The Poem of the Month for March 2021 is “Death with Pants On,” by Ramon Guthrie.
Ramon Guthrie was a Professor of French at Dartmouth College for many years. During World War I, he served as an ambulance driver for the French army and then, in the last year of the war, he flew as an observer/gunner with the American Air Service. He was assigned to the 11th Aero Squadron, which flew in support of the American Army’s advance near Chateau-Thierry in September and October of 1918. The 11th Aero Squadron flew DH-4s, two-place aircraft (pilot and observer/gunner).
The poem “Death with Pants On” is one of the poems in Maximum Security Ward, a series of interrelated poems that Guthrie wrote about dying and death during the final years of his life, when he was suffering from terminal cancer. Although most poems in the series depend on other poems in the series for their most complete impact, this poem easily stands alone.
It begins by briefly reviewing the life and flying career of Georges Guynemer, one of the top flying aces of the French Air Force during World War I. It then moves to a remembrance of the men with whom Guthrie had flown during the war. I find the poem very moving.
Death with Pants On
“Ace of aces.” I saw him once in Harry’s Bar
(“Tell the taxi Sank Roo Doe Noo”)
standing there with an untouched glass before him.
Georges Guynemer, the name had come to stand
beside Jeanne d’Arc’s and Roland’s. Apart those eyes
and the palm leaves on the ribbon of his Croix de Guerre
reaching to his belt, looked no more godlike
than any other slight tubercular boy of 22.
Not at all the lightning-hurling Zeus
That La Fresnayes’ heroic portrait makes him.
Never too sharp a pilot, often shot down,
His Spad riddled, himself eight times wounded.
“But man, what eyes!” a fellow Cigogne told me.
“And nerve and—well, you’ve got to say, what luck!”
Two shots—tat-tat—two Fokkers down in flames.
Tat-tat-tat-tat! Tat-tat-tat! Tat-tat-tat-tat!
Eleven bullets: a Rumpler and two more Fokkers.
That night I saw him, his score was 48.
He got five more before his string ran out.
Monday, September 10, sick, irascible,
He had three Spads conk out on him,
Force-landed them and met the omen with a tantrum.
Tuesday even his mechanic begged him
To give his crippled luck a chance to heal.
Bright oblivion called him. His wing-man said,
“One moment he was there. The next the sky
Was empty. Not a boche in sight. No flash!”
No trace of either his body or the Spad was found.
Fit apotheosis: the skies of France
His tomb and monument. Streets and schools
Named for him, medals struck.
I think of others–Chapin, Sayre, Comygies, Nick Carter
Whom I last saw spinning down in flames
Toward La Chausee. Their first fight—
If you can call it that. Unmatched for unreality:
As we straggled out of clouds into a well
Of open sky, the red-nosed hornets swooped.
Most of us
Never found a chance to fire a shot.
There were others. I forget their names.
“I saw him once”: Guthrie must have seen Guynemer in July 1917, when Guthrie was still a volunteer driver with the American Ambulance Service. Guynemer died two months later.
Harry’s Bar: Harry’s New York Bar was established in Paris in 1911. It was popular with American soldiers and airmen during World War I. Ernest Hemingway, a later customer, helped to popularize the bar. It was located at 5 Rue Daunou (In French, pronounced “Sank Roo Doe Noo”).
La Fresnaye: Roger de La Fresnaye (1885-1925) painted a stylized modernist version of Guynemer that did not resemble Guynemer at all. Guthrie may have been thinking of the more lifelike (and definitely “heroic”) version painted by “Lucien” (not further identified); he may also have been thinking of the sketch drawn by Henri Farre, who drew and painted many scenes of French aviators and flying activities, published shortly after the war ended in Sky Fighters of France.
Cigogne: The French word for stork, the bird that served as the emblematic mascot of Guynemer’s escadrille (squadron), Esc. Spa 3.
Rumpler, Fokkers: German aircraft.
Spad: French aircraft.
Chapin, Sayre, Comygies, Nick Carter: Members of the 11th Aero Squadron, all shot down within a one week period. Roger Chapin, shot down and made a prisoner of war, 18 September 1918. Harold Sayre, killed 14 September 1918. Edward Comegys, killed 18 September. Arthur (“Nick”) Carter, killed 18 September, 1918. Guthrie and his pilot, Vincent Oatis, were the only squadron fliers to return from the mission on 18 September.
La Chausee: French town where the 11th Aero Squadron was flying in September 1918.