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E. E. Cummings: Detention camp during wartime

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Anti-war essays, poems, short stories and literary excerpts

American writers on peace and against war

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E. E. Cummings
From The Enormous Room

In a little over two hours I learned an astonishing lot about La Ferté itself: it was a co-educational receiving station whither were sent from various parts of France (a) males suspected of espionage and (b) females of a well-known type found in the zone of the armies. It was pointed out to me that the task of finding such members of the human race was pas difficile: in the case of the men, any foreigner would do provided his country was neutral (e.g. Holland); as for the girls, inasmuch as the armies of the Allies were continually retreating, the zone des armées (particularly in the case of Belgium) was always including new cities, whose petites femmes became automatically subject to arrest. It was not to be supposed that all the women of La Ferté were putains: there were a large number of respectable women, the wives of prisoners, who met their husbands at specified times on the floor below the men’s quarters, whither man and woman were duly and separately conducted by plantons. In this case no charges had been preferred against the women; they were voluntary prisoners, who had preferred to freedom this living in proximity to their husbands. Many of them had children; some babies. In addition there were certain femmes honnêtes whose nationality, as in the case of the men, had cost them their liberty; Marguerite the washerwoman, for example, was a German.

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The planton who suffered all these indignities was a solemn youth with wise eyes situated very far apart in a mealy expressionless ellipse of face, to the lower end of which clung a piece of down, exactly like a feather sticking to an egg. The rest of him was fairly normal with the exception of his hands, which were not mates; the left being considerably larger, and made of wood.

I was at first somewhat startled by this eccentricity; but soon learned that with the exception of two or three, who formed the Surveillant’s permanent staff and of whom the beefy one was a shining example, all the plantons were supposed to be unhealthy; they were indeed the disabled whom le gouvernement français sent from time to time to La Ferté and similar institutions for a little outing, and as soon as they had recovered their health under these salubrious influences they were shipped back to do their bit for world-safety, democracy, freedom, etc., in the trenches.

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“He’s a son-of-a-bitch,” B. said heartily. “They took me up to him when I came two days ago. As soon as he saw me he bellowed: ‘Imbécile et inchrétien!’; then he called me a great lot of other things, including Shame of my country, Traitor to the sacred cause of Liberty, Contemptible coward and Vile sneaking spy. When he got all through I said ‘I don’t understand French.’ You should have seen him then.”

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Last, I found a drawing surrounded by a scrolled motto. The drawing was a potted plant with four blossoms. The four blossoms were elaborately dead. Their death was drawn with a fearful care. An obscure deliberation was exposed in the depiction of their drooping petals. The pot tottered very crookedly on a sort of table, as near as I could see. All around ran a funereal scroll. I read: “My farewell to my beloved wife, Gaby.” A fierce hand, totally distinct from the former, wrote in proud letters above: “Punished for desertion. Six years of prison – military degradation.”

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There were various cabinots: each sex had its regular cabinot, and there were certain extra ones. B. knew all about them from Harree and Pompom, who spent nearly all their time in the cabinot. They were rooms about nine feet square and six feet high. There was no light and no floor, and the ground (three were on the ground floor) was always wet and often a good many inches under water. The occupant on entering was searched for tobacco, deprived of his or her mattress and blanket, and invited to sleep on the ground on some planks. One didn’t need to write a letter to a member of the opposite sex to get cabinot, or even to call a planton embusqué – there was a woman, a foreigner, who, instead of sending a letter to her embassy through the bureau (where all letters were read by the mail clerk to make sure that they said nothing disagreeable about the authorities or conditions of La Ferté) tried to smuggle it outside, and got twenty-eight days of cabinot. She had previously written three times, handing the letters to the Surveillant, as per regulations, and had received no reply. Fritz, who had no idea why he was arrested and was crazy to get in touch with his embassy, had likewise written several letters, taking the utmost care to state the facts only and always handing them in; but he had never received a word in return. The obvious inference was that letters from a foreigner to his embassy were duly accepted by the Surveillant (Warden), but rarely, if ever, left La Ferté.

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