Of Sitting Bear

(from The General Mule Poems)

Hoka hey, Lakotas, Sioux warriors used to shout before riding into battle: It's a good day to die. Comanche braves must have said it every morning before breakfast.

Now the Comanches I don't miss much, and the Plains Indian may not have been the noblest human ever to walk or ride the surface of the earth, but I say it does take something fine to majce a man, old and sick and huddled beneath a blanket, patiently, mile after mile in an open wagon, strip the flesh away from his wrists with his teeth, until at last the manacles slide from his hands and he attacks and attacks and attacks the guarding soldiers till they shoot him finally to death, there on the road to prison, because it was, he knew, a bad day for Sitting Bear to be captured, but a good day to die.

First of all, the above account is true. In 1871 Sitting Bear, a member of an elite Kiowa military group, had been captured and was handcuffed in an open wagon on his way to prison in Texas when the scene that Dodd recounts occurred. During the trip Sitting Bear was guarded by soldiers with carbines as cavalrymen rode alongside. Periodically on the trip Sitting Bear would hide beneath a blanket and rip the flesh of his hands so he could slide off the cuffs. Somehow he had managed to procure a knife, and suddenly he sprang on his captors who shot him as he slashed.

Now if you had read such an account in a history book, and in part it spoke of your heritage, you might be moved as Dodd was to compose such a lyric. What makes Dodd's so special is that he relates history and re-creates the moment personally, as if you were listening to him across the room — "Comanche braves must have said it/every morning before breakfast./Now the Comanches I don't miss much. . . ." All the while he presents his research in clear, accessible lines — "Hoka hey, Lakotas, Sioux warriors used to shout." Moreover, while the poet obviously could not have witnessed the scene, he can compose a good war poem because he has a genuine interest in its story.

In everyone's family tree, someone has fought in or has been affected/afflicted by war. To generate an idea for a war poem, conduct research into your own background and heritage. If one of your relatives has documents from a war, ask to borrow them. In your journal, record how you feel about or relate to specific battles or events. If the veteran is still alive, interview him or her. Look up significant episodes in reference books or military history collections at the library. Get a sense of historical fact to shape your perspective. Remember, the real topic is not the war but your feelings or comments about it.

If you still believe that your perspective is lacking, keep the following in mind: Sooner or later everyone's life is touched by armed conflict. Even my son Shane, two years old at the time, experienced the televised Gulf War in 1991 and now identifies combat with flashing anti-aircraft lights on an illuminated green background: "War," he says. In my own life, of course, I (and many of you) have been affected by the Vietnam War. I didn't serve in the military, but that hasn't stopped me from writing about war.

If you have little experience thinking about war, or no feeling associated with it, contemplate why in your journal. (That can be the basis for a poem itself.) Or visit a veteran's club or hospital and do some volunteer service and question members. Eventually specific topics, perspectives, truths and lessons will be aroused.

Let's consider another way to generate ideas for war poems. As human beings, we can sympathize with veterans or loved ones who have suffered in a war (even if we haven't). While this type of poem has an implied political theme, its focus is on emotion. True, you may not be able to convey emotion firsthand, but if you empathize with a person who has felt intense experience, you really will be writing about compassion — what we feel for our hurting friends or loved ones.

This poem is based on an anecdote a woman shared with me about her husband, officially declared "missing in action":

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