Those Who Don'T Return Poem by gershon hepner

Those Who Don'T Return

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More blessed are the ones who don’t return,
in battle vanquished,
never anguished
like those who, once they have come back, must learn
about the deconstruction of the story
of their great battle
in tales that tattle,
adducing what is gory in their glory
as proof that they weren’t worthy of our praise,
turned into sleaze.
It’s true this hero’s stories still amaze,
but he can’t match Achilles; though more skilled
than this rival,
his survival
makes him more problematic than the killed.
Between glory and safe passage home
those who choose
the latter lose,
post-traumatically condemned to roam.

Caroline Alexander, author of “The War That Killed Achilles: The True Story of Homer’s ‘Iliad’ and the Trojan War, ” contrasts the survival of Ulysses following the Trojan War with the death of Achilles (“Back From War, but Not Really Home, ” seeing in Ulysses dislocation on his return to Ithaca a foreshadowing of the dislocation of veterans returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (Bak From War, but Not Really Home, ” NYT, November 8,2009) . Reflecting on Veterans’ Day, she writes:

Odysseus returns home to a palace he does not recognize, and then finds his home overrun with young men who have no experience of war. Throughout his long voyage back, he has reacted to each stranger with elaborate caginess, concocting stories about who he is and what he has seen and done—the real war he keeps to himself….Odysseus’ own memories are more potent. Amongst the kindly Phalakians, who give him hospitality toward the end of his hard voyage, he listens to the court poet sing of the Trojan War’s “famous actions/of men on that venture.” Odysseus, taking his mantel in his hands, “drew it over his head and veiled his fine features/shamed for the tears running down his face. And most significantly, epic tradition hints at the dilemmas of military commemoration. In “The Iliad, ” Achilles must choose between kleos or nostos—glory or a safe passage home. By dying at Troy, Achilles was assured of undying fame as the greatest of all heroes. His choice reflects an uneasy awareness that it is far easier to honor the dead soldier than the soldier who returns.

© 2009 Gershon Hepner 11/8/09


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