Gary Geddes' War and other Measures: An Analysis

By Donald R. Bartlett

The War Measures Act was invoked in 1970 in response to F.L.Q. terrorism. Gary Geddes' allusion to this, and the deliberate vagueness of "other" — both in the title — contribute to and are consistent with the ironies and ambiguities which inform War and other measures (1976). The allusion also adds emotional and historical dimensions to Geddes' exploration, through the consciousness of his narrator, of the background of violence and psychological disorientation that leads to the poem's climax.

    Geddes' note on the fly-leaf of War and other measures invites us to identify the unnamed narrator-protagonist as one Paul Joseph Chartier who accidentally(?) blew himself up in the men's washroom of the Canadian House of Commons on May 18, 1966. Internal evidence suggests that the narrator is a French-Canadian: he grew up in Hull, Quebec; he speaks of his "patois", and of his "bilingual ears"; he and a fellow-soldier, Fournier, were engaged in guerrilla activities in occupied France; and he feels an affinity with Louis Riel. On the other hand, we know that Chartier was born in Bonneyville, Alberta; that he was not bilingual, nor was he an explosives expert. In short, the protagonist of Geddes' poem both is and is not the psychotic Chartier.1  Geddes' sympathetic treatment makes the protagonist "a metaphor of the fragmented postwar personality in search of a country, a significant act, a self."2  At the same time, we are left with the uncomfortable feeling that we are collectively implicated in the narrator's (and Chartier's) mental breakdown and violent death. A note at the end of the poem is intended to confirm a strain of violence in our body politic:

What truth [the poem] may have is not in the 'facts', all of which are fabricated, but rather in the psychology, which has been revealed over and over again in Canada since 1966 and could not have been invented.

    War and other measures is divided into four parts. The first of these, "Europe, 1941", consists mainly of a collection of vignettes and culminates when the narrator, engaged in guerrilla warfare in occupied France, is wounded, hospitalized and placed under psychiatric care. Double meanings couched in metaphors of violence, so characteristic of Geddes' style in War and other measures, is manifest in the very first vignette (this one set in London, England). Casual sex is at once an escape from the reality of war, and a mutual sharing of its pain and loneliness: " . . . her deep wound / closing around me." Neither clinical nor titillating, this metaphorical description of the sex act hints at the inherent tenderness of the narrator while revealing at the same time how violence has 'coloured' his vocabulary. A deep sense of futility marks even his brief respite: next morning all that remains is "a spent cartridge of lipstick" (italics mine). Again the metaphor from warexperience effectively communicates theme and mood.

     Three or four subsequent vignettes depict or else allude to innocent people victimized by war. In the second vignette, for example, a little girl, "her head / an enormous wasps' nest / of bandages," cradles "a china doll."3   A sense of cosmic indifference attends the irony here. The little girl had been wounded and her home destroyed while the doll came through the raid "without / a scratch." Geddes' implicit social criticism is made the more trenchant by his justaposition of the adults' will to destroy and the little girl's instinct to love and protect. In 'poem' 4 the narrator notes that twenty innocent people are killed in reprisal for his having blown up a jeep with two Germans in it. He attempts to rationalize: "This is war . . . / I have orders." But he knows this is insane: "Wisdom [is] leaking to the winds / like gas."

    The ravages of war are further evidenced in the death of Fournier whose smile was "infectious even in death." That death evokes the narrator's memory of Fournier's ability to record every detail and to give each one "a special colouring." The controlling image of 'poem' 7 is Fournier's description of a young lad standing amidst the "gutted houses" and begging for pennies. In his hand he holds an effigy of Hitler, and in his eyes is "an animal alertness" born of distrust and of the instinct for self-preservation. Fournier, the narrator's alter ego, had described the boy as "one of those / for whom war changes nothing", and had blamed his poverty and toughness upon those "stuffed men of politics." (Casual though the narrator's references to Fournier seem to be, they are in fact very important to the poem. Fournier's attitude to politicians anticipates what will be the narrator's attitude in the final section of the poem; and his pronouncements are used by the narrator to sanction his own desperate attempts at 'social reform'.4)

