A Place Belongs Forever to Whoever Claims It Hardest: Phil Klay’s Redeployment

Posted March 18, 2014 by Peter Molin
Categories: Art and War

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Congratulations Phil Klay on winning the 2014 National Book Award for fiction for Redeployment!  Below is a repost of my review from earlier this year.

Phil Klay reading at West Point, April 2014.

Phil Klay reading at West Point, April 2014.

Redeployment2012 was as good a year for contemporary war fiction as we’re probably going to get, what with the publication of The Yellow Birds, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, The Watch, and Fobbit.  2013, by comparison, saw only Roxana Robinson’s Sparta make anything close to the splash of the previous year’s bumper crop of war novels.  Now, early in 2014, comes Phil Klay (the last name rhymes with “sky”) and his collection of short stories Redeployment.  Riding a perfect wave of full-tilt advertising push from publishing giant Penguin, Redeployment has garnered glowing reviews from the New York Times, the Times Sunday Book Review, the Washington Post, the Daily Beast, the Wall Street Journal and the Internet media sphere.  While not a novel, Redeployment lights up the contemporary war fiction scene while readers wait for the next great novel to come along.

And why not?  A Dartmouth grad and former Marine who spent a year in Iraq as a personnel officer, Klay brings a lot to the table.  He has an impeccable ear for soldierly speech and while in was obviously on high alert for the nuances of military life.  He observed, for example, the differences in the deployment experiences and outlook of a wide variety of service members, ranging from infantrymen, artillerymen, and military police to chaplains and civil affairs officers.  One story in Redeployment, “Psychological Operations,” is narrated by an ex-enlisted Army soldier, an African-American Coptic Christian who studies at Amherst, a narrative persona that pretty much takes the cake for imagination.  But Klay’s characters are always believable and distinctive; as the reviewing cliché goes, they are “fully realized”:  round not flat, capable of change, growth, and surprise.  Even better, Redeployment‘s tales are, as another cliché has it, “fully imagined.”  Obviously not all autobiographical, they appear to be artistically rendered amalgams of overheard war stories that Klay twists, turns, and combines in unexpected ways.  Chuck Palahniuk writes in the forward to Fight Club that “To make the [original] short story into a book, I added every story my friends could tell.  Every party I attended gave me more material.”  Palahniuk’s tactic seems to have been Klay’s; my only wish, actually, is that Redeployment were also a novel–so many of its discrete chapters are ripe for expansion or linking with others to create a more comprehensive and blended long narrative.

And what are Klay’s well-crafted characters and storylines all about?  In public remarks, Klay discusses a question he’s asked often:  “Had I killed anyone in Iraq?”  Klay’s answer is no, but the question informs so many Redeployment stories that it clearly has become a preoccupation.  In “After Action Report,” for example, one Marine takes claim for his buddy’s kill, and then tries to figure out how to live with the aftermath.  In “Ten Kliks South,” an artilleryman ponders his responsibility for the deaths of civilians killed downrange by rounds he has helped launch.  But in “Prayer in the Furnace,” an angry Marine infantryman cares not a whit about the deaths of Iraqis—he flat-out hates them.  Instead, his question is whether he had done anything that had gotten fellow Marines killed. The point is also made by the narrator of “Unless It’s a Sucking Chest Wound” who states, “I’d never had a personal relationship with any of the five fallen Marines, so I tended to think of their deaths with a solemn, patriotic pride rather than the self-loathing and self-doubt so clearly tearing [my friend] to shreds.”

Returning to “Prayer in the Furnace,” when the tale’s protagonist, a chaplain attempting to minister the angry infantryman, discusses the grunt’s gung-ho, bone-dumb Charlie Company commander with the battalion operations officer, the ops officer compares Charlie’s mission with Bravo Company’s:

“Bravo’s got good leaders and a calmer AO [Area of Operations],” he said. “They trained their Marines right.  Captain Seiris is good.  First Sergeant Nolan’s a rock star.  Their company gunny is retarded, but all of their lieutenants are good to go except maybe one, and he’s got a stellar platoon sergeant.  But not everybody can be competent.  It’s too late for Charlie to be anything other than what it is.  Our Kill Company.  But this is a war. A Kill Company’s not the worst thing to have.”

A whole lot of knowingness goes into the composition of a paragraph like that.  As units, each with their own personality and level of competence, and compromised of individuals equally distinctive, pitched into their missions in Iraq and Afghanistan, what happened next was idiosyncratic, variable, and contingent.  “You go to war with the military you have,” Donald Rumsfeld was widely derided for saying, but he wasn’t wrong at the level of the individual–you go to war with who you are, constrained by the limits of the unit of which you are a part.  Every soldier up to his or her ears in the messiness of combat knows this in ways hard to fathom by those who might be tempted to think that decisions and choices were easier than they were.  Redeployment doesn’t portray the military as screwed up beyond repair or chance of victory, but Klay does suggest that the Marines he was with were overmatched by the demands of the mission and loftiness of the Corps’ ideals and publicity. “Iraq,” the narrator of “Unless It’s a Sucking Chest Wound” asks, “What do you think?  Did we win?”  “Uhh… we did OK” is the response from a warrior said to have earned a Bronze Star with a V device for valor.

