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a war story a poem





When I was dead, it was before the walls of Turin. When I was alive, it was even so. Nata song in Prague thirty first 8ober 1582, at one minute after half past one in the morning. When I was fourteen I became a man. I went to the wars in Flanders and the wars in France. I served the King of Spain. I became a lieutenant colonel. I died under the walls of Turin at two in the morning, in winter, on fourteenth Xember. It was the year of God 1640, and I was fifty eight years old.


To be under a city is to besiege a city. If you remain under the walls it means you died there.

Turin is a walled city, straight as a string. French in it. We’re outside it, then the French again.


Rosa das rosas
Fror de las frores
Dona das donas
Sennor das sennores


When Gallas and Aldringen sacked the palace of the dukes of Mantua they sat cross-legged on the floor and jewels tumbled about them like hazelnuts. I died with a gorget round my neck blued black, chased with Tiresias and his snakes in gold.

Imagine my coffin is gold instead of what it is, which is nothing; naked corpse on a heap of corpses. I was married in cloth of silver. The galloons could have stopped a bullet or a fist.


The blind prophet was one thing, and then he was the other. What gives me the strangulary, is that he never did anything with it. He did not enter the profession. Which suggests a lack of what the officers call go-getting.

I fight


When I was fifteen we camped beside a river and the cavalry troubled the water. When we went to the water, we stirred it up, we stirred up the little mud in the water. A captain of infantry rode out to speak to us. As he rode he pulled his pistol and he fiddled the visor of his helmet with its mouth, he pushed it up and down. My captain and his cornet and their entourages were there, and I was there. The cornet’s horse ran sideways and his bright flag snapped in the sun.

When the infantry captain reached us his horse stumbled; he pulled the trigger and shot my captain in the chest.

Ah! Rabiel, said my captain, and fell off his horse, and he died. Rabiel was the name of my captain’s colonel.

I drew my rapier and stabbed the man who had shot him, and he died.

The regiment holt ein inquisit to see whether to try me for murder; or whether it was an accident, a fight, or honorable revenge. Because you are so well-dressed I thought you were an officer, said the bailiff when he saw my doublet.

What you think I am now, that I will be hereafter, I said.


I fight to gain renown of deeds in arms.


I fight to put one or two minutes of angle between the world and myself; to pass oblique, no more.


My best friend is Day-And-Night. He called me creature because I have no beard. I’ll fight you for it, I said.  I chewed off one quarter of his left ear. Then we were friends again.


My brown hands, scarred little and big. My hair is dark yellow, like many Bohemians, but I’ve never seen my own face.


I have no face. When you beat up quarters you must hit your enemy as they sleep, just before dawn, in their beds in the villages of others.


I have taken part in nine sieges, and two sacks of great cities. When I was 44 I was outside the siege of Breda. A Catholic Dutch was with us height Bad Pay Bad. His father also height Bad Pay Bad. A man inside the city killed him: I didn’t have any other way to do, unless I have to revenge. And to revenge is only to have a gun. When he was grown, he rode to the gates of Breda.

The rebels came out as seven riding, and I was there with our own. The man who had killed the father also killed the son: he shoved a pistol in his side and splintered the timber of his ribs, and dismounted when he fell to strip the body. But we rode back with much rejoicing; having taken one prisoner, a lieutenant; three horses, four complete sets of saddle and tack, four pairs of pistols and their bucket holsters, one of which embroidered in gold and one in red silk; three short stout horsemen’s’ swords; and three complete sets of clothing: jacket, doublet, breeches, and stockings; cap, cape, cope, and shoes.

We pick up what we did not put down, we reap what we do not sow, we pluck up what we have not planted, and we pass by. But I also relieved Fuenterrabia when the French had shelled it for two months, and left not a stone on stone.

The women


Sed super mal and omnia, sweeter than honey in the mouth, sweeter than the act of love it is to sack a city. And I have done both.


We put the men above fifteen to the sword and took the women with us; the little girls we killed. The boys we also take with us; they’ll become cavalrymen, or they’ll die.


Of course they raped the women. Boys too. If it’s not during a sack I’ll hang one or two for it. I’ve taken a woman myself: I made her carry my linens on her head and three days out of her city I beat her and sent her back to her own people.


