AWP18-Tampa, FL

Posted April 20, 2018 by Peter Molin
Categories: Art and War

Tags: , , , , ,

The annual AWP writers’ conference is a feel-good affair more suited for socializing and networking than serious literary pondering. So it was this year, too, in Tampa in March, even as the writing, reading, and publishing throngs arrived stunned by the preceding year’s political tumult. In sunny warm Tampa, however, they–we–took not just solace in each other’s company, but positive good cheer and mutual uplift. This split response—a public hail-fellow-well-met spirit belying the dismay expressed privately at home and at the keyboard—extended even to the war-writing crowd. Serious issues lay on the table, such as the increasingly problematic position of veterans in the overheated contemporary public sphere and the could-be-much-better gender and race demographics of modern war-writing. But those heavy-duty matters took a backseat to catching up with old friends and meeting new ones.

The pattern was evident at the panel I moderated, titled “Crisis, Conflict, and Verse” and featuring an all-star quartet of poet-authors: Brian Turner, Benjamin Busch, Jehanne Dubrow, and Dunya Mikhail. We drew the dreaded 9:00am Saturday morning time-slot, which, along with our forbidding title, conspired to drive attendance downward, as if our topic was just too depressing to contemplate with memories of Friday night festivity still swirling in the brain, along with the fumes of five or ten beers. And truthfully, we kind of frightened ourselves, as first Busch, then Dubrow, and finally Mikhail paradoxically found powerful words to express how their belief in the power of the word has been shaken by recent political and cultural turns. Turner, even as he reported reeling not just from the national state-of-affairs but the agony of his wife Ilyse Kusnetz’s death in 2016, sensed gloom settling in and took it upon himself to infuse our proceedings with levity and hope. Levity, by performing with the always-up-for-anything Busch an impromptu dramatic enactment of the Kay Ryan poem “The Elephant in the Room”  and hope by speaking movingly about the importance of friendship and art in the dark days of loss and despair.

The rest of AWP was, for me, a blur of hits-and-misses. I arrived too late to catch a panel organized by veterans studies scholar Mariana Grohowski titled Women, War, and the Military: How to Tell the Story featuring Helen Benedict, Jerri Bell, Tracy Crow, and Mary Doyle, so I’ll leave it to others to report on its proceedings. It’s a great subject, though, one on many people’s minds these days, as both the military and mil-writing-and-publishing scene confront a variety of gender-related problems. MIA at this year’s AWP unfortunately were the authors of several notable 2017 war novels, such as David Abrams, Brian Van Reet, Elliot Ackerman, and Siobhan Fallon, so we weren’t able to hear their thoughts about their recent books and their reception. The online war-writing community was heavily represented, however, with principals from The War Horse; War, Literature, and the Arts; Wrath-Bearing Tree; the Veterans Writing Project/O-Dark-Thirty; and Consequence on-hand, their strength-in-numbers perhaps suggestive of a movement of the war-writing center-of-gravity from the page and the book to the wide-open, fast-moving digital realm.

Mostly though, AWP was about more personal pleasures, such as meeting for the first time authors I admire such as Seth Brady Tucker, Brooke King, Phil Metres, and Steve Kiernan. A dinner with Ron Capps and a small group of Veterans Writing Program mainstays was a joy. A panel on James Salter, whom I consider one of the patron saints of Time Now, held during the last time slot of the conference and attended by me and three others in one of the largest presentation halls at the convention, was as full of inspiring things as I hoped it would be.

Finally, though it’s become a cliché to write about interesting conversations with Uber drivers (like, “OOOO, I’m SO in touch with toilers in the gig-economy boiler room”), the four I had to-and-from my faraway motel offered fascinating glimpses into the lives of south Floridians. One driver was a Coptic Christian immigrant from Egypt, another worked days rehabilitating sex offenders, a third reported that he was getting married in a week, starting a business, and buying a house two years after finding himself broke and homeless, and the fourth had funny tales to tell about late-nights transporting Tampa Bay Buccaneers home from the clubs. I found the drivers’ stories intriguing and encouraging, on the whole. Somewhere in them I caught glimpses of the levity and hopefulness Brian Turner would have us remember, glimpses of people who had not been defeated.