“Prayer in the Furnace” burns as hot as its title implies, but Klay works in registers other than the grim and deadly.  “Money as a Weapons System” is not exactly bloodless, but it humorously exposes the fraudulence and ineptitude of military nation-building endeavors. Having wondered at the failure of my own unit’s humanitarian assistance missions, Commander’s Emergency Response Program projects, Provincial Reconstruction Team efforts, and NGO programs in Afghanistan, where shot-up and abandoned clinics, schools, irrigation systems, and women’s centers littered the land, I was half-horrified, half-pleased to see something so similar vividly recreated in Redeployment.  The story soars on the strength of its skewering of absurd and hopeless “non-kinetic” civil affairs missions and the liveliness of the characters who try their best, or at least reasonably hard, to execute them.  Klay’s gift for character shines in his portrayal of Major Zima, an overweight civil affairs officer who is consistently underestimated by the leaner, meaner, and supposedly swifter narrator.  Part Falstaff, part Machiavelli, Major Zima is the only character in Redeployment who renders the slightest modicum of aid to the Iraqis outside the FOB while not being brutalized by the military bureaucracy within it.

My favorite review of Repeployment is by Sam Sacks for the Wall Street Journal.  Sacks places Klay in the context of big-time war fiction authors such as Tim O’Brien and Ernest Hemingway.  He also notes the basic “talkiness” of Redeployment:  many of its stories are about soldiers, Marines, and veterans explaining to interlocutors what they did and felt, rather than authorial descriptions of actions they performed.  That’s OK, most of what we talk about in our day-to-day lives is likewise about what other people have said.  Life exists in a blur of words about words, and our whole understanding of the Iraq war especially drifts in an inchoate haze of competing narratives.  How easy or hard is it to remember just how bad it was in 2004, 2005, 2006, and 2007?  So let’s give Mr. Klay his due–well done, sir–and close with words from essayist Joan Didion’s The White Album:

“Certain places seem to exist because someone has written about them….  A place belongs forever to whoever claims it hardest, remembers it most obsessively, wrenches it from itself, shapes it, renders it, loves it so radically that he remakes it in his image.”

Certain places.  Iraq.  Afghanistan.  Home again.

Brooklyn, the War Lit Capital of the 21st Century

Posted November 16, 2014 by Peter Molin
Categories: Art and War

Tags:

My title alludes to an essay titled “Paris, the Capital of the 19th Century” by Walter Benjamin, a German-Jewish writer well-known to those who have studied literature, history, or the arts in grad school, if not so famous among the masses. Benjamin’s thesis was that Paris, through its up-to-the-minute confluence of architecture, city design, affinity for new modes of artistic reproduction, and rampant indulgence of consumer capitalism, was the “it” city of the nineteenth century. The most modern, the most happening, the most vital, the first home of all things new and exciting.

Walter Benjamin, war author? Benjamin, a Jew, died under mysterious circumstances trying to flee Nazi Germany.

Walter Benjamin, war author? Benjamin, a Jew, committed suicide in 1940 when his effort to flee Nazi Germany was stymied.

Today, my local paper ran a story about how even Paris, along with many other cities, strives to capture the spirit of Brooklyn, the New York City borough that currently crackles with artistic and entrepreneurial creative energy. From my perch 50 miles north, I’ve been fortunate enough the last couple of years to make many forays into Brooklyn-land and drink deep of its magical mystical mojo. It’s hard not to get excited about what one discovers or become eager to seek the approval of its brave, bold, tough, and talented residents. Along with almost everything else in every other domain of life that seems worth paying attention to, Brooklyn sets the tone and pace of the contemporary war writing scene, too, with veteran and interested non-veteran authors by the dozens tapping into Brooklyn’s vitality in hopes of infusing their writing with urgency and relevance. Phil Klay, Matt Gallagher, and Roy Scranton, for examples, come immediately to mind as Brooklyn-based war authors who preside over not just the local, but national war lit scene by modeling excellence with their own work and exuding a generous spirit of encouragement to other war writers and readers.

On Veterans Day, I was invited by the war writers collective Words After War to moderate a group reading by up-and-coming war authors at the Old Stone House in Brooklyn. The Old Stone House, an historical site associated with the Revolutionary War Battle of Brooklyn, has for several years co-sponsored a Vets Day reading with an organization called Brooklyn Reading Works. The concept this year was for contemporary war writers to read selections from World War I authors in homage to the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the Great War. I liked the idea immediately—I’ve got plenty to say about the links between contemporary war writing and the WWI war writing tradition of Owen, Sassoon, and Hemingway, and I was eager to see which authors attracted the attention of other contemporary vets.

I’ll save the analysis for another column, however, and will, regrettably, for now shortchange attention to my fellow readers in this post. Below are my remarks and selections, for what they are worth. Thank you Words After War, the Old Stone House, Brooklyn Reading Works, and vet-authors Eric Nelson, Mariette Kalinowski, Lisbeth Prifogle, Jacob Sotak, Vic Zlatanovic, Nate Bethea, and Adrian Bonenberger. Most of the authors named are already in print and online, and all are working on projects that will make us pay even closer attention in the future.

XXX

“I’m honored to be here today to moderate Veterans Day: Writing War Fiction and Memoir as a guest of The Old Stone House, Brooklyn Reading Works, and Words after War. Tonight marks at least the third, or maybe even more, year in a row that Veterans Day has been commemorated with a literary event in this historic location. The format for this year’s event was conceived by Words After War executive director Brandon Willitts, who noted that 2014 was the 100th anniversary of the beginning of World War I, a war notable for the quality of the literature produced by those who fought it. Brandon’s idea was to have veterans of our contemporary post-9/11 wars who are active authors of fiction, poetry, memoir, essay, and nonfiction pay homage to the warrior-authors of the Great War, and in so doing render tribute to all those who have served our nation in its armed forces.

