In 1946, Lincoln Kirstein co-founded the New York City Ballet. However, lesser known then his contributions to the performing arts is his poetic memoir published in 1964 about serving in the US Army during the Second World War. Rhymes of a PFC is a tragically long-out-of-print collection of prose dealing with the stresses of combat, sexuality in the army, and existentialism under the constant threat of death. Now that we are the homefront of a biological struggle happening worldwide, Kirstein’s poems gain renewed relevance for their power and solidarity.
The book is split into sections reflecting the different theaters of war. Each section pays tribute to quiet moments so often left out of newsreels and documentaries. Instead of bullets and shrapnel, Kirstein chronicles the emotional struggles going on behind closed doors–battles not just with the enemy, but between allies and individuals. The complex and surprising nature of these issues can be seen in Kirstein’s reflection of the dynamic between American and British soldiers in regard to married women, which leaves the reader as burned-out as the cuckolded British Tommy. “Bert grasps the situation–/ After five long years,/ Young Bertie in a Yankee’s arms–/ And bursts into tears.// Bert will not try to kill him/ As the corporal thinks he might:/ He’s had his fill of fighting;/ He wants no fight” (50-51).
However, not all of the poems display animosity. There are several that reflect on the collective misery and desire for comfort among soldiers. Many of these sections have homosexual undertones that add a unique character to Kirstein’s poetic voice. In the poem, “Junior,” Kirstein chronicles the quiet tension of a transatlantic crossing. “Then Junior, through our nightmare, came stalking quick but dead;/ As I absorbed his fright from him, the mist on his shaved head/ Stood out like sweat. His two wild paws in helpless animal fright/ Trapped me in the clamp of love to nurse him through this night.// He was in peril. So was I. Be with us to the end/ Where every selfish soldier is rationed half a friend” (61).
Kristein writes wonderfully clever prose that outlines the entire conflict in Europe. The dreamlike quality of episodic poetic rhyme contrasts with visions of Atlantic Convoys, Uboats, and occupied Europe in the darkest days of the conflict. Now, in the biological world war against Covid-19, each of us is a soldier cooped up in a perpetual battle against infection. I’m sure many Americans are feeling the emotional strain of this war, and the economic strain of a wartime economy. In this regard, Kirstein’s recollection of quiet warfare is particularly enchanting and relevant.