Military Gas Mask From Overseas on Saskatchewan Farm

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Military Gas Mask From Overseas on Saskatchewan Farm

“If one perceptible function of poetry is to write place into existence, another of its functions is to unwrite it.” Seamus Heaney

I can frame the space
Where dad’s soldier’s gas mask was placed
Hung for years as a souvenir
On a wall in his farmyard workshop
But I had no frame of reference
As a child, a veteran’s son
To grasp what it possibly could mean
Ever to have needed one
Or why it had such value for dad
Like a pearl of great price
Discovered and hidden again
In a field he now owns
Giving the appearance of something nearly discarded
He kept asking us not to touch it
Even though as boys we would try it on for size
When he was on the field
Cultivating or seeding or combining
I couldn’t know then if it shaped his identity
As securely as the material from which it was made
Shaped his face
Or if he had a phantom feeling of it still
Like an amputee, a survivor
The war was no longer there
Except for an invisible presence
The mask dangling around his neck
A pendulum of uncertain times
With his sten gun over his shoulder
And his shovel behind his back
To dig slit trenches and fox holes
In the dirt and mud and clay
As protections from volleys of fire
And aerial bombardments
Years before it ever got hung
On the wooden granary wall
He had been a Canadian test subject
Suffield, Alberta, 1942
And had experience with chlorine gas
Even before he travelled safely overseas
Through waters threatened by U-boats and icebergs
Later, I would learn a poem about that mustard gas
“Gas boys, gas. An ecstasy
Of fumbling”
Though I was never clever enough
To connect that poem with a better understanding
Of my own father’s experience
Or draw me closer to him
All my childhood
This gas mask was right there on a wall
Part of a frame of a common wooden granary
Seasoned by decades of harvest
Now seconded for use as a tool shop
Repair shop, two by four floor well worn
From dad’s diligent attention to his work
The entire inside dark with oil, dirt, and metal filings
That small space held everything
Grinder, bearings, nails, bolts
Air compressor, oil cans,step ladders
Tools on the floor and bench and shelf
All with the smell of grease and grinding fumes
With just enough of a pathway
To maneuver all this valuable collection
Like the bees and flies weaving in
And out of this same space
This clutter that makes a jack-of-all trades independent
And successful on a family farm
Meanwhile the gas mask could always be seen
On the wall across from the doorway
As soon as you entered the building
If you were looking for it
And for years, until now, I had stopped
There it remained
Among the rakes and garden hoes and scythes
Practical technology of farm life
With the leather straps and breathing apparatus
Of the military gas mask
Not quite the look of a skull
Though anthropomorphic enough
To be dissimilar to a cattle skull
Or small animal heads we might find
In the bush
To the north of the yard
That brilliant windbreak
From bone-chilling winter storms
The mask silent and impractical
Among all this utility
Of civilian life
Its invisible value to dad
Worth more than any use it might still provide
It served its first reason for being years ago
Like the work of a tree’s green leaves
In that great care of life under the sun
Before an unutility emerges
In the changing of the colours
After the work is done
An ecstatic artistry in all that uselessness
Of autumn glory
“Things are transformed
Into that which cannot be grasped”
Writes Maurice Blanchot, “The Space of Literature”
I could not grasp the grasp
In which dad was held by the mask
Stronger now than any functional use
It might retain
“Out of use, beyond wear
They are not in our possession”
Of course, it was a part of dad’s belongings
A wartime souvenir, like the wooden Dutch shoes
And his 1939-1945 Star and Volunteer medal
Italy Star
From that era when he was a young man
With the Canadian Army in Italy
But also part of his emotional belongings
Like his startle reflex during thunder storms
And all that restlessness at night when he slept
About which only mom knew the details
Which is why she never put us into bed with him
When we were little
And had our own innocent bad dreams
“But they are the movement of dispossession
Which releases us both from them
And from ourselves”
He must have been happy to be free
Of any further need for it
Among the necessary clutter on a soldier’s body
Dispossessed of it after the final orders to disarm
When he began to learn to live
In a veteran’s body instead
In that epic mass return to life
During peacetime
He had no fear to need it ever again
Against mustard gas
The need of it was different now
A thanksgiving for survival
A remembrance of fellow soldiers,many
Who can only be visited now
By journeys to Commonwealth War Graves in Italy
Or by revisiting and re-membering memories of them
“I have no words to describe this
To someone who wasn’t there”
He used to say to us
The silent mask has begun to speak
When practical words are mute
Or from Blanchot, such a possibility
“Belongs neither to the day
Nor to the night
But is always spoken
Between night and day
And one single time speaks the truth
And leaves it unspoken”
Mom, a veteran’s wife
Harboured tenderly that untender pillow talk
In her own great care
To affirm the goodness of his humanity
In that life project known as a return
To self
And civilian life
After participating in what such a mask
Was needed for in the first place
And make possible the experience
Of more fruitful ecstasies
Marriage, family, owning his own land
For which he often longed
And did express, until his death
A word of thanks

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