“Dead Soldiers” is James Fenton’s narrative of his memory of a luncheon engagement in 1973 on the edge of a jungle battlefield with a member of the Cambodian royal family—Prince Norodom Chantaraingsey—during that country’s long-running civil war. The poem’s ten stanzas contain varying numbers of lines of free verse that are deliberately conversational, straightforward, and nonpoetic in the traditional sense. This is poetry as news report, a deceptively simple account that gains power from the total impact of the poem rather than from the individual lines or words.
In the first five stanzas, the poem simply recounts the events of the lunch: It was hot and the poet was “glad of [his] white suit for the first time that day.” The meal was an elaborate one: Dishes of frogs’ legs, pregnant turtles and their eggs, marsh irises in fish sauce, and banana salad were served on the “dazzling tablecloth” and were accompanied by crates of brandy and soda, which were brought in by bicycles. During the lunch, armored personnel carriers (APCs—military vehicles similar to tanks) were spread out along the roadside to fire into the jungle at the unseen and perhaps absent enemy. Despite the elaborate menu, the meal was largely a liquid one during which many bottles of Napoleon brandy were steadily consumed. These empty bottles, known in slang as “dead soldiers,” give the poem its title. While drinking and dining, the poet talked with the prince. Now, years later, the poet wishes instead he had spoken with the prince’s drunken aide, a man who was the brother of Saloth Sar, better known as Pol Pot, leader of the violently revolutionary Khmer Rouge faction against whom the prince was fighting.
In the second five stanzas of the poem, the poet recalls that he did speak later with the prince’s aide, who was nicknamed “the Jockey Cap,” and that he was convinced that when the ruling elite was ousted from power, both the prince and the Jockey Cap would end up in comfortable exile in the south of France far from any war. In that setting, the only conflicts they would face would be “cafe warfare,” and, if they had to be “reduced in circumstances” (a tellingly ironic phrase), they would continue to enjoy the good life that they had managed to import even into the midst of jungle fighting. Now, however, the poet realizes he was wrong because the conflict was a family quarrel as much as a revolution or a civil war: The prince was fighting his nephew Prince Norodom Sihanouk while the Jockey Cap was pitted against his brother Pol Pot. In such a struggle, the conflict is so vicious that the combatants are less concerned about victory for themselves than in simply keeping their relatives from tasting even the faintest fruits of victory. The poem concludes with the observations that while the two princes and Pol Pot are still fighting, the Jockey Cap probably has not “survived his good/ connections.”
In form and presentation, “Dead Soldiers” is often closer to a prose news story than a traditional poem. Fenton has chosen to use irregular free verse without rhyme or other familiar devices, most likely because these obvious devices might come between his story and the reader. The purpose seems clear: to present the incidents of the poem and their meaning without any interpretation (except that of irony). The major poetic devices Fenton employs in “Dead Soldiers” are deceptively straightforward narrative coupled with a devastatingly dry use of irony. The narrative allows him to load the poem with a number...
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of details that, innocent enough in themselves, coalesce to present the image of a murderous civil war waged with the incongruous juxtaposition of brutal savagery and elaborate luxury. The irony permits Fenton to comment upon people and events without overtly taking a moral position, a most useful device when writing about a situation so stained with confusion and ambiguity. Perhaps only deadpan narrative such as that employed in “Dead Soldiers” could successfully present the surreal scene of the poem: an elaborate luncheon, held on the edge of a jungle battlefield, complete with ice, brandy, soda, and almost decadent dishes. While the diners ate frogs’ legs and the eggs of pregnant turtles (“boiled in the carapace”), troops and military vehicles advanced around them, firing into the sugar palms.
The narrative of the poem dissolves into irony. The site was not a true battlefield at all. The APCs fired into the jungle but “met no resistance.” This supposedly military event was actually nothing but a drunken picnic, and the only “dead soldiers” it brought were the empty bottles of Napoleon brandy that piled up at the feet of the diners. Fenton inserts another sharp and typically understated irony when he notes that “On every bottle, Napoleon Bonaparte/ Pleaded for the authenticity of the spirit.” On the surface, the narrative is blandly truthful: The image of the French emperor without validates the spirit within; in other words, a picture of Napoleon on the label means there is indeed brandy (“spirits” in the literal but also metaphorical sense) inside the bottle. Fenton’s underlying meaning is much more corrosive: Napoleon was summoned up to validate this futile alcoholic exercise in the tropics as a real battle, something to equal the epic events of Napoleon’s greatest victories and defeats at Austerlitz and Waterloo, respectively. Few comparisons could be more ironic or more devastating.
This devastating irony is underscored by the poem’s next shift, which is a forecast of the prince and the Jockey Cap in the future, living in France “after the game was up,” as if the civil war in Cambodia, perhaps all Indochina, was only a contest from which the lucky few could escape into comfortable exile. That setting replicates, in ironic reversal, the scene of the poem. In the future, the elegant life of dining and drinking will indeed be the only real thing; actual battle will be reduced to nothing but “cafe warfare” and matchboxes will easily substitute for APCs—perhaps because back in Cambodia, real APCs were as useless as matchboxes. In a sense, the phony yet deadly war that the prince played with real lives in Cambodia is reduced to its essence of make-believe: Nothing is real now, and nothing will be real then, except for the death and suffering of the “dead soldiers” (not the bottles, but human beings) who are invoked but never mentioned throughout the poem.
In “Dead Soldiers,” Fenton switches constantly, almost casually, between these two levels of pretense and reality. On one hand, there is the battlefield that is actually the setting for an alcoholic revelry, but on the other hand, somewhere in the jungle, men and women are really suffering and dying. In one sense, there are figures who posture as leaders of countries and revolutions, but, in another sense, they are actually locked in an intense family conflict that involves only themselves, no matter how many thousands it kills, maims, and destroys. These contradictions are made stronger by the poem’s indirect, matter-of-fact presentation of them.