About the Author
Hi, my name is Naomi Abramovich and I am a second-year Liberal Arts student. I wrote this essay about the poem “Post-War Procession” by Anita Lahey, focusing primarily on the psychological aftermath of war on soldiers. This paper was written at the beginning of the pandemic, and re-reading my analysis of Lahey’s work, I find it particularly relevant to our present experience. Faced with this war of our own, this collective trauma, it is hard to imagine life after it. I believe that through our shared experience, however, we will be able to overcome these difficult times. I plan on attending the University of Ottawa with a double major in Political Science and Public Policy and then attending graduate or law school in the United States.
Anita Lahey’s “Post-War Procession”: Post-Traumatic Stress and Self-Reflection
By Naomi Abramovich
For Poetry, with Prof. Susan Elmslie
Anita Lahey’s choice to use “Post-War Procession” for the title of her pantoum is somewhat ironic considering the themes found within it. Often, when referring to a group of people marching in a joyful ceremony such as a festival or parade, we use the word “procession.” While the end of the war may be a reason for joy, Lahey instead reflects upon the darkness and trauma that come when the war is over and the surviving soldiers must make the long journey from the trenches. Lahey sheds light on the post-war experience of soldiers through her use of poetic form and imagery of violence, both internal and external, allowing the reader to understand the anguish which the soldier feels post-war.
To begin, Lahey’s choice to use the form of a pantoum for this poem could not have been more representative of its themes. The pantoum form brings forth the idea of repetition and steady pace, which in turn reflects the marching of the soldiers along the trenches. Through this steady repetition, the reader can clearly visualize the soldiers’ feet marching in perfect unison, showing consideration for detail and coordination despite the heaviness of the situation. Furthermore, the reader knows that there are many different soldiers in this procession when Lahey mentions the “boots of the men in front” (Lahey l.6), just as the poem’s form contains many different ideas throughout its stanzas. Yet, just as the different stanzas are joined by the repetition of certain lines throughout the pantoum, these soldiers are joined by their common experience of war. As well, Lahey chooses to place the reader in the position of the speaker, putting them in the soldier’s boots. This is made clear in the second line when she writes: “You stink of blood, a blown-open field, severed” (l.2). This choice makes the poem seem much more personal, as it allows the reader to experience the soldier’s anguish as if it were their own. Overall, Lahey uses the form of the pantoum to highlight the unison and repetition of the soldiers’ journey.
In her poem, Lahey discusses the theme of a soldier’s changing mental and physical state while taking part in this long march. In the beginning, the soldier seems to be in a state of passive shock. The first line seems to suggest that the soldier wishes to feel nothing, just as the barrel of their gun is able “to contain nothing” (l.1) once it has fired. This comparison may reflect how the soldier is feeling everything all at once: the smell of blood on their flesh, the sights of the “blown-open field” (l.2) and that of “severed limbs” (l.2,3), and how they wish they could shut it off. The soldier seems to think back to when they first marched to battlefield before knowing what they now did, when the puddles along the ditch were the only “wounds” they had seen, and their rifle was then a source of comfort, cooling their neck. Lahey’s use of imagery of violence and brutality is a perfect representation of the mental toll that war can have on an individual.
The puddles mentioned in the third line also become an essential link between the stanzas. Lahey turns the images of the puddles as “open wounds along the ditch” (l.3-4) in the first stanza into actual wounded soldiers along the ditch in the second stanza, and finally into reeking bodies in the third. By the fourth stanza, Lahey changes the original image of the puddles into “Mud” (l.14), which represents the idea of something once clear slowly turned murky and thick, possibly reflecting the soldier’s mind losing the clarity it once had. This shifting imagery may represent the soldier slowly accepting what had happened on the battlefield and all that they had witnessed. Lahey also seems to turn the image of the rifle as a source of comfort into a direct relation to the soldier’s life, as she places the words “[y]our rifle” (l.7) next to “your neck”(l.7). The term “neck” then seems to represent the soldier’s life, while the rifle conjures the image of the soldier using this object to save their life.
Lahey also seems to bring up the theme of post-traumatic stress disorder in this pantoum. For instance, the soldier only sees things in short, often disturbing images, such as, “Bodies reek” (l.11), “severed limbs” (l.2-3), and it is difficult to determine whether these images are happening at that exact moment or have already happened. She also mentions “hands unfolding letters you barely wrote” (l.18), suggesting that the soldier wrote letters to their friends and family and are picturing them opening these letters. This line seems to imply that the soldier felt little or nothing while writing these letters because of their desperation, guilt and even dissociation which would explain why the soldier “barely wrote” (l.18) them. It is also important to mention that the soldier is only pulled back into reality by the horizon, which “claws [them] back with white fingers” (l.20), perhaps representing early morning sunlight streaming onto the soldier as they march along the path. The horizon may also represent the horrors of their experience pulling them back. It should finally be noted that many of the words repeated such as “neck” (l.4,7), “head” (l.8,11), “skull” (l.12,15) and “alive” (l.22,25) are linked to the head area. This may reflect the constant trauma which the soldier’s mind is undergoing while serving as a reminder of the fragility of life, as protecting that area is crucial when trying to save one’s self.
When Lahey mentions how the “[b]oots of the men in front reflect your own:/ polished, tightly tied” (l.9-10), she seems to once again draw a connection between the individual soldiers walking in this procession. She also mentions how “the march continues on the other side” (l.19), which implies that the march is the trauma which the soldier has endured. This furthermore brings forth the idea that the “march” does not end when the war does. Instead, everything that the soldiers have endured during the war will continue to haunt them after they have left the battlefield, even when they have arrived home. The lines in which she writes “your own polished, tightly tied / meltdown” (l.13-14) bring up the same idea of a never-ending trauma. These lines are used to show that, despite all the soldier may feel, they cannot express these feelings and must maintain the image of the war hero with polished boots.
The last stanza appears to bring back the idea behind the title; the procession which the soldier has been a part of does not lead to a sense of glory or joy. Rather, Lahey writes, “Forget glory: being alive is / the long walk you knew it would be” (l.25-26). Through this passage, the poet suggests that there is no reward in the war ending, but that the psychological consequences in the aftermath of it take away any sense of accomplishment that the soldier might or should have.
Anita Lahey’s “Post-War Procession” is not a representation of the pride or relief that soldiers may feel when the war is over, and their work is complete. Rather, it expresses how post-traumatic stress infiltrates itself into a soldier’s mind in the aftermath of war. Throughout this poem, the reader experiences the soldier’s mind shifting from one dark image to another as they begin to see the world around them only as a reflection of the horrible images of violence and trauma they witnessed during the war.
Lahey, Anita. “Post-War Procession.” Liberal Arts Poetry, Professor Susan Elmslie, Handout, Winter 2020, Dawson College. Also found in: In Fine Form: The Canadian Book of Form Poetry, edited by Kate Braid and Sandy Shreve, Polestar, 2007, pp.161-62.