I bought and read this book, then reviewed it, thinking i was a new publication. 2010 isn’t exactly new, but it’s a terrific book and well worth your time. MP+
Daniel Swift, Bomber Country: The Poetry of a Lost Pilot's War. New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 2010.
“The beach where the body washed up is wide and white, with cafes raised on stilts and couples drinking beer in the sand. There are windsurfers; children smacking the waves. He came to land in the middle of a summer holiday, and the mismatch is startling after the calm of the cemeteries where my father and I have spent the day.”
Bomber Country is a difficult book to classify: part genealogy, part elegy, part literary criticism. The body is that of a Royal Air Force pilot, whose Lancaster crashed in the North Sea in June of 1943, on its way home from raiding Munster in Germany’s Rhur Valley. In a cemetery near the Dutch town of Bergen Op Zoom is the grave of Squadron Leader James Eric Swift, the author’s grandfather. He is buried with other bomber crew, whose bodies were recovered from the sea or found on the beach. Was his grandfather that pilot, washed up on the Dutch coast in June, as family memory would have it?
As Swift and his father stroll through the cemetery, they note the short verses and couplets, some profound, others homespun, on some of the gravestones. For Swift, clearly immersed himself in poetry, he thinks of the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas, who wrote of the dead that “The shall have stars at elbow and foot … Though they sink through the sea they shall rise again”. Thomas spent the war years in Wales and London, saw the effects of German air raids, and who memorialized those killed by bombing, the young girl and the old man, “dropped where he loved on the burst pavement stone / And the funeral grains on the slaughtered floor”.
Three connections – a dead airman, verses in a cemetery, a poet in an air raid – lead us into the heart of Swift’s book, which examines the prominence of the air war in the English language poetry of World War Two. To establish this connection, Swift fist has to remind us that the war produced poetry of any note. He briefly takes on the idea that everything about modern war was said, better and more prettily, by the soldier poets of the First World War, like Wilfrid Owen and Siegfried Sassoon. The poetry of the Second World War is far less canonized, in part, Swift argues, because of opinions like those of the late Paul Fussell, long the dean of war literature, who wrote that the conflict of 1939-45 was “a savage, insensate affair, barely conceivable to the well-conducted imagination” (15). Swift also argues that the soldier poets of the trenches created the idea that poetry was about war on land, when in fact Owen imagined himself as a pilot in “battle with the Super-Zeppelin … this would be chivalry more than Arthur dreamed of” (26).
In fact, argues Swift, the war in the air captured many imaginations. For those on the ground, like Day Lews, it was the fear of being air raids, as “searchlights set the low cloud smoking” and fear in “a terrified heart, / under the bomb-strokes” (30-31). For the aircrew whose verses are collected in the wartime volume Air Force Poetry (1944), their war combined the exhilaration of flight “Along the pillared streets of cloud” with a clear-eyed awareness of their mortality, for no wartime trade in the Allied militaries suffered great casualties than the combat aircrew: “they’ll die … / More swiftly, cleanly, star-defined, than you will ever feel”. Among these young and doomed poets, Swift also finds a brutal honesty about what bomber crews are called to do:
The moon in the star-laden sky
becomes a thin smile, as the hand moves
the bomb-release, and others, compacted
of bone and blood the same even, die below.
These lines remind us that the air war was largely about dropping bombs on people, mostly civilian, more or less indiscriminately. While the Germans started this war (the Blitz in the poetic imagination takes up a large part of Swift’s early chapters), the Allies finished it, decisively and terribly. The lasting ambivalence about the bombing campaign may also explain our preference for the Great War poets of the trenches, who like all soldiers of that war were more victim than killer. Despite the fact that the aircrew also died in their tens of thousands, the poetry of their war is far more morally ambivalent than the outraged verse of Owen or Sassoon.
In search of this war, Swift goes to Bomber Country. The name refers to the part of England, from the Midlands to East Anglia, where the Royal Air Force and the US Army Air Force concentrated its many airbases to strike targets throughout NW Europe and beyond. Today one can buy local guidebooks to Bomber Country and its abandoned airfields. For Swift, Bomber Country is also the past, the home of a man he never knew and who his father barely knew. Using diaries and memoirs, he reconstructs the life his father knew, from the monotony of training to busy bases and constant raids. Bomber Country is also a literary place, whose poets, like Randall Jarrell, help Swift imagine his grandfather’s life:
And the crews climb to them clumsily as bears.
The head withdraws into its hatch (a boys),
The engines rise to their blind laboring roar,
And the green, made beasts run home to air.
The poets’ realism about their survival prospects also helps Swift understand the studied banality of his grandfather’s letters home, about life in camp and a local “fish & chip shop that does quite a decent egg & chips”. In the poetry of John Ciardi, an American bomber crewman, he finds the sentiments that were probably unsaid in his grandfather’s homey letters.
Darling, darling, just in case
Rivets fall or engines burn,
I forget the time and place
But your flesh was sweet to learn
Finally, Bomber Country is also a metaphor for the bomber’s targets. It is the bombed city, be it English or German, and the poetry that imagines destruction and survival. Thus, T.S. Eliot’s lines from “Little Gidding” about a bombed house, “the place where a story ended”, informs Swift’s visit to Munster, which his grandfather bombed, and where Swift meets survivors of these raids. He meets an old clergyman who served in a flak battery until the raids became too overwhelming to defend against, and who passed the raids reading Dante’s Divine Comedy. Swift thinks of the souls Dante describes in the burning desert
And over all that sand on which they lay
or crouched or roamed, great flaks of flame fell slowly
as snow falls in the Alps on a windless day.
Bomber Country is ultimately an unknowable place, what Hamlet called “that undiscovered country, from whose bourn no traveler returns”. His grandfather exists in photos, in letters, and in a file in a Dutch archive with a German document from 17 June, 1943, recording the burial, “with military honours”, of an unknown airman washed ashore, whose shirt was labelled “J.E. Swift”. This airman who fell to earth becomes an almost mythological figure, like Icarus, and in a final mediation, the grandson imagines another poet who wrote of Icarus, W.H. Auden, who toured Bomber Country as part of the US Strategic Bombing Survey, just after the war’s end. In desolate Munich, “the abolished City”, Auden locates Munich in a poetic landscape of ruined towns going back to Troy and beyond.
This is the way things happen; for ever and ever
Plum-blossom falls on the dead, the road of the waterfall covers
The cries of the whipped and the sighs of the lovers
And the hard bright light composes
A meaningless moment into an eternal fact.
At the end of his journey, Swift comes to recognize that his search through Bomber Country was to participate in this process, by which “the meaningless moment” becomes “the eternal fact”.
Bomber Country is a remarkable and haunting book. As a connection of history, art and memory, it is in the tradition of Paul Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory (1975), but pitched in a more intimate key. Parts genealogy and family history read through the literary lens of the stages of the hero’s quest, Swift’s journey touches on the historic past, in so far as we can know it, while acknowledging our desire to mythologize the past. Swift is a sensitive literary critic and cultural historian, and a skilled stylist in his own right. If I have any uncertainties about this book, it is only whether I should put it on my history shelf or my literary shelf.