Sign and Signified

Later he would reveal that the campaign
had been largely farce.
It had been a pleasure to pretend
that the squares routed near A—–
and outside B—- during numerous engagements
had not been ordered to disperse
after briefly engaging or receiving minor casualties.

Even the families of the dead eventually learned
that there had been no war
other than the elaborate sham—
the blue and gold brocades, the signs and standards
maneuvers, counter marches, plumes, parades—
even the sealing wax was not sealing wax,
which, like the congealed blood on a surgeon’s frock,
both legitimated and defied death,
Contrived dying and denied dying
while authorizing both and permitting neither.

No, there were no acts of war;
No blood-soaked missives came or went
or appeared sudden and sharp to splash the ranks.

But who could tell the difference?
In the no man’s land between what happened
and what was forbidden to have been.
It was whims and children’s errands
lived and executed upon satin charts for pleasure.
They were scarlet intestines and black bile
Chained and choking in the mangled smut of battle;
Horses and men screaming in a narrow defile.
But whose horses? What men? And which were which?

Later, the emperor,
addressing the battalions
seeing the wounds it had sustained
knowing which were illusion
reminded us it was a sham campaign—
Refusing the weight with pithy conclusion—
“no glory lose, no glory gain.”

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