Photo of Benjamin Busch, Dunya Mikhail, me, Jehanne Dubrow, and Brian Turner by Andria Williams. More photos by Williams here.

Approaching Tampa across the causeway in the AM. That would be so cool if the round orb on the right were the moon, but alas it was just a spot on the car window.

To the Veterans Writing Project!

Posted April 1, 2018 by Peter Molin
Categories: Art and War

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For the last two years I’ve served as the online Mentoring Program Coordinator for the Veterans Writing Project. In the role, I arranged approximately 80 partnerships between aspiring veteran (and some active-duty) writers and seasoned authors, teachers, and writing coaches. It’s been rewarding, and not just because I think I’ve played a part in helping veterans find their writing voices. Equally gratifying has been meeting the talented, generous volunteers who have offered substantial, generous feedback and inspiration to veterans near the beginning of their writing journeys. The focus of Time Now is literary fiction and poetry (and some memoir), most of it authored by veterans with advanced degrees and published by big-time publishers and periodicals. My work with the VWP, on the other hand, has been at the grassroots level. Trying to understand the hopes of VWP aspiring writers has been a marked counterpoint to discerning the more sophisticated concerns of, say, MFA-trained veterans competing for National Book Awards. I won’t say that being the Mentoring Program Coordinator has necessarily kept me in touch with veteran-writing street (I’m a retired 05 with a PhD pushing 60, after all), but to the extent that I have helped anyone at all, I like to think that my work has aided fellow veterans who have not had the advantages I’ve had.

The veteran writers cover a wide range demographically. Many have been Vietnam veterans, still trying to sort out their war experiences fifty years later. Most though are younger—Iraq and Afghanistan veterans—and about half have been women. The majority of aspirants are writing memoir, with fiction and poetry the next largest genres, but authors of articles, essays, screenplays, drama, song, and mixed-media genres have all been well-represented. Many are dealing with traumatic experiences, have not had happy tours in uniform, or seem not to be prospering now—I’ve had many veterans without computers of their own send me drafts tapped out on phones or public library terminals. While some vet-writers have dreamed openly of commercial success, many more have couched their desire to write in terms of therapy, search for understanding, and desire to record and document. I’ve long since lost track of the number of Mentor Program vet-writers who have placed pieces in print, which is great, but the real reward has come in heartfelt testimonials vet writers have sent me thanking me for putting them in touch with their mentors.

To the mentors—thank you. Several mentors are friends and a few are familiar names to readers of Time Now, but most I will never meet, though I’ve enjoyed getting to know you and your own work electronically. It’s inspiring to know that there are people like you out there—interested in writing and ready to invest in the lives of strangers.

It’s time now (no pun intended) to give up the duty, but, fortunately, a worthy successor has already volunteered to take over as Mentoring Program Coordinator: Jacob Agatucci, an Army vet now a professor at Central Oregon Community College. If you are an aspiring vet-writer with a draft of work in hand for which you would like a sympathetic reader, contact Jake at jake@veteranswriting.org. If you are a published writer or writing teacher or coach who would like to mentor aspiring vet-writers, write Jake at the same address. To both groups, your work is important and will be appreciated, and you will not be alone going forward.

Finally, thanks to Veterans Writing Project founder and director Ron Capps and other VWP principals such as Jerri Bell, Jim Mathews, Dario DiBattista, and Carole Florman for letting me be part of the team. Don’t ever stop what you are doing!

Veterans Writing Project Mentor Program webpage here.

