"I’m sorry that I killed your son
I did not know he was your son
I only knew he was my enemy"

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FitP Poet Highlight 29/82: Jonathon Penny, “Confession, after battle

At first glance, “Confession” seems a simplistic poem: the poet repeats the same structure for four, essentially five, stanzas, changing only a word per stanzaic turn. The structure is thus something of a template—

I’m sorry that I killed your ______
I did not know he was your ______
I only knew he was my enemy

—in which each blank is filled, respectively, with the words son, husband, father, brother. The rest of the language also seems simplistic, childish, perhaps, consisting of words many children learn—or could easily learn and use—early in their development.

But let’s not confuse simple with simplistic, because Jonathon’s poem is anything but simplistic. Sure, he essentially repeats the same stanza four, almost five times. But he does so with good reason: the speaker, obviously a soldier, is traumatized in the wake of a battle. The adrenaline has subsided. Perhaps he’s looking over a field of fallen soldiers, considering the gratuitous destruction of war. Perhaps he’s looked into the glassy eyes of his “enemy” and been struck by their humanness—he looks so different now than he did through the scope of my rifle. He puts the man in context, sees him as part of a family—as a son, a husband and a lover, as a father, a brother. He, perhaps, enters the other man’s life, recognizes himself in the Other.

And language fails him.

His thoughts become fragmentary, incomplete, as suggested by the lack of periods in the poem. The trauma of coming so suddenly and deeply into contact with an Other’s humanness has disrupted his system of meaning, except that which matters most—and paradoxically, the least, because what signs and symbols can replace a human life?—in the moment: the language of grief, which flows so deeply in the subterranean river of human emotion as to be, well, unspeakable.

So he prays. He confesses his grief to the soldier’s mother, father, sister, brother, son, daughter. He recites a litany, a ritualistic, primal repetition meant to purge his sorrow, to bind him to the human community (as rituals are ultimately meant to do), to give him knowledge and meaning. Because in addition to grieving for the Other’s life, he’s also grieving over the annihilation of a system of meaning that taught him the Other was “my enemy,” that automatically placed the Other in opposition to the Self.

And that’s how the poet leaves the poem: with his final line—”I did not know he was not my enemy”—he exposes the devastating gaps (the naught, the emptiness) in the speaker’s former epistemology. With that, he leaves it to readers to complete the final stanza, which seems to have been left intentionally unfinished—it’s missing the third line (“I only knew he was my enemy”) or a variation thereon just as it’s missing the period. By so leaving the structure wide-open, he thus passes the torch to readers, offering no trite or easy conclusions, though I think a more filling and fulfilling epistemology is there, if only we look deeply enough to see.