“I want to consider the particularly Brooklyn aspects of our endeavor here tonight. Brooklyn today is known for its hospitality to creative individuals—authors, artists, and musicians. But we might also remember its even stronger tradition of sending its sons and now its daughters to defend the nation and fight its wars. I couldn’t find exact numbers of Brooklynites who fought in World War I, but surely they were substantial, as New York state provided by far the greatest number of soldiers to the overseas army that fought in Europe. You can search online the names of those New York residents who died in World War I, and it shouldn’t surprise anyone that the first name, Boatswain Mate First Class Aksel Aanensen, and darn near the last, Private First Class Samuel Zuckerman, were from Brooklyn. We can also learn that a woman from Brooklyn, Daisy Kirkterp, a nurse, is memorialized for giving her life during World War I.

“Veterans Day is not Memorial Day, but those who gave their life in combat are a special subset of those whom we honor on Veterans Day, so let’s render tribute to Brooklyn residents who have died in Iraq and Afghanistan, such as Captain John McKenna, USMC (Iraq, 2007), and Army Specialist Deon Taylor (Afghanistan, 2008). We want above all to be sure that those who die in combat do not die in vain, and the families of Captain McKenna and Specialist Taylor should take great comfort in, among other things, their beloved lost ones are remembered in the proud, tough, caring community from which they came.”

XXX

Wallace Stevens

Wallace Stevens

“Wallace Stevens is not usually thought of as a World War I poet, but the great American modernist appeared in print as early as 1914 with a poem, called “Phases,” that directly engaged the war. Shortly after the war ended, he wrote “Lettres d’un Soldat,” a passage from which I will now read. It is like no other Wallace Stevens poem or no other war poem that I’ve ever read, which makes it very cool indeed.”

John Smith and his son John Smith,
And his son’s son John, and-a-one
And-a-two and-a-three

And-a-rum-tum-tum, and-a
Lean John, and son, lean John,
And his lean son’s John, and-a-one
And-a-two and-a-three

And-a-drum-rum-rum, and-a
Rich John, and son, rich John,
And his rich son’s John, and-a-one
And-a-two and-a-three

And-a-pom-pom-pom, and-a
Wise John, and son, wise John,
And his wise son’s John, and-a-one
And-a-two and-a-three

And-a-fee and-a-fee and-a-fee
And-a-fee-fo-fum—

Voila la vie, la vie, la vie
And-a-rummy-tummy-tum
And-a-rummy-tummy-tum.

XXX

Joyce Kilmer

Joyce Kilmer

“I will close by reading a poem by a poet who was not a Brooklynite, but who fought and died in the Fighting 69th Infantry, a legendary New York City unit. Sergeant Joyce Kilmer, the author of the famous poem “Trees,” and the namesake for Brooklyn’s Joyce Kilmer Square, wrote “Rouge Bouquet” just before his death in France in 1918. The poem, which is about the deaths of his fellow soldiers by artillery barrage in a French forest named Rouge Bouquet, is very much of its time not just in regard to its depictions of the horror of war, but in regard to its notions of duty, courage, and honor. We have more complicated notions about these values than did those who fought World War I, in part because of the test-by-fire the values were subjected to in the Great War. But let’s end with a poem that unabashedly renders the old virtues in the old ways, because the sentiments, despite how many times the world has turned since, can still stir us today.”

In a wood they call the Rouge Bouquet
There is a new-made grave to-day,
Built by never a spade nor picK
Yet covered with earth ten meters thick.
There lie many fighting men,
Dead in their youthful prime,
Never to laugh nor love again
Nor taste the Summertime.

For Death came flying through the air
And stopped his flight at the dugout stair,
Touched his prey and left them there,
Clay to clay.
He hid their bodies stealthily
In the soil of the land they fought to free
And fled away.

Now over the grave abrupt and clear
Three volleys ring;
And perhaps their brave young spirits hear
The bugle sing:
‘Go to sleep!
Go to sleep!’
Slumber well where the shell screamed and fell.
Let your rifles rest on the muddy floor,
You will not need them any more.
Danger’s past;
Now at last,
‘Go to sleep!’

There is on earth no worthier grave
To hold the bodies of the brave
Than this place of pain and pride
Where they nobly fought and nobly died.
Never fear but in the skies
Saints and angels stand
Smiling with their holy eyes
On this new-come band….

And up to Heaven’s doorway floats,
From the wood called Rouge Bouquet
A delicate cloud of bugle notes
That softly say:
‘Farewell!
Farewell!’
Comrades true, born anew, peace to you!
Your souls shall be where the heroes are
And your memory shine like the morning-star.
Brave and dear,
Shield us here.
‘Farewell!’

Left to right:  Nate Bethea, Eric Nelson, Adrian Bonenberger, Brandon Willits, Mariette Kalinowski, Vic Zlatanovic, Lisbeth Prifogle, me, Jacob Sotak

Nate Bethea, Eric Nelson, Adrian Bonenberger, Brandon Willitts, Mariette Kalinowski, Vic Zlatanovic, Lisbeth Prifogle, me, Jacob Sotak

Thanks to Melissa Parrish, Iraq US Army vet, for turning me on to Wallace Stevens’ “Lettres d’un Soldat,” and in particular the great “John Smith and son John Smith” passage.