On to Tampa! AWP18

Posted March 7, 2018 by Peter Molin
Categories: Art and War

Tags: , , , , ,

Now I got a reason, now I got a reason, now I got a reason, now I got a reason…. –“Holidays in the Sun,” the Sex Pistols

Thursday through Saturday this week in Tampa, Florida, is the Association of Writers and Writing Programs conference, the largest gathering of the year for authors, readers, teachers, publishers, and other lovers of literary fiction, poetry, and memoir. Contemporary war-and-military writers are typically well-represented at AWP panels and readings. Numbers are a little down this year, though still substantial, and judging by the panel descriptions and social media chit-chat, everyone is looking forward to contemplating weighty questions: How has everyone survived the tumultuous and nerve-rattling past twelve months? What does it all portend for writing about war?? Where can the best beer selection in Tampa be found???

All answers will be revealed in the coming days, assuming those of us living in the snowy Northeast can still catch our flights to sunny Florida. My own contribution will be to moderate a panel titled Conflict, Crisis, Verse: Four Poets in Conversation featuring Benjamin Busch, Jehanne Dubrow, Dunya Mikhail, and Brian Turner. This one’s an embarrassment of riches, people, like being asked to coach the 1992 Olympics basketball Dream Team, so I’ll do my best not to screw it up—you might say that all I have to do is roll out the balls, hand-out the jerseys, and then stay-the-hell-out-of-the-way.

Busch’s late-2016 The Road Ahead story “Into the Land of Dogs” really is one for our times, a surreal apocalyptic nightmare vision of war in Afghanistan and afterwards that as much as any tale I’ve read lately drains and wrecks war-and-soldiering of redeeming value, and all the better for doing so. Busch’s poetry, which I love, operates differently. Short lyrics marked by flinty stabs at experiential insight generated by close observation of nature and local event, their hardy stoicism seems forged by the long years Busch has lived in upstate North-country climes, first New York and now Michigan.

Dubrow’s 2017 poetry volume Dots & Dashes is a thing of beauty in particular and in toto. I’m not sure which I like better, the wide-angle poems that ponder the irony of being a poet in an era marked by conflict and violence, or the narrow-focused ones that plumb Dubrow’s marriage to a military officer, but they’re all good. Dubrow is a master of form and technique, as well as of observation, with the fourteen or so sonnets in Dots & Dashes especially remarkable for their exciting, pitch-perfect blends of language, image, and sentiment.

Mikhail, already recognized for her wonderful poetry collection The Iraqi Nights and her prose-poem memoir Diary of a Wave Outside the Sea, will soon be made even more famous by her about-to-be-published work of journalism titled The Beekeeper: Rescuing the Stolen Women of Iraq. The Beekeeper’s subject is the efforts of a roguish band of smugglers, fixers, and humanitarians to save Christian women of the Iraqi Yazidi tribe who have been kidnapped and enslaved by ISIS, as well as about the strength and bravery of the Yazidi women themselves. Beautifully and movingly told, it will almost certainly attract laurels for its heroes (and author) while galvanizing contempt for ISIS brutality.

As for Brian Turner, what can you say? I’m tempted to write Brian f-ing Turner, out of respect for the quality of his writing, his eminence in the field, his generous support of other authors and his readers, and his relentless exploration of new artistic possibilities. Everything I wrote about him in this 2014 blog post is still true now, or even truer. 2017 saw Turner release a hybrid poetry-music blend under the name Interplanetary Acoustic Team that features his late wife Ilyse Kusnetz’s poetry and voice. Now, early 2018 has brought The Kiss, a splendid anthology of vignettes by talented writers (including Busch) about one of life’s tenderest moments.

Now who else would think of that but Sergeant Turner? The author Chuck Klosterman has proposed that as long as we are going to elect entertainment celebrities for President, he’d vote for the wise, generous, calm, and patient Willie Nelson. I like that, but Willie’s a little long-in-the-tooth, so how about if we just vote right now Turner for President, if not of the nation, then of the United States of Poetry?

For a list of all AWP panels focused on contemporary war and conflict, see Charlie Sherpa’s Red Bull Rising post here.

Hyena Road: Bullets-and-Bodies or Hearts-and-Minds?