Day-And-Night’s cousin is Night-And-Day. He has yellow hair and blue eyes; she has yellow eyes and blue hair. She has houses and she has land. Her husband died and she has the rights entail, but if she dies unmarried they will go to her brother, and he’s a Protestant. Me and Night-And-Day used to live in France, and the French have had a bad time with it. I see.


A farthingale is a withy frame; a corset bone in a fabric track. You put your hand under a woman’s busk in the dance called The Turn, and lift her before the quaint all at once, stiff: like a meuble stick.

My body is a frame around itself: the vartingall, the aventail.


Madam, I am not young. I don’t need a young man. My house is almost nothing: we are officers, but nothing much. Mine are Swedes who live in France and hold fee tail in the lands of Germanies, what can I hold over you? I don’t know if I’m ugly or not. More ugly than not. I’m Catholic. You are that. I can never give your house children of my body. Why? I’m a soldier.

(It’s true, officers are sterile. Bel Affray had one daughter who died the day his head was split open four fingers bright and they haled him down the hill da Praha on a Walloon’s horse. He had one son who died in a duel in ’40. I outlived both father and son, by that months. The hanging duke had one son who died in infantry like the Pappenheimer’s get, and one daughter who lived to beg on her knees for his inherit. Alt Tilly had Jung Tilly, to him nepo, through his sister. The monk in harness died virgo intacto even after the Magdeburg wedding: his rough wooing was a great and sustainful victory which lasted three nights and a dawn like lead, praise to Jesuchrist. And the Elbe ran black for miles.)


Night-And-Day’s hair is black as a blued pistol and heavy as thick rope. When I undid the pins it fell hissing to the panniers of her gown.

My body


An army moves by what it feeds on and if it stops, it dies. We were in Marburg when the sickness came on. I watched a man collapse in the hall; he spoke confundit ibi linguam. Nobody understood him. I was enraged at his weakness, the recalcitrance of his flesh: this will not nigh me.

Of course it did. I gasped upright all night and my shirt crumbled off my body. Holes unwove themselves over my shoulders.

I was sick for one night and two halves of a day; the trailing half of one day and the leading half of the other. By noon I was on the road. I heard my mother over my right shoulder, calling a name without a name.


Because I am an absent thing I am the look of men.

Vide: this is how you do it. My shirt hangs down to my knees, tattered linen, Spanish red at sleeves and throat: vast composite kingdom in my wrists. Tuck the tails of the shirt around your ass and between your legs, front to back, then back to front.

My stockings pull up to above my thighs and they are thick wool. Stuff your wadded legs into your breeches and button the doublet. Lace it to my breeches; because I am a soldier, I lace them together with silk ribbons tied in bows. Ribbons at my knees, ribbons in my shoes. Belt and purse, which also flops, nothing.

A buff coat and a breast-and-back, when you go out. Elk hide cured with cod oil and white chalk, the same butt stitches a surgeon sews, skin to living skin. Skirts flap stinking about my knees. For the first three days of rain a buff coat is also waterproof but if it rains for more than three days in a row you will never dry. If I’m riding, high heeled boots I roll up my thighs: from neck to toes I am armored, by dead skin and not a living man. With gloves and zischägge I am no flesh. I am that is outside.

Over my shoulder, sword in its greasy baldric. Stroke the fat pommel, wag it forward at you, passers-by. If I want to. I go where it please me, I walk where I list, and I defend my honor with lethal force: if God can make a man out of dirt, I can make a man out of this.

Don’t they say they sing? We.


Under three yards of velvet, what rose is there, or something else? I would carry it in my purse if I could, but you would not see me.


If you encaminieren in summer you pack and move out at two in the morning, then it won’t be hot by the time you make distance. Bawling and clatter; little human scramble against depthless night. Every time I say what I’ve said since I learned to think on our lord God: Jesu, don’t let me throw up.

Remember O lord that you made me from clay. Did you not pour me out as milk and curdle me like cheese? Bend over in a long curtsy, retch into the heather.

I learned to pray when I got old.


But my body is strong.


When you handle and touch my bones you’ll see it: my spine is worn at the lower back, my knees and ankles have been heavily abused, ready work in my right hand with the implements of my craft, and the balls and sockets of my thigh bones and improbable pelvis are faced with what the Germans call rider-facets. In the saddle all my life. You will heft them, touching and smell them, you will burnish them with the oils on your hands.