Dodge (War) Poetry Festival 2014

Posted October 29, 2014 by Peter Molin
Categories: Art and War

Tags: , , , , ,
Elyse Fenton at Dodge Poetry Festival 14.

Elyse Fenton, Dodge Poetry Festival 2014.

War subjects and themes were the focus of this year’s Dodge Poetry Festival, the nation’s largest celebration of poetry, held annually in Newark, New Jersey. The marquee event was a contemporary war poem extravaganza called Another Kind of Courage, about which more later. But sprinkled throughout the readings and panel discussions featuring big-time civilian names such as Gary Snyder and Robert Pinsky were poets familiar to readers of this blog such as Brian Turner, Elyse Fenton, and Jehanne Dubrow. The commingling of war-themed poems within the greater flow of versification rendered ample opportunity to think about how war has inflected poetry generally in the 21st century. It also allowed one to take stock of how a first-generation of contemporary war poets might be moving on to subjects and approaches more centered within the poetry mainstream.

Jehanne Dubrow

Jehanne Dubrow

Fenton, for example, appeared on a panel that featured among others Richard Blanco, a gay Hispanic-American poet who read at President Obama’s second inauguration, but America’s recent wars were barely mentioned by the participants. Fenton, the wife of a veteran, read only “After the Blast” from her acclaimed first work Clamor. Her other poems, from a current work-in-progress called “Sweet Insurgency,” had little to do with deployment, combat, or life on the homefront, though the title alone attests to the lingering persistence of things, words, and ideas military in Fenton’s apprehension of the world. Dubrow, for her part, read just three poems from her impressive work Stateside, to include one I love called “Nonessential Equipment,” on a panel that featured no other war poets. Her husband continues to serve in the Navy, but Dubrow has turned her attention to subjects other than the vexations of martial marital relations. Still, the interest in violence and trauma inherent in Stateside continues, or is even intensified, in the poems Dubrow read from a soon-to-be published work about her mother’s harrowing life growing up in El Salvador.

As for Turner, readings at Dodge and another one a week earlier in New York gave ample evidence that he has plenty of poetry to draw on that doesn’t explicitly touch on his service as an infantryman in Iraq. Many examples can be found in Phantom Noise, but others, some that predate his military service and others written after, look at family history, regional influence, and the complexities of modern life. In New York, at an event called Stage Meets Page, Turner traded turns reading with a performance poet named Rives, a winner of freestyle contests and a giver of TED talks. Rives is probably used to blowing poetic competition off the stage, but Turner more than held his own, riffing off Rives’ cues and dipping deep into a black notebook full of funny, startling, brilliant verse that had far more to do with life out of uniform than in. For an example of the same from Dodge, on a panel on masculinity and poetry that also featured the aforementioned Pinsky and Blanco, Turner read “Zippo” from Phantom Noise.

Another Kind of Courage poets and musicians take their bows, Dodge Poetry Festival 2014.

Another Kind of Courage poets and musicians take their bows, Dodge Poetry Festival 2014.

The Another Kind of Courage event brought Turner, Dubrow, and Fenton together with wise war-poet old hands Yusef Komunyakaa and Marilyn Nelson and a group of younger vet poets associated with a collective called Warrior Writers. Together, as organized by festival program director Martin Farawell, they recounted a narrative-in-verse about deployment through the multiple voices of a large and diverse body of poems read by their authors. The general arc of the story focused on psychological trauma and political outrage, which is understandable and dramatic, but by no means the be-all and end-all of what war poetry is and can be. Still, Another Kind of Courage inspired wonder about the possibilities of staging war poetry and showcased many fantastic individual performances. Warrior Writers’ Jeremy Stainthorp Berggren galvanized the audience with the Eminem-like “PTSD (P.lease T.ry S.omething D.ifferent)” and Jennifer Pacanowski’s “Parade,” read to the accompaniment of a simple guitar strum, did much the same in a softer key.

Brian Turner, Elyse Fenton, and Jeremy Stainthorp Berggren at Dodge Poetry Festival 14

Brian Turner, Elyse Fenton, and Jeremy Stainthorp Berggren, after the Another Kind of Courage performance. Dodge Poetry Festival 2014

For all of the above, a highlight of Dodge for me was meeting Robert Pinsky for the first time since I took a class from him almost 30 years ago, when, fed up with graduate school, I asked him write a letter of recommendation for my application to Officer Candidate School. Pinsky, a former national poet laureate, published a volume of poetry called Gulf Music in 2007. Interested in knowing if it addressed the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, I purchased a copy and read it between acts at Dodge. I didn’t have to look long, for the very first poem, “Poem of Disconnected Parts,” ruminates on torture in the name of politics as perpetrated by oppressive regimes around the world, the United States unfortunately not excepted. But Pinsky, it turns out, is ambivalent or confused about conflict and violence more than he is stridently opposed; many of the poems in Gulf Music document him trying to work out the exact relationship between the propensity to inflict harm and the inclination to create art. In “Poem of Disconnected Parts,” for example, he writes:

The [torturers] created nicknames for torture devices:
The Airplane. The Frog. Burping the Baby.

Not that those who behead the helpless in the name
Of God or tradition don’t also write poetry.