Posted February 24, 2018 by Peter Molin
Categories: Art and War, General

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The 2015 Canadian film Hyena Road, directed by and starring Paul Gross, represents a modestly competent effort to portray the complexity of war in Afghanistan. Though not completely successful, the movie, about a Canadian Army mission to build a paved road into the heart of Taliban country outside Kandahar, can’t be faulted for not trying to pack a lot in: the problem of attempting nation-building and infrastructure improvement in a combat zone, the life-or-death aggravation of following rules-of-engagement, the variety of viewpoints up-and-down the chain-of-command, the burden of trying to balance romance and duty while on deployment, the difficulty determining which Afghans can be trusted, and the diversity of motivations among the Afghans themselves.

And all that’s just for starters, for, most of all, Hyena Road is interested in the big question whose unanswerability is one of the main reasons war in Afghanistan has dragged on for over 17 years: whether special operations kill-and-capture or counterinsurgency (COIN) advise-and-assist tactics might best bring victory. In other words, bodies-and-bullets or hearts-and-minds? Something of a cross between War Machine and American Sniper, Hyena Road strives to be both a thinking-man’s war movie and a sensational shoot-‘em-up, a movie that plumbs strategy and psychology at the same time it celebrates masculine fighting ability.

The movie’s approach to dramatizing the kill-or-COIN dilemma is reflected in its two male leads. One, Captain Pete Mitchell, is a civil affairs/intelligence/effects staff officer trusted by the high command, cool with the butch-y women in the HQ, and on the same page, though firmly in the friend zone, with the hot-chick battle captain who runs the Tactical Operations Center that is his primary duty station. Mitchell doesn’t just grind through 12-hour shifts preparing briefing slides, however. Possessing an array of Afghan contacts and a deep knowledge of the country’s history, he also undertakes solo missions through Kandahar’s back alleys and independently leads patrols into the hinterlands. Believing that the royal road to victory is best traveled by drinking tea with Afghans to earn their loyalty and commitment, Mitchell asserts that he trusts Afghan soldiers with his life and that it is “their war, we’re only along for the ride,” while also cynically observing, “Hearts-and-minds is mostly just PR. The Afghans just want our money and a little bit of stability.” Rarely losing his sense of humor, even in the middle of an ambush, he quips when asked if he can shoot, “Fuck no, I’m intel.” A very suave COINdinista-warrior for the modern working-day, Mitchell is played by Gross himself, who, though largely unknown to American audiences, is apparently something of a Canadian George Clooney.

Hyena Road’s other male lead is Warrant Officer Ryan Sanders, the leader of an elite sniper unit composed of burly bearded special operations bubbas. The shooting side of war all he knows, Sanders believes that victory is best achieved by killing bad men doing bad things, or, as he states, “I believe in the possibility of changing everything with one bullet.” Comparisons are said to be odious, but it’s hard not to measure Sanders against Chris Kyle and the actor who plays Sanders, Rossif Sutherland (brother of Kiefer, son of Donald), to Bradley Cooper. (The cheapest shot the movie opens itself up to is wondering why Gross didn’t call it Canadian Sniper, ha-ha.) Sanders is not as uncomplicated as Kyle, which is fine, but as an actor playing a man with more confirmed kills than he count, Sutherland is a little weak in the jawline and puppy-doggish of eye to compare favorably with Cooper.

Mitchell and Sanders join forces to protect the engineers, contractors, and local nationals building Hyena Road (why doesn’t the movie call it “Route Hyena,” in convention with military naming practices?); Mitchell by forging an alliance with a legendary mujahedeen fighter known as “the Ghost,” Sanders by taking out the IED emplacers and other Taliban fighters obstructing the road building project, who may or may not work for the Ghost. Things get dicey, though, when it turns out that treacherous allied militia prove most responsible for the obstruction, and tricky when it turns out the the Ghost is the most reliable partner the Canadians have. Mitchell and Sanders establish an easy rapport when Mitchell congratulates Sanders for bedding the smoking-hot battle captain–“On behalf of the entire battle group,” Mitchell states, ‘I’d like to express our collective fucking jealousy”—but later, after things get dicey and tricky, the two engage in several manly-men-shouting-at-each-other debates about the best way to win the war:

Mitchell: “Unless you see weapons, do not intervene…. Do not engage…. Those are the rules of engagement!”