     The remainder of the first section of War and other measures presents a series of episodes characterized by incongruities which are consistent with the narrator's mental disorientation, and with theme. Incongruity of setting and action — killing under a full moon and an almost cloudless sky; pretense and motive — the ruse used by the narrator to murder the sentry; image and idea—the sentry stretched out "among the flowers, his head twisted / oddly on its broken stem," and hand grenades spoken of as "grapefruit" — all attest to the unnaturalness of killing. Juxtaposed against this and even more disturbing are the callousness and insensitivity fostered by war: "I miss the sound of his voice / already." Finally, terminology borrowed from the cinema — "film," "painted screen," "shooting," etc. — lends an aura of unreality to the terrible reality. The 'dream' then runs into a surrealistic image in which victimization and madness are universalized:

. . . I am holding
a small child in my arms the
child's head begins to grow
arms and legs drop away its
features stretch and vanish
it becomes a globe a world
eyes staring from continents
starts to turn in my hands
floats upward past the roof
the treetops I raise my rifle
take aim there is a scream
I am covered in green paint . . . .
                             (p. 14)

The clarity of detail, the ellipses, the run-on phrasing, and the illogical conclusion are the stuff that dreams are made on: but here it is nightmare.

     Lucidity returns, but the narrator decides to feign eccentricity ("I decide / to exploit my role as screwball") and makes his first rebellion against a system which tolerates war and honours killers. When two officers, educated at Oxford and Upper Canada College, ceremoniously pin a ribbon on his nightgown he embarrasses everyone by releasing "a premeditated fart" and throwing "the ribbon on the floor."

    In another vignette (p. 16), through the free association of words, sense perceptions, and memories — "lighter," "smell of sulphur," "reeking of booze," "Eddy's" (a match factory in Hull, Quebec), and "put a match to the house"—the narrator gives a glimpse of the complex of turmoil which has marked his life since boyhood. He strikes a match to light a cigarette and "the smell of sulphur" evokes memories of his father, an enigma of violence and love. His father had been driven to drink by his wife's desertion, and to suicide when his son went to war. "How deep," the son now wonders, "do these things go . . . ?"

     The first section of War and other measures ends with a literary conceit —

White sails of the nurses
glide past the open door,
a flotilla of good intentions.
Beamy, deep-keeled girls, more
stable than basic industries.
                                  (p. 20)

— juxtaposed against imagery of violence and the grotesque: a mutilated female body, the twitching finger of a murdered man, and "Moonlight in the dead eyes / of the sentry." This bizarre and surrealistic juxtaposition attests to the dementia which apparently resulted in the narrator's being discharged from military service.

     "Toronto, years later" is disjointed in its details but unified by its central episode: the death of Roger. The discrepancy between the dream and the destination of a 'lost generation' is imaged in Roger, a young mechanic who had so proudly gone to a war which left him almost totally blind and a mental wreck. One Sunday the narrator accompanies Mrs. Altman, a nursing-aide, when she takes Roger for a visit in a park. Roger drowns in the park pool when the other momentarily forget about him. His presence in the poem and his death re-emphasize Geddes' implicit social criticism: the waste of war; our lack of social responsibility, and the absurd in so much of human endeavour. Nowhere is this sense of the absurd more effectively evoked than in Mrs. Altman's account of her parents with their Bible and their compulsion to "build, build, build." By implication, Geddes is posing these questions: Fight for what? Survive for what? Build for what? The times, like Roger's face, are "out of joint."

    The expressionistic technique is quite prominent in this section. Words and phrases from Mrs. Altman's story trigger memories until "The figures she creates walk here, / with Ward on his October island." The past intrudes upon the present, and the narrator recalls his own departure from Halifax for service overseas. So imaginatively vivid is this description that even the harsher imagery of "grey metallic silence" and "rumble of hydraulic winch" seems not to clash (as it normally would do) with the central metaphor of childbirth: "Waiting the birth," "umbilical," and "Manchild from the interior / screaming." Conversely, the effectiveness of Geddest poetry is sometimes found in the clash of 'tenor' with 'vehicle' in his metaphors. Hence, the silence that followed a disaster at sea is best conveyed by contrast: an empty biscuittin floating by touches the ship's hull and "shatters the morning like cannon" (p. 30). And, listening to Mrs. Altman's account of her work in a munitions plant, the narrator visualizes "40 mm shells" on a conveyor belt looking "innocent as coke bottles" (p. 31).

     In the final 'poem' of this section Geddes picks up words used earlier and relies upon connotation and association to emphasize his protagonist's sense of betrayal.