Written on my skin, the cuts on my hands from swords, the divot on my cheek and nose, the deep cut on my left forearm, the round depression in my back and the gouges around it, I was shot at Breda, they held me down so the surgeon could get the chisel in. The shooting pains within my body, the sick ache in my joints, the weight on my shoulders, the flux that moves from the lower part to the higher. A sore on my left forefinger opens monthly and discharges milk and blood.

The body living is a dark and impenetrable space, but as an officer I am a legal official: I am present at all autopsies in my regiment. I observe and describe the cutting open of the bodies of the dead, and the laying out of their secret parts.


Lay something flat on trestles; a door, for instance, you hove off a house hinge. If you’re in a Schloss you do it in the hall. The hanging duke had Bel Affray embalmed on a dining room table. Outside is better, for the light.

I saw two soldiers brawl outside a church: the crowd told the man who had been insulted to stop, but he said: Having begun this course, I cannot be turned aside. He set himself against the other soldier and received a blow from the sword’s point. Only after he looked down at his own body he died: he saw his blood on the paving stones. When I ordered him opened up his heart had been pierced to the width and depth of my little finger.

Magnificent in German is the same as the word for transparent.


Pain brings what is inside outside. I have ordered soldiers put to the painful question ten times.

Pain is for the expiation of sins, and the sign that this world was contaminated. It would not have been necessary for me to begin in my profession, were it not for the fall of man.


A man’s body is a woman’s body in which what is inside has been turned outside.


What is inside has been turned outside through the influence of vital heat.


The effects of this heat of the spirit are like the effects of pain.


To be of the male sex is to suffer.


This is why a manly soldier always speaks the truth.


But pain itself has no voice. Not my breaths, in the tent at night.


I pretend to be what I am.

The law


I served on regimental tribunals eight hundred times, first as a common trooper, then an officer. In some we condemned the man to be taken to the gallows and there to be cut in two, with his body the greater part and his head the Lest. In some we hanged him; in most we let him go. I always signed my name, which was Hendrich Catherine then.


A soldier is fresh and wacker: light and mobile, feather in his cap. In an unfallen world, he would skim over the surface of the earth, self-sufficient as a globe of glass; infinitesimal animacula therein it. In the world of forms a soldier would be a closed loop. In the world of sin his ends flop and ooze outward, and there is little between a soldier and the environment around him: he’s a trembling membrane through which pass food, money, mobile goods, and serious illnesses. But the law must yet be upheld. The foundation of an army is its law, which is why regiment is the same word as regulation.


My gorget: the ball that killed me entered just above it, and it cannot keep out exhaustion. He was trying to tell me the usages of war required that he brawl with his comrade, and they did it in the street because the light was better; no lantern hung in the tavern. How was he supposed to know the other would hit his head at precisely the right angle on the curb? The same woeful shit. The surgeon gave his testimony out loud because he could neither read nor write. The court-sworn men dozing in the corner, sipping must and small beer.


Unless the lord guard this house, they labor in vain that build it

Unless the lord keep this city, the watchman waketh but in vain


It’s a shame the way he do. That one there: Colonel Catherine. Head down and hustles, shoulders forward against rain. Get the keys; go on. They clatter, and he does not hurry. You there—you. What? You’ve been pardoned. Jesuchrist.

The soldiers


The fiddle and shawms go round and they shuffle and tap, the soldiers. Eyes shut turn on turn. His bridle is silver, his saddle is gold, the value of his harness has never been told. Their bare feet slap the dust.


Es war ein mal who shammed a priest and married many light. When his blasphemy was found they sentenced him to a galley slave, but the ship was wrecked on the shore of a foreign land. The inhabitants of this miraculous island heard he was a priest and gave him their parish. There he does faithful service to this day.

Doesn’t that make him a good priest?

Thou unchristlicher mensch.


Where’d he go? Fucking like a house on fire, that one. In the corner. Leave it. D’you know? What. Never seen Colonel Catherine fuck. He’s a castrato, isn’t he? Castrati fuck. Do they bollocks.


Do you know why Pappenheim and Gustavus Adolphus won great victories? Because they led moral lives!  He’s so drunk he’s goggle-eyed; his wet lips hang. I’ve been to the wars since ninety-six, I was tired by the time Bel Affray made his career; he was no more moral or less than anyone else. But that was long ago. None of the little boys here saw him.