Sanders: “What kind of fucking war are we fighting here?!”

Mitchell: “It’s not one war, it’s many wars! It’s like playing 3D chess!”

I’m the last one to recommend killing our way to victory in Afghanistan, and I had my own truck with special operators during my deployment there, where I had a job much like Mitchell’s and a major road-building effort of my own to facilitate. Still, Mitchell gets the worst of it in these debates, which I’m not sure is exactly what Gross had in mind. Given the scenarios offered within the movie, Sanders’ focused and righteous indignation at not being able to shoot all the evil people he meets registers truer than Mitchell’s long-range, wide-view, kaleidoscopic perspective that seems to require an awful lot of tea-drinking with people who want you gone, if not dead. But then, it’s complicated, and Hyena Road at its best dramatizes the complications in somewhat cartoonish, but also somewhat compelling, terms.

Hyena Road’s subplot traces the lusty little FOB romance between Sanders and the battle-captain babe, Captain Jennifer Bowman. Worried that their dalliance is attracting attention, which it is, Captain Bowman decides to break things off, even as she tells Sanders, “There’s nothing I’d like to do more than fraternize the shit out of you.” Sanders, his softiness showing after being cut-off from probably the best-he’s-ever-had, replies, “Don’t say things like that. It hurts.” They’ve already done the dirty deed often enough, however, that one of super-sniper Sanders’ bullets—the fertile, not the deadly, kind—has found its mark, as a sonogram reveals Bowman is with baby (oops, someone forgot to wear his wet-weather-jacket…). The development reunites Bowman and Sanders in gooey-eyed contemplation of a shared future, but, spoiler alert, the effort to build Hyena Road doesn’t end well for Sanders (think Platoon), or, for that matter, since single motherhood now beckons, for Bowman either. Christine Horne, as Bowman, is a little too skinny and angular for a thoroughly buffed-up or puffed-up modern military woman, but she looks terrific nonetheless, with gorgeous crinkly worry lines around her eyes and mouth, as she strides about the TOC barking out orders like a cross between Jessica Chastain in Zero Dark Thirty and Michelle Rodriguez in Fort Bliss: seriously frowny-faced serious war women who seriously want everyone to know just how seriously serious they seriously are. I joke, in part, but in truth a more interesting movie than Hyena Road would be one that explored war thoroughly and, er, seriously, through the eyes of Horne’s character.

Also very serious—and also terrific—is Clark Johnson as Brigadier General Rilman, the Canadian general who, because his ass is on the line if Hyena Road doesn’t get built, puts everyone else’s ass on the line, too. A man under extreme pressure, General Rilman communicates his orders and desires as bluntly and coarsely as possible to make sure no one has any doubt about exactly what he wants. It’s a fantasy of male decisiveness that many military leaders aspire to (as does our current commander-in-chief) and in truth it’s a pretty appealing leadership style when it works well: lots and lots of smart people don’t mind working for a boss who keeps things very simple for them, and even if such Alpha males are loud-mouthed buffoons it’s often best just to stash them on top “in-charge” because expecting them to handle the details and nuances of staff work is more trouble than it’s worth. General Rilman is not a buffoon, but one of the nicest moments in Hyena Road captures Captain Mitchell eyeballing him as he lets everyone know that completing Hyena Road is his number one priority—you can see Mitchell’s gears turning as he contemplates how such an apparently impossible mission is one that he alone, or he with the help of a few friends, might be able to accomplish.