Life preservers.

the irony of that term.

Awkward boys, dreaming of sun,
dreaming of freedom, floating
dead in their waxed water-wings.

Couched in rhetoric that is reminiscent of Dylan Thomas and juxtaposed with Fournier's colloquial assessment of modern society — "only the suckholes survive" — the irony and Classical allusions of these lines are especially effective in their cynicism.5

    This second section of War and other measures is held together by its central episode, by Geddes' eye for the incongruous, and by the sense of betrayal. Unfortunately, there are too few passages of such verbal accomplishment and emotional intensity as are exhibited in the lines quoted above. Consequently, this is the weakest section of the whole poem. It does, however, establish a sense of continuity in the narrator's internal monologues. And the expressionistic techniques employed — the dislocations of time and place; the minglings of conscious ideas and sense perceptions — attest to the narrator's growing psychosis.

    "Toronto, 1965" is a montage where reality, memory, the eclectic imagination combine to create an image of Toronto and, by association, of the modern wasteland. The tone is set in the first 'poem' where Peter Martin, a high steel worker, casually acknowledges his alienation from his son. The risk, in human terms, of emotional alienation is emphasized metaphorically:

He moves off, bear-like,
straight as an arrow, along
his treacherous high beam.
                                (p. 36)

The emotional and spiritual barrenness of our time is more graphically imaged in a juxtaposition of the tragic and the trivial. The narrator is in a downtown bar watching a news-review of the early 1960's.

The body of a president
jerks suddenly like an epilectic,
pitches forward in the limousine.
The man next to me at the counter

complains about his wife's bladder
problem; then, quite unexpectedly,
departs to relieve his own.
                                (p. 38)

The incongruity and insensitivity presented here are intended as a sign of the times. But the narrator has "seen it all before. / This time it's in black and white. / His blood is the colour of ink." The echo from T.S. Eliot is thematically and dramatically important. Image and idea here and elsewhere in this section help to establish a continuum with the rest of the poem, especially with the first section which has a war-time setting. Violence is a fact of modern life and it takes its toll in psychological as well as in physical terms. However, the vignettes are less frequent now, and the narrative voice is more analytical and omniscient.

    Disorientation informs Geddes' lines:

I (who was not I)
was here (which was not here)
with another woman
in another year.
                             (p. 41)

The narrator's confusion is further indicated when his present female acquaintance associates him with comedian Charlie Chaplin, and by the fact that he himself cannot decide whether Chaplin in City Lights was "fool or saint." Their sexual encounters are casual and, in the tradition of so much twentieth-century literature, symbolize negation. But whereas ennui and indifference characterize the young typist in The Waste Land, the imaginings of the woman in Geddes' poem are horrendous. Creation and procreation exist only as nightmare.

She imagined her womb an abandoned
warehouse, with miles of umbilicus
coiled and hanging like rotted firehose.

Dreamed of some last desperate coupling
begot unnatural creatures that coiled
and uncoiled slowly . . . .
                                  (p. 44)

By an imaginative leap that is reminiscent of Eliot,6 the narrator associates the woman's barrenness and emotional unfulfillment with his own. The catalyst is the sight of a doll-hospital where broken dolls, unlike wounded psyches, are easily repaired. Total emotional atrophy would be a blessing. This idea is made the more effective by the paradox and pauses of the last line:

   That's it, to be
so easily repaired, a wooden Indian,
to feel, intensely, nothing.
                                (p. 45)

The narrator's use of military metaphors (more frequent now than in the preceding section) indicates how difficult it is for him to separate the society of the 'sixties from his own violent past. The presence of a deaf-mute is felt "like a mask," his card is a "sword" and the printing on it is a "squadron"; night is a machine-gun which "rotates / upon its turret" and cuts flowers "down like infantry"; rose-thorns form "An arsenal," and young buds are "bullet-heads." Shifting the metaphor slightly to accommodate his own psychological state, the narrator speaks of his mind as "a slaughter house." His alienation is complete. The blind flower-girl could at least believe in Chaplin and keep his "image in her fingertips." The touches of comedy and perplexity which attended the earlier allusion to Chaplin give place to mocking despair as "voices"7 whisper "Charlie, Charlie."