Nobody here says work. The landsknechts did a hundred years ago: jeder arbiter is sine loan wert. Here it is service, feudal service.  My love, my love: less infanteries, my children.


In vain you wake up early
And eat the bread of care
For he gives his beloved sleep.



Jesus Christ is a man of war, as I am; he has been wounded, as I have. I have a little book with his hands, his feet, and the stab wound in his side. The slit looks like the wounds I have taken from pikes so I know it’s real. Nailing down a living man, hefting him up there—I’ve seen the henker hoist them upward and he break them on the wheel: heavy, heavy.


Night-And-Day sits on a worn velvet chair, and I kneel with my head in her lap. I have pushed her skirts about her knees, and above the thick stocking I run my fingers up and down the inner side of her right thigh, along the tender hairs. We’re in a room, I mean we are in a house, and the sun scants pale along the scoured floor.

On the hour—on the minute—someone will enter, someone will see, someone will listen at a crack in the wall—but now we dwell in the quartering no man knows. The smell of her body opens about the heavy folds, and with her fingers she combs my hair. The dirt and grease keep it stiff back. It’s getting white, she says. Some of them.

Here there was the cherry, and here there was its stone.


My old man.



This was no comfort, when I was dead.


When I was dead? It was no thing. What more is one or the other, after this?


When I was dead I walked into another room.


When I went out, that you want to go out. Roseing huff of flame in the dark, and the city unblooming.


When I was dead the houses vanished, and their white dust covered my face.

The end


The Bible says that what you put in seed the same you will harvest: now you have planted death in the country and now the time has come for you to harvest what you have planted and that is death.


Filthy and cold, most of it. The sounds of other men in sleep, horses. In great numbers, and their shit. Cattle, which haul the carts, and which the drovers drive in from Poland. Pig and sheep, deben sunk matanzand. The night presses down on the oncoming butchery.


We had our horses, our swords, our guns, and the guidance of God. We beat up into the French camp, and they met us, and it didn’t work. I was shot above the gorget, right at the center of my throat, and I died.


This is dry and without rain, as God raised it up and como a mi se me alcanza, without rhetoric or discreterias, as I have told you: I left my home for such a reason, I went to such a place, undressed myself and dressed myself up again, cut my hair, traveled here and there, killed, maimed, and roamed about, until I came to a stop, here.


Ils choiseul un nuit hard black, then they unleashed—they beat through the quarters of the Sieur de la Motte, who received them in such a way that only eighty passed through. Sixty were killed and the rest pushed back toward Turin.

There was found among the dead a woman who had always passed for a man among our enemies, and her name was Captain Hendrich. She had been an Oberst leutnant in a regiment of German cavalry and for ten years, in order to better fool her society, had been married to a woman who was the only other person who knew her secret. At the beginning they called her Captain Capon, because nobody saw any beard at all: she had dueled another captain for this injury, and then he left her alone: she was one of the best officers in the army of the Spanish, who, the day after the sortie, instantly sent out an envoy to reclaim Captain Hendrich. When we responded that nobody had taken an officer prisoner, and let our enemies look at the dead, their surprise was strange when they recognized for a woman someone who had always been judged as one of the best officers of their troops. We gave them her body back: she had been about forty years old.

Many fables have been added to the story, but this that I tell you is one hundred percent truth: it makes manifest the great chastity of this woman, and a discretion without parallel in the woman she had married.


Remember me as I lived: with Italy under my feet.

LUCIAN STAIANO-DANIELS is a historian of violent conflict in early-modern Europe and the present, and he is a poet. After his initial education at St. John’s College and NYU, he received a PhD in history from UCLA and is now beginning his career as a professor. His research and teaching interests explore insiders, outsiders, and the despised through the lives of ordinary soldiers from 1500 to the present. Some of his published poems can be found here, his academic publications here, and his discussions of contemporary global affairs here. His first historical book, The War People: A Social History of Common Soldiers during the Era of the Thirty Years War, is forthcoming from Cambridge University Press. His poetry is influenced by the stark ungraceful words of the ordinary human beings he studies, and by the classical Japanese poetry of his youth.

See also: The Lay of Love and Death of Christoph Cornet Rilke von Langenau by Ranier Maria Rilke, translated by Harry Guest.

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10 months ago

It’s a special thing when such a committed historian is also such a masterful poet. Truth from the past with beauty in the present, an incomparable bridge.

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