In “Inman Square Incantation,” he writes:

Forgive us, we don’t exactly believe or disbelieve
What the President tells us regarding the great issues
Of peace, justice, and war—skeptical, but distracted

By the swarm of things.

That seems about right, but in a poem (perhaps aptly) titled “Stupid Meditation on Peace,” the drift of Pinsky’s thought turns more sinister and daring. He begins by describing himself as an “Insomniac monkey-mind,” an image that sets up a series of stanzas that consider the proposition that art depends on the dark energy of conflict:

We choose one of two tributaries: the River
Of Peace, or the River of Productivity.
The current of Art he says runs not between

Banks with birdsong in the fragrant shadows—
No, an artist must follow the stinks and rapids
Of the branch that drives millstones and dynamos.

Is peace merely a vacuum, the negative
Of creation, or the absence of war?
The teaching says Peace is a positive energy:

Still something in me resists that sweet milk,
My mind resembles my restless, inferior cousin
Who fires his shit in handfuls from his cage.

Pinsky’s not wrong, I feel, and he’s way too hard on himself. But these are hard things to say or prove, and must be couched in terms of irony, possibility, and humor, if not self-deprecation and laceration. For certain though, Pinsky the poet is tied up with the life course that took me to the battlefields of eastern Afghanistan: the letter of recommendation I still have is the material proof.

Robert Pinsky seems a little dismayed by my reappearance in his life.

Robert Pinsky seems a little dismayed by my reappearance in his life.

Robert Pinsky, Gulf Music. Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 2007.

“Tomorrow the War Will Have a Picnic”: Global Perspectives on the Global War on Terrorism

Posted October 19, 2014 by Peter Molin
Categories: Art and War

Tags: , , ,

arts_books2-1_49“Tomorrow the War Will Have a Picnic” is a poem written by an Iraqi author named Abdul Razaq Al-Rubaiee on the eve of the American invasion in 2003.  It and other poems written by Iraqi poets are collected in the anthology Flowers of Flame: Unheard Voices of Iraq (2008). Flowers of Flame came to my attention when a scholar proposed to speak about it for a panel titled Global Perspectives on the Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that I am trying to set up for the American Comparative Literature Association conference next March in Seattle. Alas, as I write I don’t have enough papers to meet the ACLA’s requirement of six to make the panel a go. But the entries I have received have already done much of what I hoped to accomplish by alerting me to the work of non-American authors who have written stories, poetry, and plays about Iraq and Afghanistan.  Flowers of Flame is one example, and below are a few more:

The Blind Man's GardenPakistani-British novelist Nadeem Aslam’s The Blind Man’s Garden (2013), tells the story of two brothers who enter Afghanistan from Pakistan not to fight Americans, but to help wounded Afghans. Aslam’s earlier novel The Wasted Vigil (2008) is also set in Afghanistan.  An interview with Aslam at Bookslut is especially not to be missed for many reasons–I’ll quote my favorite part, in which Aslam describes how he taught himself to be a writer:

So over the course of the next 10 or 11 years I read everything. I would go to person A and say, “Tell me, who’s a great writer?” William Faulkner. So I read everything by William Faulkner. I would begin with the first novel and end up with the last novel. I would go to person B and say, ‘Who’s a great writer?’ Thomas Hardy. I read everything by Thomas Hardy, sequentially. Who’s a great writer? D.H. Lawrence, James Joyce, Vladimir Nabokov, Dostoevsky.

And then I wanted to know, how much thought is allowed in one paragraph? How many images are allowed per page? What is a comma? And so I copied out the whole of Moby-Dick by hand. I copied out the whole of As I Lay Dying by Faulkner by hand. I copied out Lolita. I copied out Beloved. I copied out The Street of Crocodiles by Bruno Schulz, Gabriel García Márquez’s The Autumn of the Patriarch….

Christine Evans is an Australian-born playwright who now lives in America. Her multi-media play You Are Dead. You Are Here (2013, with more productions coming in 2015) portrays a relationship between a male American soldier and a young female Iraqi blogger.  An earlier play called Slow Falling Bird (2003) features an Afghan girl living in limbo in an Australian immigrant detention center.  Evans’ other plays–Trojan Barbie (2009) and Weightless (2007)–don’t invoke Iraq and Afghanistan directly, but instead comment obliquely on modern life as it has been shaped by a decade of war.  Trojan Barbie, by-the-by, draws inspiration from Euripides’ The Trojan Women to portray the plight of women in the midst of a war, conflict, and violence-saturated historical epoch.  In the latest PMLA, a seriously scholarly journal published by the Modern Language Association, Ellen McLaughlin describes her own stage adaptation of Sophocles’ Ajax called Ajax in Iraq (2009).  Evans’ and McLaughlin’s works add two more data points to the now indisputable pile of evidence proving that classic Greek literature has been the go-to sourcepool for contemporary war writers.

you-are-dead

I’ve appealed to ACLA for an exception-to-policy and will soon find out if my panel will occur or not.  I hope so, but even if it doesn’t, many thanks to the scholars who brought Flowers of Flame, The Blind Man’s Garden, and You Are Dead. You Are Here to our attention.  I look forward to reading both the original works and the critical commentary.

Flowers of Flame: Unheard Voices of Iraq.  Edited by Sadek Mohammed, Soheil Najm, Haier Al-Kabi, and Don Veach. Michigan State University Press, 2008.