Hyena Road’s good intentions and best parts unfortunately are undercut by tilts toward half-baked ridiculousness. Nowhere is this more evident than in the portrayal of Afghan characters. Whether their parts are underwritten or the actors themselves are just plain bad, it’s hard to tell, but the result is the same clichéd good guys, bad guys, and comic foils (most given cornball nicknames like “the Ghost” or “the Cleaner”) who populate other movies about Afghanistan, such as Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, Lone Survivor, War Dogs, and War Machine, to name a few. I don’t think Hollywood, or its Canadian offshoot, has it in itself to portray a realistic Afghan any more than it did in the old days to portray a realistic Native American, but maybe when someone gets around to filming Elliot Ackerman’s Green on Blue or one of Nadeem Aslam’s novels, I’ll be proven wrong. One can only hope….

Not to end on such a bummer note, Hyena Road does a few things very well. The recreation of Kandahar airfield is excellent, as is the replication of a modern computer-work-station and big-screen-filled operations center. Although the major battles are a little on the cowboys-and-Indians side, the sniper scenes are great. A scene in which one of the sniper’s wives offers her hubby a boob-shot via Skype strikes a nice contemporary note (yay, technology), though in truly predictable movie fashion, the sniper gets waxed the next time he goes outside the wire. A vignette in which Sanders’ men prepare their weapons and gear for a nighttime mission to the thumping soundtrack of a rousing blues-rocker is fantastic gun-porn for our gun-addled times—who cares if Hyena Road ever gets built as long as forever war gives boys endless opportunity to play with the toys they love so much and filmmakers opportunity to make movies about them?

Habibi: Dunya Mikhail’s The Iraqi Nights

Posted February 4, 2018 by Peter Molin
Categories: Art and War

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Poet, memoirist, and journalist Dunya Mikhail’s biography complicates the vantage point of her poetry while adding variety to the American-fighting-man-centric flavor of post-9/11 war writing. Raised a Christian in Iraq, Mikhail came off age as an artist-intellectual in the difficult last years of Saddam Hussein, the First Gulf War, and the Iraq-Iran War. Attracted to the art and thought of the West, as well as the promises of democracy and strife-free everyday life, she emigrated to America in the 1990s, where she has made a home in Michigan, completed an MA in Near Eastern Studies at Wayne State, and commenced a career teaching Arabic and Arabic Studies at the university level.

The impulse to write fomenting in the wake of the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, Mikhail began publishing a series of works, varied in genre, that trace the war’s reverberations primarily among the non-combatant civilian populaces in both her native and adopted countries. In 2005 came The War Works Hard, a volume of poetry, 2009 brought a memoir titled Diary of a Wave Outside the Sea, 2013 an anthology titled 15 Iraqi Poets, and 2014 a poetry chapbook titled The Theory of Absence (Islands or Continents). Later this year will appear The Beekeeper: Rescuing the Stolen Women of Iraq, a series of interviews with Yazidi (a small sect of Iraqi Christians) women who faced torture and death at the hands of ISIS for refusing to convert to Islam. Mikhail’s best-known work, arguably, is The Iraqi Nights, a collection of poems originally written in Arabic and then translated into English by Kareem James Abu-Zeid and published by small-press stalwarts New Directions in 2014.

The title, playing off A Thousand-and-One Nights, casts Mikhail as a contemporary Scheherazade, a spinner of story-poems, if not to save her own life literally, then to make sense of life generally during a period in which death is omnipresent. The title poem, the first in the volume, combines prose, short lyrics, and line drawings to portray the weight of war and conflict in her native country:

In Iraq,
after a thousand and one nights,
someone will talk to someone else.
Markets will open
for regular customers.
Small feet will tickle
the giant feet of the Tigris.
Gulls will spread their wings
and no one will fire at them….

A poem called “The Plane,” about a third-of-the-way in, explicitly references American soldiers while also spatially transitioning from Iraq to the States:

The plane arriving from Baghdad
carries American soldiers:
it rises above the moon
reflected on the Tigris,
above clouds piled like corpses,
and an ancient harp,
and the beaten breasts,
and the ones who were kidnapped;
it rises above
the destruction that grows with the children,
and the long lines at the passport office,
and Pandora’s open box.
The plan and its exhausted passengers
will land six thousand miles away
from an amputated finger
lying in the sand.

