March 19, 2009

A Pact with Mephistopheles
Earle Davis

The extent of human ingenuity
makes one marvel at the mind of man;
creative, scientific intuition
has laid subservient the laws of nature,
air, sea, and land;
all invention is a sign of progress,
but in time of war it functions in reverse.

The German land-mines and booby traps
are causing cumulative inconvenience,
sudden death, and horrible mutilation.
Every spot we take is likely to explode
from six to twelve hours after capture.
Crossing a mountain stream is suicide;
every rock is wired to fifty pounds
of dynamite; safe crossing depends
on thorough detonation by rifle-fire.
The chimneys of every house conceal bombs
hanging from above by tiny ropes.
One never collects souvenirs twice; bodies
cover cunning death-dealing devices.

The Germans have adapted a British invention
called the anti-personnel mine;
it is a long, hollow iron tube
buried in a ground with tip exposed.
Contact trips a bullet through the tube
Straight up. It has acquired the name Castrater,
although it usually shoots one through the foot.

Yesterday an officer sat down in a chair
in a house which had served as enemy headquarters;
every stitch of clothing was blown off him.
He will probably live, but he was burned as badly
as anyone could be and still survive.
Jimmy Gordon finished dinner tonight
and walked away to confer with a superior officer,
just missing one of those delayed explosions
which mangled eighteen of his company.
Everybody's nerves are on edge;
one hardly will sit down upon a rock
without shooting it first from a safe distance.
Whoever thinks up all these devilish things
has signed a pact with Mephistopheles.

—From An American in Sicily, originally published in 1944


Earle Davis (1905-1991) served in World War II as a U.S. Army officer with the 1st Infantry Division. An academic after the war, Davis also authored Vision Fugitive: Ezra Pound and Economics, and The Flint And The Flame: The Artistry Of Charles Dickens.

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