Nadeen Aslam.  The Blind Man’s Garden.  Knopf, 2013.

Christine Evans.  You Are Dead.  You Are Here.  Indie Theater Now, 2013.

Congratulations, Phil Klay!

Posted October 15, 2014 by Peter Molin
Categories: General

Phil Klay outside Siobhan Fallon's father's bar, the South Gate Tavern, Highland Falls, New York.

Phil Klay outside Siobhan Fallon’s father’s bar, the South Gate Tavern, Highland Falls, New York, spring 2014.

The National Book Foundation announced its prestigious National Book Awards today, and Phil Klay’s collection of Iraq war short stories Redeployment was one of five finalists in the fiction category. Redeployment joins Kevin Powers’ The Yellow Birds and Ben Fountain’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, both finalists in 2012, as recent war lit short-list fiction nominees.

October in the Railroad War Lit Earth

Posted October 11, 2014 by Peter Molin
Categories: Art and War

Tags: , , , , , , , ,
Fort Riley, Kansas, October 2008

Fort Riley, Kansas, October 2008

“October in the Railroad Earth” is the title of a beautiful prose-poem by Jack Kerouac, who served for about a week in the Navy during World War II and somewhat longer in the Merchant Marine. I have already used the title of Kerouac’s fantastic ode to autumn for the title of a post on my old blog. There it actually made a lot of sense as I wrote about long, glorious days of training in the warm Kansas sunshine while we prepared to deploy to Afghanistan. But I can’t resist repurposing the title, so here we go. A potpourri of miscellaneous war-lit notes is not my usual modus, but ideas, events, and publications have been accumulating so fast that I can’t possibly give each the extended consideration it deserves, so please bear with me.

Late in August, I attended a Sunday afternoon writing workshop co-sponsored by New Jersey branches of the Combat Paper Project and WarriorWriters. With veterans of Somalia and Vietnam I traded writing prompts relevant to military experience and we read each other our responses. Here’s one I wrote on “environment”:

I find very few soldiers wax poetical about Iraq.  Nothing about the flat desert, the hot sun, and the squalid chaos of the cities seems to have impressed them.  Afghanistan, on the other hand, exerted an enchanting allure on many of the soldiers who served there.  The high mountains, often snow-capped and surprisingly forested, the clean air (at least outside of Kabul), the ancient villages built into the sides of wadi and mountain walls, and the roads that snake through the treacherous mountain passes all possess intoxicating powers. Quickening everyone’s step and filling them with wonder, the landscape makes soldiers fall halfway in love with a country that might kill them.

Speaking of falling in love with soldiering in Afghanistan, check out Brian Castner’s impressive essay in the LA Review of Books called “Afghanistan, A Stage Without a Play” on why so little fiction has been written about Afghanistan compared to Iraq. It’s curious, Castner wonders, why Afghanistan seems to have inspired triumphalist memoirs by Navy SEAL team members and infantry lieutenants, while the literary output of Iraq has been fiction and poetry written by disillusioned enlisted soldiers. I’m honored to have been quoted by Castner alongside several other veteran-writers. Along the same lines, I was fortunate to view the movie Korengal and hear Sebastian Junger speak about his love for the soldiers he filmed in action on COP Restrepo in Afghanistan. The next night, in contrast, at Penumbra, a hip photography exhibition space in New York City, I heard Benjamin Busch speak more grimly about the photographs he took in Iraq first as a deployed Marine and earlier this year when he returned to write a story for Harper’s called “Today is Better than Yesterday.” The twinned events inspired many reflections about the linkage of war, words, and images about which I hope to write soon. On a more personal level, Junger and Busch are men-after-my-own-heart, for sure: older, deeply cerebral and artistic gentlemen driven to delve deep into the mysteries of the manly realm of war. Speaking of which, I spent a fun, rewarding afternoon in New York with Maurice Decaul, ex-USMC Iraq vet, ex-Columbia, and now in NYU’s graduate fiction writing program. Decaul writes like the second coming of John Keats, as illustrated by a New York Times essay titled “Memory Lapse” and the poem “Shush,” featured below. But more importantly, Decaul is a genial warm soul who instinctively gravitates towards helping people and getting them organized for effective action and life. As he regaled with me stories about the Columbia and NYU veterans’ programs, I realized exactly how curmudgeonly have been my own efforts in this regard.

Another gentleman, Brian Turner, is reading several times in the NY-NJ-Conn area in the coming months following the release of his memoir My Life as a Foreign Country. I hope to make a couple of the readings, in particular the Dodge Poetry festival “Another Kind of Courage war poetry event on Saturday October 25 in Newark, NJ. The bill also includes Yusef Komunyakaa, Marilyn Nelson, Jehanne Dubrow, and Elyse Fenton, all poets whose work I know and admire. On Veterans Day, I’ll join several other vet-writers to read selections from our favorite World War I authors at an event organized by Words After War and Brooklyn Reading Works at The Old Stone House in Brooklyn.

I also have two conference presentations lined up for next spring. In March, in Seattle, I am moderating a panel at the American Comparative Literature Association conference on literature inspired by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan written by non-Americans. As I write, nobody has submitted a paper proposal, which honestly I kind of anticipated. But if you are an academic and know of a work about the post-9/11 wars written by someone who wasn’t born in the US of A, please consider joining me. In April, I will participate on a panel on war memoir at the Association of Writers and Writing Programs conference in Minneapolis. Also on the panel are Ron Capps, Colin Halloran, and Kayla Williams, so I’m very excited to take part. AWP is a huge party, for those who have never been, in addition to being an intellectual feast for the literary-inclined, so please join us if you can.

