Listen to Robert Pinsky reading this poem. The reticence of many war veterans is well-known and notable. They tend often not to talk about valor, nor about nightmare, nor suffering, nor horror. I have heard veterans of different generations talk about military life as though the military were a foreign country, with its own language and customs and inconveniences, even with qualities that might make a person feel homesick, as well as repelled. Henry Reed was a British airman in World War II. His poem about a rifle lesson, designated in the military at that time as “the naming of parts,” contrasts the language of rifle instruction with the vegetation, the flowers surrounding the soldiers who are taking the lesson. The overlapping and different kinds of language and experience, the echoes of connotations and denotations, make the poem.—Robert Pinsky
Today we have naming of parts. Yesterday,
We had daily cleaning. And tomorrow morning,
We shall have what to do after firing. But today,
Today we have naming of parts. Japonica
Glistens like coral in all of the neighboring gardens,
And today we have naming of parts.
This is the lower sling swivel. And this
Is the upper sling swivel, whose use you will see,
When you are given your slings. And this is the piling swivel,
Which in your case you have not got. The branches
Hold in the gardens their silent, eloquent gestures,
Which in our case we have not got.
This is the safety-catch, which is always released
With an easy flick of the thumb. And please do not let me
See anyone using his finger. You can do it quite easy
If you have any strength in your thumb. The blossoms
Are fragile and motionless, never letting anyone see
Any of them using their finger.
And this you can see is the bolt. The purpose of this
Is to open the breech, as you see. We can slide it
Rapidly backwards and forwards: we call this
Easing the spring. And rapidly backwards and forwards
The early bees are assaulting and fumbling the flowers
They call it easing the Spring.
They call it easing the Spring: it is perfectly easy
If you have any strength in your thumb: like the bolt,
And the breech, and the cocking-piece, and the point of balance,
Which in our case we have not got; and the almond-blossom
Silent in all of the gardens and the bees going backwards and forwards,
For today we have naming of parts.