“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....
(The entire section is 501 words.)