And so it goes, on and on. To Jack-y Kerouac-y, maybe not a patron saint of war writing, but certainly a kindred spirit and fellow traveller of all who burned to live intensely and then express themselves through their art.

Jack Kerouac's Navy enlistment photo, 1942.

Jack Kerouac’s Navy enlistment photo, 1942.

War Memoir/Poetry: Amalie Flynn’s Wife and War

Posted September 28, 2014 by Peter Molin
Categories: Art and War

Tags: , ,

I’m curious why there haven’t been more post-9/11 war novels written from the perspective of a wife and that portray marriage and family life in the period after redeployment. Have we seen any? Siobhan Fallon’s collection of short stories You Know When the Men are Gone, when it appeared in 2011, seemed to announce that marital tension wrought by war would be THE subject most attractive to talented war writers and alert readers. And yet, since then, not so much of anything, really. A story here and there. Some poetry. But no long fiction, from Fallon or anyone else.

Maybe the options for portraying martial domestic life are limited. A chirpy story of foibles on the family homefront while Daddy’s off killing Taliban and Al Qaeda bad guys followed by a happy family trip to Disneyland seems neither serious nor dramatic enough, you know what I mean? A failure of imagination might also be involved. Perhaps, though, it just takes guts to depict the guts of marital strain. The blogosphere is full of writing by savvy wives of deployed service members. Writers such as Andria Williams and Angie Ricketts I’m sure don’t miss much, and their posts give the impression that they could say a lot more even than they do about military married life. But as wives of officers, they, perhaps, are bound by the same chin-up, perpetually optimistic codes of propriety that bind their husbands, and that might be what keeps them from telling all the stories, even in fictional form, that they might. I know it’s true for me, still an active-duty officer, as I think about writing short stories and novels. A little too much interest in keeping up appearances, which sometimes earns officers the accusation that they “are not real people,” is even more toxic for a would-be writer of fiction. You’ve got to put it out there, and you can’t be afraid when it gets a little messy.

Wife and WarAn interesting twist on this line-of-inquiry is afforded by Amalie Flynn’s Wife and War. Subtitled “the memoir,” it more accurately is a memoir-in-verse, as Flynn has spaced out her sentences and paragraphs a few to a page in a way that resembles long-line poetry and mixed these passages with more conventional snippets of lyric verse. Most of the lyric passages refer to the fall of the Twin Towers on 9/11, which Flynn witnessed. An example reads:

But what I didn’t know then is what marriage is like, how it is a net,
like the tulle of my wedding dress. How it is.

The wire mesh, found inside a wall,

Found out on a street, after a building falls down.

How it entangles you, and how hard it is to walk away.

Flynn has lived through a lot more than just the horrifying experience of being present at Ground Zero. An equally traumatizing event from childhood, a miscarriage (or two?), and a rocky patch in her relationship with her Navy officer husband following his deployment all make their way into Wife and War’s 400+ pages. My interest here though is not Flynn’s life but her choice of poetry to tell her story. Long narrative poems haven’t been in literary fashion since the first half of the nineteenth century, but I can understand their appeal to contemporary writers looking for a means of expression more starkly stated than diffusely explained while still being more suggestive than explicit. The modus of Wife and War is to render a striking scene, event, or image minimalistically and then hint at rather than explore and analyze the cluster of emotions, perspectives, and implications that might accrue to it. For example, on one page:

I am still awake, in this new house, our bed, and my husband’s arm,
crossing over my chest, like a deadbolt.

[Next page]

And I think about the mechanism of a lock. The safety on the M4 my
husband carried for one year in Afghanistan,locked but ready.Or the way
we sleep, too often, now, now that he is home, how we sleep, together, in
our bed, but locked on opposite sides. Or our hearts, that organ we assign
too much to, or maybe, not enough, locked inside of our rib cages.

[Next page]

That’s good, plenty good enough as is for most. But there’s also a lot of white space left on the page that might be used to fill in details, provide context, sketch in character (and more characters), explain a little more, if not better, in either fact or fiction. Kudos to Flynn for thinking how the resources of literature might be brought to bear on one’s personal narrative, kudos to her for letting us see the shape that marriage to a service member might take. Wife and War’s amalgam of memoir and verse probably won’t inaugurate a new public affection for narrative poetry, but it does bravely beckon other war writers to give the spaces inside a military marriage–its guts–the attention they deserve.

Amalie Flynn’s Wife and War: The Memoir. 2013.

Requiem for Sergeant T: Brian Turner’s My Life as a Foreign Country

Posted September 15, 2014 by Peter Molin
Categories: Art and War

Tags: , ,

“I am a drone aircraft plying the darkness above my body, flying over my wife as she sleeps beside me, over the curvature of the earth, over the glens of Antrim and the Dalmation coastline, the shells of Dubrovnik and Brcko and Mosul arcing in the air beside me, projectiles filled with poems and death and love.”

