Grand Illusion

by Norman Dubie

Norman Dubie

It is not 1937 for long. A clump of ash trees and a walk
Down the the boathouse: inside linen is tacked up
In a long blank mural; the children sit on the wings
Of the dry dock, and then, over the water in a circle
Of rowboats, the aunts and uncles wait while
At their center the projectionist, Jean Renoir,
On a cedar raft, casts silhouettes of rabbits, birds,
And turtles for the sleepy children. Corks
Come out of old bottles, it is a few minutes past sunset
And, now, a swimmer beside the raft looks

Into the boathouse to the linens: at last, it is 1915!
A bird screams over the lake, two bats
Flitter back and forth through the beam of the lamp,
Interrupting the images, the grand illusion, cast over
Water the the acceptance of white tablecloths
On the darkening shore of the lake. A torch is lit
For its kerosene smoke is repugnant to the swarming insects.
This film and its prisoners exist between extreme borders,
Not music and algebra but
A war and, then, yet another war. . .

But we begin with the captured officers digging
A tunnel that will soon be outside the garden wall.
The Boches observe the Frenchmen working
With their hoes as from the trousers of a boy
Dirt from the tunnel secretly spills onto horse manure!
The prisoners dream of crossing a meadow filled
With snow, in the moonlight it is jade-green snow
While Germans with rifles on a hill
Are unable to kill them, for they have escaped
Into Switzerland with its feather-brushed trees

And patina of copper rooftops along a hillside village.
Isn't this the ending of the film?
No! I'm sorry but
There is a single blossom
On the geranium, and when it falls, Captain de Boeldieu
Dies, discovering his afterlife along a November road—
He does not know that two men are hiding in the marsh
Beside him; nevertheless, it is at this moment that the film
Suffers its true conclusion. The two men hiding
In the marsh will escape across the border, only
To be returned to the continuing war. This is why there
Is no importance to your version of the story. And there
Will be another war. And more horror for the geranium!
So, to pass the time, the imprisoned soldiers receive
A steamer trunk filled with women's clothing,
They will all perform in a revue: a chorus
Of boys and men, rouge and talcum, black stockings,
Garters, the tonneau dresses, false breasts and
Large paper carnations riding up like epaulets

On their broad shoulders. These poignant inversions
Are not ridiculous: the third boy from the right
Has delicate milky thighs, these women are not ridiculous
Until they begin to stiffen into men as they sing,
In this comedy, their national anthem! The Russian
Prisoners have been given a trunk, also, from their
Mysterious Czarina; the men open it expecting vodka
And sausages. The box is filled with straw
And books on cooking, painting, and algebra. In disgust
They burn these books—kiss good-bye the frontier

Of algebra and the desire for wedding tripe!
Now, these officers who are escape artists are moved
As an elite corps and north to Wintersborn. Later,
They are taken to a damp limestone castle
From which no one will escape. The Commandant
Is the stoic aristocrat, Rauffenstein, his head is in
A brace like a white egg in a silver teaspoon.
I mean no disrespect, but the balding Rauffenstein is
An abject picture of suffering. His villa has but one
Flower, a tall laden geranium.

Rauffenstein and the other aristocrat, Boeldieu,
Are friends. Both would know that to clear a monocle
One uses spirits of vinegar. They stand confirmed
In manner beside a squirrel cage. Rauffenstein feels
Superior to the other two principals, the rich
Jew, Rosenthal, and the charming emotional Marechal.
These two hide in the marsh while Boeldieu dies
Of a bullet wound. Only a king may kill a king!
And Rauffenstein did it with his pistol; taking aim
But missing the leg; he severed in three places
Boeldieu's intestine!

The Captain is given a room in the turret that holds
The flowering geranium. Now comes the oratio obliqua
Of the marksman, Rauffenstein; the disfigured Commandant
Is sincerely saddened
At having killed the noble Captain. But before
The shooting and escape we sensed the Captain's
Sacrifice was not sacrifice, or suicide, but
The grand escape—a country road into another landscape. . .
There are bells tolling down in the village.
Rosenthal and Marechal with ropes have dropped

Past the castle's battlements to the ground.
They run away across snowy farmland. Marechal's teeth
Are stained from chewing licorice-flavored tobacco.
Rosenthal and Marechal are extremes who have
Strong feelings for each other. They are befriended
By a German widow, Ulsa, and her daughter, Lotte;
Ulsa sleeps with the tall handsome Jew. He promises
To return for her when the war is over. He
Will lose both his legs at Mégéglise.
This is not known within the story, but he'll bleed

To death beside a little bridge. He lived his illusion
In the Orient of Delacroix, his servants were Syrians
And Negroes. He loved the little ivory spoons that
Chinese women in the open markets use to bathe
And freshen the exotic tiny fish they sell out
Of huge clay bowls. . .
In the boathouse the children sleep, while Jean's
Oldest cousin, drunken, falls out of a rowboat.
The lone swimmer has joined Renior on the raft.
The film now reveals the first diversion
As all of the prisoners of the fortress begin playing
Several hundred wooden flutes, the noise is like women
Crying over the fresh mounds at Verdun. This diversion
Is not illusion
And as the Boches collect the flutes, the drunken cousin
Tries to join Renior on the raft. Boeldieu flees
To the heights of the castle, the second diversion!
We hear: Halt! Halt! Halt!
A gunshot, and chowder with blood falls from Boeldieu's
Opened stomach all the way down to the courtyard.

There are small fish bones in the viscera on the cobbled
Courtyard floor. Scissors cut the blue blossom
From the geranium. Boeldieu will die. . . dead,
He awakens on a country road where, now a peasant,
He walks a white horse under the looming, bare trees.
Rosenthal and Marechal are watching
As they hide in the dead marsh flowers of
An early November. They are alive. They do not
Recognize their friend. Renoir's cousin, asking for
More wine, climbing onto the raft, spills

Everything, and the projector with its crude lamp
Sinks slowly to the bottom of the lake—
Its dusky lighted windows like a bathysphere
Lost off a cable that frayed, whoever is alive
Inside the iron bell is experiencing
An eternal falling through water without the promise
Of a bottom. . . it's 1937, the children
Asleep in the boathouse are being aroused, they wake
To a bat caught in the wall of linen, they think it's
Their uncle still casting images of animals for them. . .

Last updated August 11, 2015