The Helmet

The greatest twentieth-century work of art is not a poem or
  a painting

but the steel helmet: so said some Nazi curator. And indeed the
  German helmet

from World War II that I own does satisfy our obsession with
  elegant design.

Its lines and volumes, simple yet intricate, and the way light
  passes over it

as if it were a planet while the skull-hole is filled with
  darkness: these

fulfil design’s one great promise or perception, that a thought,
  even a life,

can express itself with beautiful inexplicitness, and there truly is

the heaven of dynamic patterns and self-cancelled phrases where
  all are equal.

Here is the example, unique for each who confronts it, of a mass-

ineffable and unsayable impression. Democracy, art for all. Who
  has not seen

these helmets? Millions owned them. Tens of thousands took
  them from the dead.

This one, for instance, I have from a relative, who received it from
  a friend,

a Berber, one of the Free French, assigned with the Americans,
  who taught him

the tools and techniques of modern war. But this man also loved
  traditional means.

At night he used to take a serrated bayonet and pass through the
  lines. In the darkness

nothing could be seen, so he felt for helmets: rough ones meant
  the American army,

and he went farther. Smooth ones: he was among Germans and
  started cutting throats.

This additional work he did for the pleasure of danger and skill,
  hatred of the enemy,

and love of his foreign friends. A stoical man, with outbursts of
  frantic exalted delight,

he went home after the war to a strict life in the desert south of

Now I’ve turned his helmet over on its back like a small-boy-
  tortured turtle,

and I use it to plant flowers in: those shade-lovers I always call

when I know impatiens is their name.

Copyright © 2004 Albert F. Moritz. Reprinted with permission of House of Anansi Press, Toronto.