My LifeSo begins Brian Turner’s My Life as a Foreign Country, a start that just barely illuminates the the work’s enigmatic title and strange epigram taken from Eugenio Montale: “Too many lives go into the making of just one.” Half-memoir and half-rumination on the cosmology of soldiering and combat, My Life as a Foreign Country blends crystal-clear accounts of Turner’s upbringing in California and service in the Army with historical digressions, hallucinatory alterations of the here-and-now, and imagined vignettes describing the lives and thoughts of a cast of characters ranging from Iraqi bomb-makers to Japanese kamikaze pilots. It’s a lot to absorb, and matters are not helped by the subdivision of the book into 11 unnamed chapters further broken into 136 smaller sections, titled only by numbers, ranging in length from a sentence to a few pages. There’s kinda-sorta a logical narrative progression from chapter to chapter and within each chapter, but the trail is faint and easily lost, especially on the first reading. For sure there’s work to be done trying to explain the literal progression of Turner’s narrative, for those who like their readings literal, but clearly My Life as a Foreign Country is meant more to be experienced than explained. Even so, I’ll offer a few general comments about Turner’s methodology and vision.

Readers familiar with Turner’s poetry in Here, Bullet and Phantom Noise will recognize some subjects and themes treated in those volumes, such as car bombs, nighttime raids, soldier suicides, and life within a squad and on a FOB. The turn to prose sacrifices the preciseness, conciseness, and suggestiveness of the poetry in favor of a more expansive treatment of this familiar material that allows for more dialogue, description, characterization, and reflection. Turner can be as terse as Hemingway in parts, but his natural bent is to let his sentences flow with the momentousness of what they are describing. An example from one of the most moving chapters in the book, in my opinion, describes the thoughts of a young Iraqi male as he floats along the Tigris looking for a place to fire a mortar at American forces:

And Malik leans into the rowing, fascinated by the machine of his body, how the muscles of his arms take to the task of rowing so that the separation of body and oar become a fiction, Malik closing his eyes to subtract the night sounds of the world around him, until all that exists are the blades of their oars slipping into the water, two brothers in unison, propelling the boat forward with such ease he thinks they could just keep rowing, hour after hour, down through Baghdad and beyond, through sunrise and sunfall until they reached the wide mouth of the sea, the lights of Basra glowing behind them as they rowed into the crests and hollows of the Persian Gulf, Malik standing high at stern and calling out into the salt spray, calling to the adventurers who traveled these waters before him, the adventurers to come, saying, “’I’m here, world—Malik, as alive as anyone who has ever lived. Malik.’

The most stunning passage in the book, by far, is a reworking of a Rick Moody poem called “Boys.” Rendered in prose form by Turner and given the prosaic chapter title name of 49, we can do better by calling it by its first line: “The soldiers enter the house.” What follows is four pages of insanely intense and vivid and evocative description of the lives and thoughts of soldiers conducting a midnight raid on a compound belonging to a scared Iraqi family. A small quote won’t do it justice, but even a snippet such as, “The soldiers enter the house with only nine credits earned toward an associate’s degree in history from the University of Maryland. They kick in the door and enter the house with the memory of backyard barbecues on their minds” displays Turner’s gift with words and, even better, his ability to see poetic potential in mundane facts. The passage is incantatory even when read silently, and is even more so when read aloud, as I have heard Turner do so in performance.

My Life as a Foreign Country decidedly departs the time-space continuum in its later stages when Turner straight-facedly describes an RPG hit that kills him: “Sgt. Turner is dead,” he writes. The author-Turner is not dead, of course, but the imagined death, I’m thinking, bespeaks the author-Turner’s desire, at long last, to put his identity as a soldier behind him, a problematic venture given that it is his identity as a warrior that has inspired his poetry and gained him a paying audience. But noticeably absent in a memoir by an accomplished author are extended descriptions of Turner’s writerly development before joining the military, while in, and afterwards. To parse the book’s title, then, we can say that the “foreign country” he speaks of are the parts of his life—boyhood and a short period in adulthood—when he was consumed by soldiering, not art. The two clearly have never not been connected for Turner, but My Life as a Foreign Country foregrounds contemplation of the first, while leaving his literary life for another day.

Too bad, a little, because Turner fascinates in person when he speaks about the genesis of his poems and poetic craft. Those aren’t the fish he’s frying in My Life as a Foreign Country, but I’ve learned that Turner often bases poems on deep private allegiances to other poems he knows and loves, as the passage quoted above draws on Rick Moody’s “Boys.” I’ll go out on a limb here and say that the precursor text for My Life as a Foreign Country is Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself.” We see the similarity in the unnumbered stanzas, we see it in the shared interest in cosmic connectivity, we see it in the brooding preoccupation with death and the swirls of mortality that buffet our lives. Whitman kills off his poetic persona, too, at the end of “Song of Myself,” only to promise the reader that he has been resurrected in different form: “I effuse my flesh in eddies and drift it in lacy jags / I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love / If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles.”

Whitman concludes, “Failing to fetch me at first keep up encouraged / Missing me one place search another / I stop somewhere waiting for you.” I can’t state exactly what Sergeant Turner is up to at the end of My Life as a Foreign Country, but since I know him not just as a gruff former NCO but also as a sweet soul who cares deeply, I’m not surprised to read very near the book’s conclusion that, “because Sgt. Turner is dead, he will remain at his post.” Like Whitman at the end of his own long poem, Turner is somewhere ahead looking out for us while we scramble to catch up.

Brian Turner, My Life as a Foreign Country. Norton, 2014. I read an early draft of My Life as a Foreign Country and am honored to be mentioned in the acknowledgements.


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