Thursday, November 10, 2016

Paul Wilhelm, War, Poetry and an Oasis in the Desert.

photo © Mark Butkus 2016
The view from Paul Wilhelm's Vagabond House.

So let me live where I may hear
The silken whisper of the sand
The singing music of the sphere
The light-wing feet, the unseen hand
Of pressing winds that murmur near
The pulsing spirit of this land!

Paul Wilhelm (1909-1994) described himself as "a naturalist who lives in Thousand Palms Canyon" in the postscript of his articles for the Indio Daily News. The plaque at the Paul Wilhelm Palm Grove dedicated to him reads, "This magnificent desert fan palm oasis is dedicated to the memory of Paul Wilhelm, desert writer, poet and naturalist. Paul devoted his life to the protection of these palms and the surrounding desert. Through his writings and conversations with visitors, he opened his arms and heart, passing on his deep love of the desert and its history for all who listened."

It was the part about his being a poet that piqued our interest.

Wilhelm's father bought the Thousand Palms property Paul called home from the original settler at the turn of the 20th century to feed his livestock. The younger Wilhelm first set eyes on the oasis that would become his home when he was nine years-old and so began a lifetime love affair with the desert that was only interrupted by schooling and service during World War II.

When we began to research Wilhelm and his poetry we expected to find a trove of bucolic poetry about the beauty and wonder of his desert oasis. And we were not disappointed. What we were surprised to find was one of the most brilliant poems ever written from the battlefield. The Street of Your Love impacts the reader on many levels and provides truth to the adage that there are no atheists in foxholes.

Written in March, 1945 while Wilhelm served overseas in the European Theater of Operations, The Street of Your Love is respectfully shared at Veteran's Day. It was first published in the now defunct The Catholic World in December, 1945.


The Street of Your Love

I sought you God — I found You not;
Now at midnight in this battered church
I'm glad to meet You — glad to know You — God...

You see, through the nightmare of Hurtgen
Across Verdun's concrete hell
Back over the bloodsmeared Normandy hedges
They told me you were a myth —
And in England, too, they laughed and said,
"This 'God' — why, pah! — Now, a Pub's a PLACE."
I believed this stuff —
Believed in Pubs too, God,
And gals — cheap talk — braggart ways —.
But last night when my Buddy got it
Out there on the Belgian plain
I heard him speak Your Name —
Saw him smile before he died...

Then we hemmed this town around
And took it yard by yard.
At the eleventh hour
I crept down streets
Where once two rows of houses were,
Their bomb-rent structures mixed
With heirlooms, portraits, potted plants;
When the mortar shell burst at my feet —
And me unscathed — !
I knew they'd told a lie...

Furtive I prowled, a hunted thing,
From the bottom of the hill
To the top of the burning town.
Tommy-gun in hand I stalked the jerries
Where two machine guns had lately barked
From a cellar's black slit-eye.
Then suddenly I knew a Courage not my own
Was certain over me — for the asking — !
I'd never taken time before
To see the things You made — and gave...

When I'd been around each corner
Of the devastated town
I came upon this street — "Cathedral Street" —
Climbed the highest parapet
Of the old Cathedral's campanile
And cleaned out two snipers busy there.
Afterward, like a sparrow,
I sat alone until I saw above me
Through a ragged shell-hole in the roof
Your Cross ablaze with light.
I guess You heard me noising abroad
The first prayer I'd ever made:
"Excuse me, God," I said; "I believed their lies..."

Then I came down and prowled
Where bombs, erupting ancient graves
Like Judgement Day, had raised the dead;
Past startled death of vine and plants
Of a convent garden's pillaged hush
But for a fountain's broken song
For sturdy friends and true —
Teresa, Francis, Anthony —
And John the Baptist, Desert Boy
Scattered beneath a bleeding tree.
Before You'd let me see Your Face
You led me to that desecrated place...
Where death rode wild among the violent
One blazing hour before
I groped to what was left of the house
Where the widow lives, with the blind boy and his doves.
The shell-pocked door was barred; so I knocked.

"O.K. in there?" All was still. "O.K.?" I said.
A cry — a sob — . "Merci, Monsieur — merci —!—"
I hugged the wall, back-trekking
Until I came upon her easement.
At my tap the window opened, her face appeared —
Annette, young goat-herd of the Ardennes hills
dreaming dreams among the ruins,
Her eyes full of night, and stars.
"You — your mom — and pop — O.K.?" She nodded,
Held up two young kid goats
That nuzzled soft as silk. She said,
"My pet goats kiss your hands, Monsieur..."
Funny, God, in her brave look —
The widow's cry — the blind boy's sob —
I thought I saw You — heard Your voice — ...

Through billowy smoke that wrapped the town
I slipped along Cathedral walls
And crept to the great front door
That I was afraid of before.
At my touch the door swung open — and there —
In shadowed darkness — a votive flame —
Beside Your effigy — and from where You hung —
Serene and dying — God —
For a moment — I thought —
I could have sworn I heard Your voice...

Well, there's the signal — got to go —
The "zero hour" — we're moving up.
But before I go — I want to say —
I'm glad I met You — God — today.
Until tonight I didn't know
There is a widow and a blind boy
And an Annette dreaming dreams
On most any street in the world —
'Streets of Your Love," I'll call them — God...
At midnight in this battered church
Where every shadowy thing
Is radiant with a strange kind of glory
I guess You understand
Why I'm not afraid now —.
If I should come to Your Home tonight —
God — I know You'll be waiting there!

            Germany — March, 1945.


— Paul Wilhelm


It is against this backdrop of war that Wilhelm would later recall that, "During the Battle of the Bulge in Belgium, my brother Pat wrote that he had been out to see the oasis; "Part of it has been vandalized. But the main thing is that Dad has passed on and he has left the 80 acres to you.""

Hurtgen, in the poem, refers to The Battle of Hürtgen Forest. Fought along the border of Belgium and Germany, The Battle of Hürtgen Forest was the longest battle on German soil during World War II. It is to this day the longest single battle the U.S. Army has ever fought with casualties to the U.S. First Army numbering at least 33,000 killed and wounded.

Famous for it First World war battle, Verdun, France was heavily bombed by the Germans after its liberation by American forces in September 1944. Battles in "the bloodsmeared Normandy hedges" that Wilhelm writes about has been described as, "risky, costly, time-consuming, fraught with frustration. It was like fighting in a maze. Platoons found themselves completely lost a few minutes after launching an attack. Squads got separated. Just as often, two platoons from the same company could occupy adjacent fields for hours before discovering each other's presence."

The cathedral in the Ardennes hills could refer to the Collégiale Notre-Dame in Dinant. The area described in Wilhelm's poem came to prominence during the Battle of the Bulge in December 1944. Allied forces blocked the German advance on the river Meuse at Dinant.

When he returned home to his Vagabond House following the war, the self-described "desert rat's poet," devoted his life to the preservation of the desert he called home and the people, plants and animals who inhabited his environs.

The poem that appears at the beginning of this piece is entitled, Whispered Music and appeared in the July, 1949 issue of Desert Magazine.

photo © Mark Butkus 2015
Thousand Palms, California.