Mikhail’s homeland floats in-and-out through the rest of The Iraqi Nights, as in “Iraqis and Other Monsters,” a poem that speaks to the contempt and fear Iraqis inspire in Americans, and especially American soldiers:

They are terrifying.
Their heads are dark and tremulous;
they roam the desert
in the forms of bulls and lions,
with swords gleaming in their eyes
They rub their mustaches when they make promises….

It’s one thing, I would say, to bear witness to the horrors of one’s native country and even to flee them and condemn them from abroad, but it’s probably quite another to realize that the inhabitants of your adopted homeland view people much like yourself as monsters and murderers. To escape that treacherous realization, the poems in The Iraqi Nights seek means of accommodation, reconciliation, and momentary escape.

Thus one set of The Iraqi Nights poems reference Chinese and Japanese touchstones, as if Mikhail, something of an exile in her adopted land, had gone globetrotting in search of a poetic vocabulary and cultural sensibility not so obviously infused by violence, misunderstanding, bad memories, and horrible histories. Many short lyrics adopt a mythopoetic style to register a cosmic vision informed by loss, death, the carnage of time, and the fragility of the moment, while others, such as “The Sold Parrot,” are very specific renderings of epiphanies emerging out of the everyday:

Everything is new
today
for the parrot:
Where’s the silver fish
that used to greet the parrot with its tail,
the bubbles flowing from its mouth?
Where’s the tank with all its stars?
Where’s the little boy
who always stopped
to stare at it
and sometimes even tried to touch it?
And most importantly of all:
where’s the woman who used to feed it from her hand
while he repeated after her:
habibi—“beloved.”
Habibi?

Habibi? Indeed. The poems in The Iraqi Nights are shot-through, in all meanings of the phrase, with images of love, love lost, and the continuing search for. Or, more precisely, the search for the conditions in which love is possible, or at least not so hard, as in “Footprints on the Moon”:

When I set foot on the moon
everything told me that you were there, too:
my lighter weight,
the loss of gravity,
my heart’s rapid beating,
my mind empty of everyday concerns,
the lack of memories of any kind,
the earth off in another place,
and these footprints…
All of this points to you.

Mikhail knows, if anyone knows, of whence she speaks.

****

Interviews with Dunya Mikhail here and here.

An excellent essay by Sand Opera author Phil Metres, an American-born poet also of Arab-Christian descent, on the continuing existence of Orientalism in American letters, art, and culture here.  That Metres, as much a lover of NBA basketball and American punk rock and hardcore as I am, can be so alienated within the land of his birth offers purchase on Mikhail’s “dream of a future beyond violence,” to paraphrase a back-cover blurb from The Iraqi Nights.

Dunya Mikhail, The Iraqi Nights, translated from the Arabic by Kareem James Abu-Zeid. New Directions, 2014.

War Poetry: Jehanne Dubrow’s Dots & Dashes

Posted January 14, 2018 by Peter Molin
Categories: Art and War

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Jehanne Dubrow’s poems are always wonderfully realized, rich and complete in sense and spirit, each word and image precisely fitted and instantly accessible while also evoking subtler or higher orders of meaning, the formal artistry as refined as the language is relaxed in syntax and diction.  Dubrow, currently an associate professor at the University of North Texas, is the author of Stateside, a 2010 collection of poems about being married to a Navy officer during a time of constant war and the concomitant possibility of separation by deployment and even death.  Stateside has many fans among the war-writing community, myself included; its achievement is aptly described by Jesse Goolsby in a Daily Beast article as “A necessary and urgent invocation of strength, fear, longing, and love.”  Dubrow defies categorization as an author primarily concerned with war in Iraq and Afghanistan, however.  Red Army Red, her next book after Stateside, explores her upbringing in Cold War Europe, where her father and mother were American diplomats.  The Arranged Marriage, published next, examines another facet of Dubrow’s biography:  her mother’s coming-of-age in Honduras, where her Jewish family fled as refugees from Nazi Germany only to encounter other forms of brutality.  Connecting the volumes has been a persistent alertness to the way geopolitical conflict and crisis infuse domestic life with the strength, fear, longing, and love noted by Goolsby.

