Above the Dreamless Dead is a book that bleeds together verses of Trench Poets and illustrations of comic artists. The result is a poignant discussion of war and its numerous casualties and implications. Edited by Chris Duffy, it is a collection of Trench Poetry, or poetry written mostly by soldier poets who had experienced first-hand the tragedies and travesties of World War I.
It is important to remember that World War I was an extraordinarily formative war as it introduced, for the first time, industrialized warfare. This modernized war caused what were previously unimaginable numbers of casualties, and ultimately caused the restructuring of world maps, particularly in Europe and the Middle East. Among the most famous of these Trench Poets include Wilfred Owen, Osbert Sitwell and Siegfried Sassoon. Fittingly, the release of the book in 2014, which marks the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I.
The book arrived bound in a dust jacket bearing a harrowing illustration of a kneeling soldier. Under his knees, buried in the dirt, there lies a young soldier…eyes closed, quiet in eternal rest. If you take off the dust jacket, the book is covered with another jolting image–a crowd of skeletons still cloaked in combat gear, standing shoulder to shoulder, as though still fallen into formation, marching into combat. There stands one lonely soldier at the bottom who appears to still be living. His uniform is cast in green. But all the haunting dead eyes and vicious dead mouths gather behind him in an eery horde.
The title Above the Dreamless Dead comes from the last line of Wilfred Wilson Gibson’s poem titled “The Dancers.” The poem combines imagery of combat, of “hurting shells” and “burning eyes” and juxtaposes it with the whimsy of dancing dragonflies. As the narrator fights “in France as in a senseless dream,” these fluttering dragonflies “dance” amongst the shattering bombs, “above the dreamless dead.”
The editor, Chris Duffy, divided the book up into three chapters, The Call to War, In the Trenches, and The Aftermath, which stands as a logical progression of war itself—being drawn into the war mentally and ideologically, then physically, and then the destruction left after the war is “over.”
The poems range from quite whimsical and singsongy to extremely eery, heavy, blistering.
For instance, Hunt Emerson’s illustrations of soldier’s songs are uncensored and comical, albeit extremely dark and still twanged with tragedy, in both illustration and verse (“I don’t want to be a solider, I don’t want to go to war! I’d rather hand around piccadilly underground, living off the earnings of a well-paid whore…).
On the other hand, several of Siegfried Sassoon’s poems are utilized throughout the book, and they are all filled with passion, politics, and a vehement call for pacifism. At one point during Sassoon’s career as a British soldier in World War I, he wrote a letter to Great Britain’s House of Commons stating that he believed that the war was no longer one of “defense and liberation” but had become one of “aggression and conquest.” Afterwards, he was hospitalized for “shell shock,” better known today as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. In the third chapter of the book, The Aftermath, James Lloyd illustrates Sassoon’s poem titled “Repression of War Experience,” which discusses living with PTSD after the war was over, how the war is never over, how it lingers, toxic, in the minds of those who experience it. The poem ends with, “I want to go out, And screech at them to stop—I’m going crazy; I’m going stark, staring mad because of the guns.”
Llloyd includes a note at the end in which he brings the entire Above the Dreamless Dead project into the Here and Now. He pens an homage to Sassoon and salutes our contemporary veterans who have lived and continue to live with invisible wounds sustained from warfare. He writes, “And at the bottom of it all remains the resounding alienation suffered by Sassoon and his mates. They are alone in the rain, and the bombs still fall.” He then ends with, “With respect for the words of the Iraq and Afghanistan winter soldiers and all veterans who have found the courage to bear witness.”
Each comic artist has such a distinct style so that every poem is illustrated and interpreted in a distinct fashion. I think that the project was ultimately successful particularly in the way translating each poem into comic cells creates a unique way to read and absorb the poetry. It puts the poems’ rhythms and tones into visual form. I found myself meditating on each individual line as I studied the artwork. Why did the artist illustrate this poem in this particular way? What does it mean that these specific words are in a cell with this particular image? Some of the illustrations are so haunting they send shivers down your spine, specifically Eddie Campbell’s adaption of the excerpt from Patrick MacGill’s novel, The Great Push, as well as George Pratt’s interpretation of “Greater Love” by Wilfred Owen.
I do think that it is extremely important Chris Duffy mentions that all the cartoonists are civilians. This is crucial because most if not all of these poets have experienced the horrors of war directly, and brought this experience out through their art. These cartoonists do not and cannot have the same perspective that these, or any other, soldiers poets have. Duffy writes, “That feeling of inadequacy, in the face of warriors’ tales…is hard to dismiss.” He then concludes that the project is a tribute to these soldiers, an effort to bear witness “to those who bear witness.” I think that is evident particularly in James Lloyd’s note about Sassoon, PTSD, and present-day soldiers after “Repression of War Experience.”
On that note, I cannot find the adequate words to conclude a discussion about Trench Poets, so it is probably more appropriate to end with their own words. Here are the last lines of Osbert Sitwell’s “The Next War.”
What more fitting memorial for the fallen
Than that their children
Should fall for the same cause?
Rushing eagerly into the street,
The kindly old gentleman cried
To the young:
“Will you sacrifice
Through your lethargy
What your fathers died to gain?
The world must be made safe for the young!”
And the children