     The focus in this section is firmly on the narrator and on his awareness of both his own psychological state and conditions in the world around him (the latter symbolized by Toronto nightlife). "Metaphor," C. Day Lewis reminds us, "is the natural language of tension, . . . because it enables man by a compressed violence of expression to rise to the level of the violent situation which provokes it."8   The metaphors cited in the preceding paragraph attest to the narrator's increasingly violent response to his world, and remind us of how deeply etched are the violent experiences of his past. The poetry is in the metaphors. Often their effectiveness is in the tension that exists between 'tenor' and 'vehicle' in these metaphors. Effective, too, is the implied contrast, in the final 'poem' of this section, between what is and what ought to be:

No roses in this garden
kiss the earth,
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
the tight young buds are
                             (p. 50)

Cynicism and despair continue in the final section: "Time's a fiction, its units / collect unemployment insurance." But the scene has now shifted to Ottawa and the focus is on the narrator's attitude to politicians. The very interior of the House of Commons symbolizes the intellectual inertia and fossilization that he perceives in the national government.

Fossilized limestone interior
from Manitoba, form and content,
the aesthetics of government.
                                 (p. 53)

He shares Riel's (and Fournier's) contempt for politicians. Their outmoded ideas are symbolized by "the marble statue / of Victoria" which "dominates" the Library; "Beaver and eagle," ostensibly symbolizing industry and liberty, only remind him of Canada's cultural and economic capitulation to the United States. Parliamentary debate has been reduced to child's play, a "Facade of discussion," and politicians themselves are "caricatures of leadership, / performing the obscene dance / along the brink of meaning."

    This metaphor from the theatre triggers another imaginative leap: this time to etymology. "Dynamite" comes from the Greek dynamus, meaning "power"; and "Explode" originally meant "to drive off stage / by hooting or clapping." Subconsciously, the narrator has come upon the idea and method of getting rid of 'bad actors'. The past intrudes, and vivid memories surface: detailed instructions on the planting of explosives; a history teacher writing on the blackboard the names of Canadian prime ministers; a local lad working in the match-factory, and later killed at Dieppe. More and more the narrator identifies himself with Canada, a land tenuously held together, having only the "veneer of civilization," and whose psychological "contours" are still unknown. Past and present converge to convince him that the violence he contemplates is "a necessity" for himself and for Canada. Ironically, he knows from history that violence solves nothing:

D'Arcy Magee bled, learned
nothing from the equation.
                             (p. 61)

And Whelan? And Riel? The "voices" he hears now are not the mocking voices mentioned in the preceding section. Now, like Riel,9 he must obey. "We do what we must, according to / voices that speak through us."

    As the narrator strives "to discern / the shape and texture" of dissolving Truth, his language becomes increasingly allusive and metaphorical. Geddes draws on archetypes: the theme of rebirth (though not without irony in this context), and the incongruity and pathos traditionally associated with death-in-springtime. The antithetical symbolism of "flowers" (life and death) enhances the question "Why must there / always be flowers?" but the real power of the line (for this reader, at least) is in its evocation of the popular "Where have all the flowers gone?" There is, of course, the more subtle comparison of flowers and explosives; but while "fuse" is quite literal, the Canadian-made "flowers" will blossom metaphorically in Vietnam. Everywhere the IS is ranged against the OUGHT.

Discard the laws of cause
and effect, abolish reason.

There is nothing to be found
beyond the descriptive act.
                                   (p. 68)

The narrator enters the House of Commons intent on planting a bomb, on practising his "art", his "craft". He goes to the men's washroom. Life has led him inexorably to the toilet-bowl:

Here is the moment
we've been waiting for.
The vortex. Absolute
zero of porcelain.
                                                       (p. 73)

The cynicism in these lines recall Fournier's assessment of life: "only the suck-holes survive." The narrator is in the washroom, and the toilet-bowl ("vortex. Absolute / zero of porcelain") symbolizes the nothingness which he perceives his life has been; the vicious circle which he has never been able to break.

    The poem, narrated in the first person present, has to end with the narrator still alive. One assumes that he is killed in the explosion, but is it accident or suicide?

Out of this blood another rose
will burst, its fragrance
confound the universe.
                                (p. 75)

Whose blood? The ambiguity of these lines, the linking together of disparate components in the extended metaphor, and the connotations of "confound" further attest to the complexity at the heart of Geddes' narrative. The final act and the final thought — "History is being made, / I am the materials" — confirm the narrator's psychosis and link him with Riel.

