Army soldiers and other military troops shown in news stories from Afghanistan look to me so young, so innocent. When I read of their training or exploits on the ground, it has never occurred to me that the theater of war was where the central experience of life might exist for any of them.

Emily Dickinson imagines in “When I was small, a Woman died – ” a scenario where a young man’s defining tragedy took place when he was only a boy, setting the stage for belated progress. Skewed passages.

When I was small, a Woman died –
Today – her Only Boy
Went up from the Potomac –
His face all Victory

To look at her – How slowly
The Seasons must have turned
Till Bullets clipt an Angle
And He passed quickly round –

If pride shall be in Paradise –
Ourself cannot decide –
Of their imperial conduct –
No person testified –

But, proud in Apparition –
That Woman and her Boy
Pass back and forth, before my Brain
As even in the sky –

I’m confident that Bravoes –
Perpetual break abroad
For Braveries, remote as this
In Yonder Maryland –

To me, a big part of the poignancy of this poem is that “When I was small,” the death of a grownup not in my family could make an impression. So much so, that an orphan soldier’s bravery (“His face all Victory”) is largely measured, in the poem, by his facing battle without the love of his mother.

This poem pesters me with a question. If a live woman’s only boy dies in war, it is tragic, but customary. If a dead woman’s only boy dies in war, why and how does this change my feelings about his death? Mothers never accompany their daughters or sons in the battlefield. So, why does it seem the orphan soldier’s death is more isolated, more lonely, somehow?

I spot a clue in, “To look at her – How slowly/The Seasons must have turned”. Always wanting, looking – season after season – for ways to authenticate his courage and strength. The “Victory” sought after by every adolescent and young adult. Without a mother, a child’s ability to find mature self-confidence is often mired in the abyss. The old cliche’, “He/she has something to prove,” is grounded in this void. Did war become the focus of the growing boy’s need to feel bravery? Did soldiering seem to provide qualities he was unsure about? Did it come in death? “If pride shall be in Paradise -/ Ourself cannot decide – ”.

I believe it is in the need to ask these (unanswerable) questions, that the difference lies within our hearts and minds when we are forced to wonder: Who mourns the orphan soldier? The boy had no mother to validate his pride in self. We feel his nothingness when learning of his “imperial conduct” on the battleground.

The poet is compelled, Pass back and forth, before my Brain, to offer her own praise by imagining choruses in heaven to pay tribute. “Bravoes – … For Braveries…Yonder”.

Ponder A Poem A Day – Accept What Comes Your Way

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