This shocking portrait of a child locked into a brutal cycle of war restrains its language, but its outrage is palpable
This week's poem "Boy Soldier" is by Fred D'Aguiar and comes from his new collection, The Rose of Toulouse. A prolific, multi-talented writer in genres including drama, prose fiction and the verse-novel, D'Aguiar fulfils both contemporary and traditional expectations of the poet's role. Private memory and public accountability converge and energise each other throughout his work.
A jagged "Song of Experience", "Boy Soldier" has some of the simplicity and directness of Blake, but the moral indignation is implicit rather than explicit. The particular hostilities in which the child is caught are not named or located. The boy portrayed is an individual, but he is also the universal child-soldier.
Instantly visual, the tercet begins with an exclamation, bringing speaker and reader straight into contact with the boy, and asserting the speaker's empathy: "What a smile!" A detached, almost "Martian School" style of observation braces the fatherly tenderness. As with that older generation of poet-reporters, compassion will express itself largely through watchful, ego-free attention to the subject.
Romantic and popular convention associates children (especially smiling ones) with innocence and adult enlightenment. The smile of the boy soldier summons that convention, and immediately complicates it, moving from the "large lamp" of the face to the bony "lanterns" of the skinny, unformed body supporting it, "waiting for muscle." The pathos of that "waiting" will become apparent in the fourth stanza. Meanwhile, after the establishing close-up, a cleverly transitional phrase, "body all angles", evokes not only the physique but the rapidity of movement as the boy goes into action.
The poem's rhythm is angular, too, despite its stanzaic symmetry, with curtly enjambed lines jutting through the flow of the syntax, and occasional abbreviation of the syntax itself. Dramatic, cliff-hanger pauses occur at many of the line-endings ("moving/ thing", "drags/ down", etc) culminating in the cross-stanza breaking of "stops// dead." By separating two elements of an ordinary-enough verbal phrase, the poet slows the action and achieves compression. The boy "stops dead" his unknown victim, and the victim himself stops, and falls dead, in slower motion. But, of course, the sentence, like the boy, carries on. The point is that the child has not thought about his target: he shoots at whatever moves and "fails to weigh whom he stops// dead or maims … " . Several verbs in the poem suggest hunting, and an awkward, painful, inefficient "kill". That the bullets are compared to "jabs thrown … " recalls the more playful sport a normally raised boy might enjoy – boxing, perhaps.
There's a sense that the boy's failure to weigh things up is the result of carrying too much adult weight, metaphorically and literally: "His Kalashnikov fires at each moving/ thing … " The gun seems bigger than him, with a depersonalising will of its own. Recruited by force, half-starved, possibly drugged, the boy is a small, cheap set of instantaneous reflexes, almost a robot. Perhaps he's too young to know what he's doing; more likely, he's been deprived of that intelligence by his operators.
A novelistic device fast-forwards the narrative, revealing what will happen to the boy before it happens. His body itself registers this in the "involuntary shudders/ when someone, somewhere, steps over// his shallow, unmarked, mass grave." The word "shudders" could be a verb, but I think it's a noun, an abbreviation which might be in a reporter's notebook, jotted without syntactic ballast. The superstition is commonplace, but used to striking effect: it's one of the moments when we see clearly the boy's own vulnerability, and the vulnerability of all war-used bodies, shuddering involuntarily as they are brought down.
In stanza four we are witnessing his death, perhaps not realising it at first because "his smile remains undimmed, inviting … " Again, an ordinary colloquialism is made to resonate: this child truly doesn't know what has hit him. The opening "lamp" metaphor is resumed with poignant visual clarity: "not knowing … / what snuffs out the wicks in his eyes."
At this point the boldest of the pauses occurs. A full stop and a stanza break appear to terminate the action at the end of the fourth stanza. But the poem goes on and allows us to identify the new figure. The presence of this assailant gains emphasis by being cordoned off, though the clause qualifies the "not knowing" of the preceding stanza. "Except that he moves" assigns a gender to the unknown mover: he is, of course, another boy-soldier. The first child's death-smile is the final irony. We know there's a larger defeat awaiting him and his fellow-combatants – a mass grave.
Now it's as if the speaker and the boy-soldier unite in their recognition of the second child's identity. He's like the first child's mirror image. And because this tercet is itself a mirror-image, reflecting the opening stanza, we might imagine the poem's beginning again, with this other face, smiling largely, this other skinny, agile little body with its Kalashnikov. The implied circularity takes us towards a general sense of war as a cycle of futility, without blurring the particular portrayal – that of a young boy subjected to a form of enslavement. It's estimated that three-quarters of the world's current conflicts recruit children. The boy-soldier is a child of our time.
What a smile! One large lamp for a face,
smaller lanterns where skin stretches over
bones waiting for muscle, body all angles.
His Kalashnikov fires at each moving
thing before he knows what he drags
down. He halts movement of every
kind and fails to weigh whom he stops
dead or maims, his bullets
like jabs thrown before the thought
to throw them, involuntary shudders
when someone, somewhere, steps over
his shallow, unmarked, mass grave.
But his smile remains undimmed,
inviting, not knowing what hit him,
what snuffs out the wicks in his eyes.
Except that he moves and a face just like
his figures like him to stop all action
with a flick of finger on the trigger.
Fred D'Aguiar will be reading from his work on June 22 for the Wordsworth Trust .