Beginning with 1914

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Since it always begins
in the unlikeliest place
we start in an obsolete country
on no current map. The camera
glides over flower beds,
for this is a southern climate.
We focus on medals, a horse,
on a white uniform,
for this is June. The young man
waves to the people lining the road,
he lifts a child, he catches
a rose from a wrinkled woman
in a blue kerchief. Then we hear shots
and close in on a casket
draped in the Austrian flag.
Thirty-one days torn off a calendar.
Bombs on Belgrade; then Europe explodes.
We watch the trenches fill with men,
the air with live ammunition.
A close-up of a five-year-old
living on turnips. Her older sister,
my not-yet-mother, already
wearing my daughter’s eyes,
is reading a letter as we cut
to a young man with thick glasses
who lies in a trench and writes
a study of Ibsen. I recognize him,
he is going to be my father,
and this is his way of keeping alive.
Snow. Blood. Lice. Frostbite.
Grenades. Stretchers. Coffins. Snow.
Telegrams with black borders.
On the wide screen my father returns
bringing his brother’s body;
my mother’s father brings back his son’s
from the opposite edge. They come together
under the oaks of the cemetery.
All who will be my family
are here, except my sister,
who is not yet imagined.
Neither am I, who imagine
this picture, who now jump
to my snowy birthday in the year
of the million-mark loaf of bread.
My early years are played
by a blue-eyed child who grows up
quickly, for this is a film
of highlights, like all documentaries
false to the life—the work
 of selective memory, all I can bear
of a painful childhood. The swastika
appears and remains as the huge
backdrop against which we’re seen.
The sound track of a hysterical voice
is threatening us. We’re heard as whispers.
Shortly before my city
bursts into flames, my stand-in
disappears from the film, which continues
with scenes of terror and death
I can’t bear to watch. I pick up
a new reel, a strange sequel
set in a different location
and made in another language,
in which I am back. The colors are bright,
the sound track is filled with music,
the focus gentle. A man is beside me.
Time-lapse photography picks up
the inchmeal growth of daughters
toward the sky, the slow subversion
of dark by gray hair. Little happens.
The camera sums up the even flow
of many years in a shot of a river.
The principals from part one
are missing, except for me
who am the connection. The time is now,
and I am playing myself.

© Paul Eluard