Kunitz’s “from Passport to the War (1944)”

Although originally drawn more to the dramatic poems like “Open the Gates” in Kunitz’s “from Passport to the War (1944), in the end I decided that my favorite poem, though perhaps less typical of poems in this section, was:


Who have been lonely once
Are comforted by their guns.
Affectionately they speak
To the dark beauty, whose cheek
Beside their own cheek glows.
They are calmed by such repose,
Such power held in hand;
Their young bones understand
The shudder in that frame.
Without nation, without name,
They give the load of love,
And it’s returned, to prove
How much the husband heart
Can hold of it: for what
This nymphomaniac enjoys
Inexhaustibly is boys.

Perhaps you have to have served in the army to fully appreciate this poem, but hopefully not. The poem was obviously inspired by the Army saying, “This is my rifle, this is my gun”.” But Kunitz is able to have it both ways, for he seems to be comparing the gun to the rifle.

You can obviously read the first two lines either way. People who are lonely are often comforted by sex. But, boys who feel alone and vulnerable are also comforted by holding a rifle in their hands. Just ask any G.I. in a combat zone.

When you’re sitting alone in a bunker in the dark wondering who’s out there, there’s nothing more comforting than that sense of “power held in hand” that a rifle gives you, particularly when you feel the shudder of the force of that rifle when you fire it.

Forget the fact that your enemy probably has an equally powerful weapon in his hands. For rifles, in and of themselves, have neither “nation” nor “name.” Frighteningly, though, these rifles, at least to the extent that they stand for war itself, are a “nymphomaniac,” for war seems to feed “inexhaustibly” on boys, on young soldiers.

Ultimately, the power of the poem stems from the sheer sense of horror that lies in those last two lines. Almost magically, love has been transformed into death. And it’s hard to imagine anything more frightening than that.