Pilot's wartime death sparks meditation on poetry
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Daniel Swift's look into the death of his grandfather in World War II is far more than a detective story. This gifted author hitches his search to an analysis of the relationship between bombing, the Great War and the poetry it spawned, making "Bomber County" fine history, probing literary criticism and profound moral commentary.
A mosaic with a chronological spine, Mr. Swift's unusual and original book is moving reading, its meticulous prose appropriate to its intertwined subjects.
In July 2007, the author and his father embarked on a trek to discover what exactly happened to Royal Air Force bomber pilot James Eric Swift on July 11, 1943. First they went to Holland, where the pilot's body washed ashore six days after he disappeared in a run over Muenster, Germany.
Son and father -- think of them as Icarus and Daedalus, but with a happy ending -- spent months researching the death, sifting through archives and interviewing veterans of bomber squadrons as well as survivors of RAF bombings of Germany.
Along this historical way, Mr. Swift interprets World War II bomber poetry spanning T.S. Eliot's "Four Quartets" (a kind of child of the Blitz), Randall Jarrell's "Death of the Ball Turret Gunner" and a lesser poet, the wireless operator and air gunner John Riley Byrne.
He ends with W.H. Auden, whose "Musee des Beaux Arts," a re-imagining of the Icarus myth, serves Mr. Swift as a kind of coda. Along the philosophical way, Mr. Swift connects bomber to plane, plane to poetry, poetry to war, terrain to purpose.
The title refers to the eastern reaches of England, where air strips smoothly connected British Lancaster bombers such as the one James Eric Swift piloted to Holland and Germany.
Where trenches shadowed World War I poetry, Mr. Swift observes, the air shadowed the poetry of the next world conflict. In an examination of a Cecil Day Lewis poem in which bombers are "heavy angels carrying harm in their wombs," he says:
"Here is the promise of a poetry specific to the Second World War. It builds upon the tight fury and intensely physical metaphors of the First World War poets, and yet the form of its menace is particularly modern. 'Children look up,' he [Lewis] writes, for this type of war is no longer bound to a single landscape; it is in the air, and as the 'Earth shakes beneath us: we imagine loss.' "
Mr. Swift's other grandfather was a famous war correspondent, suggesting this book was genetically predetermined.
"Alan Moorehead is my grandfather: my mother's father," Mr. Swift writes. "One day in the early spring of 1945 one of my grandfathers sat and looked and imagined the work of the other. Bombing builds an invisible city, from the ruin of the past and the play of the imagination, and the invisible city is always double. Half belongs to the bombers, and half to the bombed; half to the present, and half to the past."
Sorrow and pain occupy the gap between the bomber and the bombed, Mr. Swift suggests, a gap poetry would close but cannot bridge. And so he ends his book with Icarus, a myth of duality, complexity, connectivity; Daedalus made the wings that melted and sent Icarus to his death, remember.
"The price of forgetting Daedalus, even for an instant, is to forget that our inventions may turn against us. If we only have Icarus, then this is a story about a wayward boy. But if we also tell of Daedalus, we have a parable of technology gone awry."
First Published August 22, 2010 12:00 am