Henry Lee “Starvation Romance”

Starvation Romance

I dream so often of the days we knew
Those days when love was like a guiding light,
And yet although I know your eyes were blue,
Although I swore to be forever true,
Although I dream of going home to you
Your name has slipped my memory tonight.

Unlike many soldier poets and veterans, Henry Lee does not rely on either grandiose abstractions or shock-value details. This modest poem establishes the disorienting misery of Lee’s prison camp ordeal only in the first word of the title, whose second word creates enough surprising dissonance to ensure that the reader is intrigued rather than braced for anguish.

The poem’s first two lines are in conventional high rhetoric, complete with gallant cliche, and might have been written in 1914 by a Rupert Brooke, before sentimentality died in the trenches. Then the poem shifts wonderfully and honestly at the beginning of the third line, with “And yet . . .” Years of physical and emotional suffering, years of increasing hunger and dwindling hope, have nearly triumphed, no matter how much the poet tries to distract himself though memory of happier times.

Of course the poet wants to go home to the girl, but that is about going home, not about the girl herself. How wonderful is it that even in his wretched state, and without overt sentimentality, the poet still feels (or at least expresses) a bit of shame at having forgotten. This poem, addressed to the mostly forgotten girl, is an implicit apology, demonstrating all at once the stultifying effects of inhumane captivity, the stubborn endurance of human decency, and the blunt irony that characterizes the best poetry of WWII. The last line, if I read Lee’s intention right, conveys a note of grim humor.

This poem and others were found after the war hidden in the primitive Philippines prison camp where Lee was held prior to being put aboard a transport headed back to Japan in 1945. Lt. Lee perished when that transport was sunk, apparently by a U.S. submarine.

 

This note first appeared in poetsandwar.com in 2015

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