Keith Douglas’s “Christodoulos”

Christodoulos moves, and shakes
his seven chins. He is that freak
a successful alchemist, and makes
God knows how much a week.

Out of Christodoulosʼ attic,
full of smoke and smells, emerge
soldiers like ants, with antsʼ erratic
gestures seek the pavementʼs verge;

weak as wounded, leaning in a knot
shout in the streets for an enemy —
the dross of Christodoulosʼ pot
or wastage from his alchemy.

They flow everywhere; by swarthy portals
entering the crucibles of others
and the lesser sagesʼ mortars:
but Christodoulos is the father

of all, heʼs the original wise one
from whose experiments they told
how War can be the famous stone
for turning rubbish into gold.

“Christodoulos” is not one of Douglas’s most admired poems, but perhaps it should be. Written while Douglas was recovering from wounds in an Egyptian military hospital in 1942, “Christodoulos” employs the poet’s characteristic irony, emotional distance, and cultural education. For me, this is a wonderful, honest, and distressing poem about war profiteers, rare among war poems by acknowledging the eternal folly and ignorance of young soldiers (a welcome counterpoint to high rhetoric about all soldiers being Warriors and Heroes). Christodoulos, perhaps a hashish dealer and bar keep, is given fine mythy status. He is an ur-God and a successful alchemist, able to extract gold from an unlikely source.

This note first appeared in poetsandwar.com in 2013

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