that was not going to be like any other
war, any earlier war -- it was going to pit the might of the industrial
advances against flesh and bone -- the killing power of the artillery,
heavy ordnance, high power shells -- new terror weapons like gas --
all this was bought into play in a most horrific fashion. I would
say there is a commonality of writing style amongst the warring powers
after the first six months or so -- as it got progressively more horrific.
The exception to a degree is the U.S. as our involvement was relatively
brief and at the very end -- we preserved a certain cocky "Yanks
are Here" jingoism and naivete -- to a degree that the French,
British and Germans had abandoned long before. Our World War
One was really Vietnam -- what we became because of that war
was what the European nations had experienced during and after WWI.
sent me the contents of a post he made to the Civil War Discussion Group
on November 12, 2001, a day after Veterans Day:
was very glad to see that the general consensus of the media was to
note Veterans Day on its proper day -- November 11th -- and that there
were some articles, even in the Washington Post -- about the
First World War, one rather powerful unpublished memoir excerpt in
particular, from the pen of an American officer, courtesy of his descendant....
Having gone over the Western
Front on more than one occasion -- powerful, moving, emotive, disturbing
and oh so sad place -- I am always glad when that slaughter gets some
attention, as it shaped our modern world and our own places in that
world, more than any other event of the 20th century (IMHO of course).
of the more moving experiences I had my last trip over there, was
visiting the little village of Belloy en Santerre, off a big highway,
but like many French villages sort of near ghost towns. It was just
west of there that on July 4, 1916, Alan
Seeger, Harvard graduate, poet, bohemian, and American volunteer
in the Foreign Legion, was cut down with scores of his comrades by
German machine gun fire. An elderly man was tending the war memorial,
which bears Seeger's name, and as I offered my tribute
to this fallen soldier, the old fellow doffed his cap and bowed his
head -- then directed me to the town hall -- and I placed a photo
of Seeger alongside the printed poem they had framed and hanging on
their wall... So as we conclude our little remembrance here, I will
submit Seeger's poem....
have a rendezvous with Death
At some disputed barricade,
When Spring comes back with rustling shade
And apple-blossoms fill the air.
I have a rendezvous with Death
When Spring brings back blue days and fair.
It may be he shall take my hand
And lead me into his dark land
And close my eyes and quench my breath --
It may be I shall pass him still.
I have a rendezvous with Death
On some scarred slope of battered hill,
When Spring comes round again this year
And the first meadow-flowers appear.
God knows t'were better to be deep
Pillowed in silk and scented down,
Where love throbs out in blissful sleep,
Pulse nigh to pulse, and breath to breath,
Where hushed awakenings are dear....
But I've a rendezvous with Death
At midnight in some flaming town,
When Spring trips north again this year,
And I to my pledged word am true,
I shall not fail that rendezvous.
- Alan Seeger (1888-1916)
Veterans Day, on November 11, 2003, Brian sent me the contents of a
message he posted to the Civil War Discussion Group message board:
never cease to think of the implications of that terrible war, and
all those lives of promise slaughtered in that hell, on this 11th
of November. Having visited the Western Front on several occasions,
and read some of Wilfred
Owen's poetry as I stood beside his grave, I think we must always
remember the casualties of that "Lost Generation" -- and
ponder the implications of how that War shaped all that has followed,
down to our own times.
is another poem that I recently came across, written by Lieutenant
E.A. Mackintosh of the Seaforth Highlanders. Like Owen, he too would
perish in the "War to End all Wars." Mackintosh was decorated
with the Military Cross for attempting to rescue the badly wounded
soldier to whom this poem was dedicated. At great risk of his own
life, the Lieutenant was carrying the wounded man back through a hail
of machine gun fire, when the soldier was hit again, and killed.
Private D. Sutherland Killed in Action in the German Trench,
May 16th 1916, and the Others Who Died"
you were David's father,
And he was your only son,
And the new-cut peats are rotting
And the work is left undone,
Because of an old man weeping,
Just an old man in pain,
For David, his son David,
That will not come again.
the letters he wrote you,
And I can see them still,
Not a word of the fighting
But just the sheep on the hill
And how you should get the crops in
Ere the year got stormier,
And the Bosches have got his body,
And I was his officer.
were only David's father,
But I had fifty sons
When we went up in the evening
Under the arch of the guns,
And we came back at twilight --
O God! I heard them call
To me for help and pity
That could not help at all.
never will I forget you,
My men that trusted me,
More my sons than your fathers',
For they could only see
The little helpless babies
And the young men in their pride.
They could not see you dying,
And hold you while you died.
and young and gallant,
They saw their first-born go,
But not the strong limbs broken
And the beautiful men brought low,
The piteous writhing bodies,
They screamed, "Don't leave me, Sir,"
For they were only your fathers
But I was your officer.
tribute continues with:
Fine Arts, Travels, and Nature
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