Living in a wide landscape are the flowers –
Rosenberg I only repeat what you were saying –
the shell and the hawk every hour
are slaying men and jerboas, slaying
the mind: but the body can fill
the hungry flowers and the dogs who cry words
at nights, the most hostile things of all.
But that is not news. Each time the night discards
draperies on the eyes and leaves the mind awake
I look each side of the door of sleep
for the little coin it will take
to buy the secret I shall not keep.
I see men as trees suffering
or confound the detail and the horizon.
Lay the coin on my tongue and I will sing
of what the others never set eyes on.
Commentary by Carol Rumens, The Guardian, 9 June 2014
While serving in the North African campaign Douglas was wounded by a mine. Desert Flowers was probably written while he was recovering in El Ballah General Hospital, Palestine, early in 1943.
It’s more introspective than Vergissmeinnicht or How to Kill – the famous, ground-breaking poems he wrote a little later. Yet it’s hardly atypical. The same clear-voiced speaker, idiomatic and direct, utters thoughts aloud – in this case, not only to himself, but for the attention of a fellow poet. In fact, Isaac Rosenberg, killed in 1918, is the first world war poet whose “cynic-lyric” style is closest to Douglas’s own.
Succinct but mysterious, Desert Flowers belongs to a liminal state between sleeping and waking, night and day. It seems to open and close: first, to look outwards at the “wide landscape” and then to turn to the unconscious desires where poetry – even the starkest war poetry – is generated. There’s a convalescent quality of memories being reviewed in quiet darkness, and energies gathered.
Desert Flowers clarifies the relationship of death and poetic perfection for Douglas. He seems to know he is within sight of both.
You can read the rest of the commentary on the Guardian website http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/jun/09/poem-of-the-week-keith-douglas-war