Walter’s The Retreat from Moscow

A few months back Brian Walters emailed me asking if I’d like a copy of his The Retreat from Moscow, and gave me a brief introduction to the book:

It includes a few Jeffers-style long narrative poems (though not as long as his and not psychologically demanding; I adhere to Carver’s principal of writing down what you need to say and then moving on to something else), and shorter poems on a variety of topics.

Since I enjoyed both Jeffers and Carver’s poetry, I said I’d love to receive a copy but would take a little while to get to it. It’s been a little while, and I’ve finally finished reading most of it and will finish the rest tomorrow.

I’ll have to admit I’m not a history buff and had to research online to find the background to some of the poems, particularly the title poem, though I knew the title must refer to Napoleon’s Retreat from Moscow. I think I enjoyed the poem more because Napoleon barely appears in the poem. It’s written from the point of view of an enlisted man and captures the horror of that retreat from his viewpoint — not a General’s viewpoint. It grabbed my attention and made me remember how much hate war, just what I’d expect from a good poem.

I’ll have to admit, though, that I’m much more attuned to this poem:


Too often I’ll look at a map of the world
and grow disheartened at dire ideals choking
countries and continents. I’ll sadden at the knowledge
of landmasses being converted into moonfaces
and the fact that stonehard men
can go home at night to make love to their wives
after spending the day crushing the lives of thousands.
I’ll even feel malice towards the many who surrender
to corporate arrogance and carve totems out of lies
because that is all they hear or choose deafness
over alteration.

But on this morning the snow falls
beautifully soft over all horizons, and my daughter and I
mold a snowman-two dried flowerheads for eyes,
a small birch branch for a nose, a twig for lips,
a wreath of arborvitae leaves for a hat.
He smiles newly at the world.
And we smile with him.

Like the narrator, I tend to relate most to history on a personal level and, more often than not, as a contrast to my own life. It’s hard to look at what’s happening in the world and not become “disheartened.” How can it be that this country I love has spent nearly my entire lifetime at war?

Luckily, like the narrator I still cherish the moments I’ve spent playing with my children and grandchildren, indulging in the beauty that the world still offers forth.

And the tragedy of the world is all the more poignant when we manage to hold those two thoughts in our mind at the same moment.