Reservist is a free verse poem containing no discernible pattern of rhyme, rhythm, line or stanza lengths. The poem is three stanzas long, and contains vibrant moments of irony, metaphor and clever uses older, war related language, such as “joust,” “clarion,” and “cavalier”. You can read the full poem here.
Summary of Reservist
Within this piece Boey is making light of his home country’s attempts at militarization and the requirement for all to serve in the army. He uses ancient sounding language and terms to emphasize the ways in which he believes the practice of required enlistment, and the way Singapore goes about it, is out of date and somewhat pointless. He gives special attention to repetitive. The soldiers described within this piece are not the regular army, but the reserve. They have already served and now wait to be called on to rejoin whenever they are needed.
They continue to “charg[e] up the same hills, / plod through the same forest.” The roads and trails, rituals and threats will be the same as they were when they were young, and the same as they will be when they are called on again. The poem concludes with a spark of hope that maybe one day they will be the ones that are victorious, but the last lines walk this idea back, saying that, “they will march the same paths till they break,” eventually, “into the daylight.”
Reservist begins with an immediate indication of repetition. It is time once again for the “annual joust.” The reader knows before they know anything else, that the events that are to follow have happened many times before. The speaker of this poem, often assumed to be the author himself, uses a number of noteworthy descriptors. The jousts are “annual,” and the fanfare that accompanies them are “regular,” an ironic statement as fanfares are meant for special occasions. It should also be noted that “joust” is being used metaphorically in this instance. The “call to arms” is not in reference to a traditional jousting tournament of the Middle Ages, but it is elevated to the same height.
The letters are “imperative,” or unavoidable, and as “stern” as “clarion notes.” A clarion is another older term, used to describe a trumpet blown during war. The reader learns after these first introductory lines that the letters are impossible to ignore because of the threat of court-martial, a military trial probably ending in imprisonment. Here again the speaker is ironically lifting the actions surrounding militarization by using romanticized language.
The poem continues on the describe the state of those that are enlisted. The speaker begins to refer to himself as part of this group. They are described as having “creaking bones,” and with
…suppressed grunts, we battle-weary knights
creep to attention,
They are slow-moving, not the image of battle ready soldiers that they were intended to be. The endless repetition of this process has drained and defeated them. The soldiers are described getting ready for battle, they,
…ransack the wardrobes
for our rusty armour,
Further descriptors create an image of these soldiers as being both tired, and out of shape. They squeeze their “pot bellies” into their gear that just seems to get smaller and smaller. This is of course an illusion as it is their stomachs that are getting larger. They complete this action with “great finesse,” a nice turn to sarcasm. Highlighting the dark humor that surrounds this situation.
Their helmets are placed on their heads, shutting out “half [their] world.” They must set aside who they really are in their day-to-day life to be the soldiers they have to be, and report for service. They complete their preparations by taking their “sleek weapons” to which they were very much attached in the days in which they were active members of the army. Now they are only the reserve.
A reader should take note of the fact that this entire section of text, that describes the preparations, moves quickly. Until reader gets to the line beginning with “We are again..” there have only been commas used to separated the phrases. This was done in an effort to show the haste typically associated with this process. It creates a further contrast with what the text actually describes as happening.
The second stanza begins with some action, but still a repetition of past actions. Once again these old, out of shape soldiers are charging up the,
same hills, plod[ding]
through the same forest,
They are, as the speaker describes, too old, too set in their ways to be fitted to any other profession. This is what they know and so they are resigned to it. While they may have actively continued in this profession, there is also an element of fate involved. The trails they charge up continue to find them, as if there is no choice but to continue on the same path. The soldiers are described as being stuck on their paths, they cannot get off, like a child on a carousel. These lines allude to the endless battles ahead. The military will never rest, or fully withdraw from the wars and skirmishes they are engaged in. Even if withdrawn would be for the best.
These soldiers, on their carousel of war are being pushed along to fulfill someone else’s “expensive” fantasy. They are being treated like children. They are the charges of the country and need direction so that they know which way to walk, run and march. Rushing toward them are tedious rituals of preparation and marching, masked threats of possible court-martial, or worse,
monsters armed with the same roar.
They must also fear the enemy that they are required to fight.
The last stanza of the poem provides a bit of hope. The speaker contemplates that perhaps at some point there will be an end to all of this, and that maybe, surprisingly, they will become “unlikely heroes.” All of their horrors, and long years of repetition will be far behind them, only remaining “pinned to their tunic fronts.” Emblems of their bravery and strength, not of misery and tired agony. The men will perhaps be the recipients of awards and medals they are able to wear on their clothing. This statement again plays with the irony that is placed throughout the piece. The speaker does not really believe what he is saying. But only staging a situation and attempting to speak the truth about its reality.
The next line references the character in Greek mythology, Sisyphus. In mythology he is set to the task of rolling a boulder up a hill, only to have to roll back down endlessly. He will never reach the top of the hill, and his desire for eternal life. This is the point at which the hope dwindles somewhat and the speaker says that with their repetition they will prove that Sisyphus is not a myth but a reality that they are living.
The marches and battles they are repeating are once again referenced, but this time they are referred to as a game. The same things have happened so often that the possible consequences are muted.
They will repeat their actions until they become monotonous like a lullaby, sending “his lordship,” a reference to whomever is commanding the army, to sleep. Even the commander will become bored with the endless loop the soldiers are living in.
The poem concludes with one long line that summarizes it in entirety, and resolving with determination.
The speaker says that they will “march the same paths till they break…into the daybreak.” At some point, he figures, the paths will break into a new one, and a new life for the soldiers will begin. They will stumble into the sunlight, a metaphor for the final escape from the military. This could refer to simply aging out of the unit, or more likely to death itself. This might be the only way the men have to get away from their unending paths.
About Boey Kim Cheng
Boey Kim Cheng was born in Singapore in 1965. He published his first collection Somewhere-Bound in 1989 while studying at the National University of Singapore. This collection won the National Book Development Council Award. He followed this collection with Another Place, and Days of No Name in 1992 and 1996. He immigrated to Australia in 1997, completing a number of other works and was shortlisted for awards such as W.A. Premier’s Literary Award for Nonfiction and the John Bray Poetry Prize. Boey returned to Singapore where he is currently Associate Professor at the Division of English.