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The Negatives

Written by: Philip Levine | Biography
 On March 1, 1958, four deserters from the French Army of North Africa, 
August Rein, Henri Bruette, Jack Dauville, & Thomas Delain, robbed a 
government pay station at Orleansville. Because of the subsequent 
confession of Dauville the other three were captured or shot. Dauville 
was given his freedom and returned to the land of his birth, the U.S.A.

from a last camp near St. Remy

 I dig in the soft earth all 
 afternoon, spacing the holes 
 a foot or so from the wall. 
 Tonight we eat potatoes, 
 tomorrow rice and carrots. 
 The earth here is like the earth 
 nowhere, ancient with wood rot. 
 How can anything come forth, 

 I wonder; and the days are 
 all alike, if there is more 
 than one day. If there is more 
 of this I will not endure. 
 I have grown so used to being 
 watched I can no longer sleep 
 without my watcher. The thing 
 I fought against, the dark cape, 

 crimsoned with terror that 
 I so hated comforts me now. 
 Thomas is dead; insanity, 
 prison, cowardice, or slow 
 inner capitulation 
 has found us all, and all men 
 turn from us, knowing our pain 
 is not theirs or caused by them.

from a hospital in Algiers

 Dear Suzanne: this letter will 
 not reach you because I can't 
 write it; I have no pencil, 
 no paper, only the blunt 
 end of my anger. My dear, 
 if I had words how could I 
 report the imperfect failure 
 for which I began to die? 

 I might begin by saying 
 that it was for clarity, 
 though I did not find it in 
 terror: dubiously 
 entered each act, unsure 
 of who I was and what I 
 did, touching my face for fear 
 I was another inside 

 my head I played back pictures 
 of my childhood, of my wife 
 even, for it was in her 
 I found myself beaten, safe, 
 and furthest from the present. 
 It is her face I see now 
 though all I say is meant 
 for you, her face in the slow 

 agony of sexual 
 release. I cannot see you. 
 The dark wall ribbed with spittle 
 on which I play my childhood 
 brings me to this bed, mastered 
 by what I was, betrayed by 
 those I trusted. The one word 
 my mouth must open to is why.

from a hotel in Tampa, Florida

 From Orleansville we drove 
 south until we reached the hills, 
 then east until 
 the road stopped. I was nervous 
 and couldn't eat. Thomas took 
 over, told us when to think 
 and when to shit. 
 We turned north and reached Blida 
 by first dawn and the City 

 by morning, having dumped our 
 weapons beside an empty 
 road. We were free. 
 We parted, and to this hour 
 I haven't seen them, except 
 in photographs: the black hair 
 and torn features 
 of Thomas Delain captured 
 a moment before his death 

 on the pages of the world, 
 smeared in the act. I tortured 
 myself with their 
 betrayal: alone I hurled 
 them into freedom, inner 
 freedom which I can't find 
 nor ever will 
 until they are dead. In my mind 
 Delain stands against the wall 

 precise in detail, steadied 
 for the betrayal. "La France 
 C'Est Moi," he cried, 
 but the irony was lost. Since 
 I returned to the U.S. 
 nothing goes well. I stay up 
 too late, don't sleep, 
 and am losing weight. Thomas, 
 I say, is dead, but what use 

 telling myself what I won't 
 believe. The hotel quiets 
 early at night, 
 the aged brace themselves for 
 another sleep, and offshore 
 the sea quickens its pace. I 
 am suddenly 
 old, caught in a strange country 
 for which no man would die.

from a journal found on his person

 At night wakened by the freight 
 trains boring through the suburbs 
 of Lyon, I watched first light 
 corrode the darkness, disturb 
 what little wildlife was left 
 in the alleys: birds moved from 
 branch to branch, and the dogs leapt 
 at the garbage. Winter numbed 
 even the hearts of the young 
 who had only their hearts. We 
 heard the war coming; the long 
 wait was over, and we moved 
 along the crowded roads south 
 not looking for what lost loves 
 fell by the roadsides. To flee 
 at all cost, that was my youth. 

 Here in the African night 
 wakened by what I do not 
 know and shivering in the heat, 
 listen as the men fight 
 with sleep. Loosed from their weapons 
 they cry out, frightened and young, 
 who have never been children. 
 Once merely to be strong, 
 to live, was moral. Within 
 these uniforms we accept 
 the evil we were chosen 
 to deliver, and no act 
 human or benign can free 
 us from ourselves. Wait, sleep, blind 
 soldiers of a blind will, and 
 listen for that old command 
 dreaming of authority.