     The narrator of War and other measures "becomes a metaphor of the fragmented postwar personality in search of a country, a significant act, a self."10   The imaginative psychological phenomenon central to Geddes' poem must have invited a subjective rendering in which some political system would have been the villain. Such a rendering ultimately would have been too simplistic and would have resulted in doctrinaire verse. Conversely, a coldly objective analysis might have produced an excellent case-study but it would not have been poetry. Geddes avoids the extremes of subjective and objective narration, adds psychological complexity, and avoids overt didacticism by casting his poem into internal monologues by a troubled and perplexed protagonist. The tempo increases as the tension mounts, but there is no hysteria. The narrator is psychologically disturbed, but he is not mad; not until the end, at least.11   He is an educated and conscionable man attempting to account for the unconscionable acts of himself and his society. The 'psychology' referred to by Geddes in his brief afterword is collective; it is implicitly but inseparably linked with the society of our time. The ironies, ambiguities, juxtapositions and heavy reliance upon metaphor rather than sustained imagery contribute to tone, mood, and complexity. They allow Geddes to maintain aesthetic control12 over a symbolic narrative embodying his own moral vision.


  1. Police investigation indicated that Chartier was an amateur with explosives and that his bombs were quite crude. (Apparently he had worked for one season as a prospector with a mining company.) On the other hand, Chartier, like the narrator, had spent some time as a psychiatric patient in a Toronto hospital. (See the Toronto Globe and Mail, May l9,1966, p.1)[back]

  2. Publisher's note on back cover of War and other measures (1976).[back]

  3. Cf C. Day Lewis, "In the Shelter," Collected Poems 1954 (London: Jonathan Cape, 1972), p. 298.[back]

  4. Cf. Chartier who had written to Commons Clerk Leon Raymond requesting permission to address the House on "an important subject." Raymond's reply, dated May 2, pointed out that only M.P.'s have the right to speak in the Commons. The following is an excerpt from a speech which the police found among Chartier's belongings:
    "Mr. Speaker, Gentlemen, I might as well give you a blast to wake you up. For one whole year I have thought of nothing but how to exterminate as many of you as possible. I knew that I was to give my life for this, but at least someone might benefit by this." (Globe and Mail, May 20, 1966, p. 8).[back]

  5. Especially effective are the multiple allusions to pursuit of freedom and irony of that pursuit: Icarus in particular, and impatient youth in general; the freedom slogans of two world wars; and the reference, albeit oblique, back to Roger himself and his "torch of liberty" (p. 22).[back]

  6. Cf., for example, "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," where, by 'emotional logic', the persona's thoughts leap from the sight "Of lonely men in shirt-sleeves, leaning out of windows" to the well-known image of "a pair of ragged claws / Scuttling across the floors of silent seas."[back]

  7. The fact that the narrator hears "voices" is further proof of his psychological disorders.[back]

  8. The Poetic Image (London: Jonathan Cape,1947), p. 99.[back]

  9. See, for example, Hartwell Bowsfield, Louis Riel: The Rebel and the Hero (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1971), p. 74. Geddes' protagonist, of course, has none of the religious fanaticism that helped to drive Riel.[back]

  10. Cf. Publisher's note on back cover. Alan Ainslie makes a similar point about the connection, in the modern world, between violence and the need for personal identity; and his son, Daniel, dreams that his own terrorist activities will ensure him a place in Quebec history. (See Hugh MacLennan, Return of the Sphinx [Macmillan, Laurentian Library, 1971], pp. 273-74 and 187-88, respectively.)[back]

  11. Cf. Chartier's awareness that, one way or another, he would pay for his act. (See note 4, above.)[back]

  12. There are some minor falterings, of course, as in the rather glib pun on "connection" (p. 57). Occasionally, Geddes' use of juxtaposition is questionable. For example, the counter-poising of natural law with the result of political madness approaches bathos in:

       And Poirot's only daughter
    collaborating with the moon,
    and tides, a fragment of grenade
    lodged beneath her left ear.
                                    (p. 72)[back]

(Cf. Eliot's much more effective counterpoising, via allusion, of romantic love and sordid  sex in The Waste Land: "O the moon shone bright on Mrs. Porter / And on her  daughter / They wash their feet in soda water.")