Dubrow’s 2017 collection Dots & Dashes returns to Stateside’s interest in the complicated effects of America’s forever wars on married life and the vexing contortions of thought generated by marriage to a military career officer–what Dubrow calls in a  poem titled “Patton” “the combat of routine marriage.”  A dust-jacket blurb that reads, “I doubt the word husband appears so many times and with such varied emphases, in any other recent poetry book of comparable quality” is not wrong, for Dubrow’s often-deployed spouse is at the center of many Dots & Dashes poems, cast and shaded in various degrees of charm, curiosity, contempt, and desire.  A good example of Dubrow’s craft applied to the minutia of martial marriage is a sonnet –one of many in Dots & Dashes—titled “A Catalog of the Contents of His Nightstand”:

One orphaned oak leaf from his uniform.
Loose change.  A pair of collar stays.  A tube
of mentholated chapstick going warm.
An accordion of ancient Trojans, lube
that’s meant to tingle when it touches the skin.
The leather cuff he bought in Santa Fe.
A sample of cologne that smells like gin,
cigars, and prohibition, the satin sway
of bodies in a sweating room.  A card
his mother sent–she wonders when he’ll write
again.  A tin of peppermints now hard
and powdery as chalk.  A tiny light
he aimed at shadows as we lay in bed
(bright spheres) until the battery went dead.

“A Catalog of the Contents of His Nightstand” is one of many in the collection that reference the marital bed; Dubrow, or, more circumspectly, her narrator, is not shy about exploring the erotic contours of military marriage or admitting that she finds her husband sexy very much in part because he wears a uniform.  “When I Marry Eros,” for example, begins, “He’s dressed in the uniform / of war, our wedding photograph / a shot of cream and navy….”   In poems describing times when he’s away on deployment, she pines for him physically and even petulantly, and the fear of a wandering eye or even infidelity—mostly his but perhaps even her own–both scares and thrills her.

[If You Are Squeamish]

Don’t sift through shelves
In the officer’s quarters,
or lift a blanket from the rack

to find a photograph
of a body split, splayed,
an article of clothing made

hard by longing.  Don’t scroll
his phone’s green messages.
The ocean is another

of forgetfulness.
Whatever washes up—
those things are rubble

on a beach.  It’s best to leave
some shells unlistened, some
shards of jaded glass unseen.

The sexual frisson of the husband poems is all the more interesting in context with other Dots & Dashes poems, which generally look askance at the national military effort.  Several poems, such as “Cadets Read ‘Howl,’” “Five Poetry Readings,” and “POEM” (Personal Observation Encased in Metaphor), sardonically examine the incongruity of an elevated poetic sensibility bumping up against lumpenproletariat military culture; the difficulty of communicating across the civil-military divide is the issue here.  Others, such as “Reading Poetry on Maryland Public Radio” and “Runaway Military Surveillance Blimp Drifts from Maryland to Pennsylvania,” make more trenchant statements about the militarization of everyday life in America in the 21st-century.

Two of the best poems—too long to reprint here—make breathtaking moves to encapsulate history within the framework of Dubrow’s personal biography and perspective.  “Much Tattooed Sailor aboard USS New Jersey,” available online here, connects World War II sailors with Dubrow’s husband’s fresh ink to suggest the persistent intertwining of war, artistry and expression, pain, and desire.  Given Dubrow’s range of interest, it is not surprising, perhaps even inevitable, that one of the most intriguing poems in Dots & Dashes is “Photograph of General Petraeus and Paula Broadwell.”  “How often do we watch two people stand / like this, held undistorted in the frame?” Dubrow asks, awed by the photograph’s powerful foreshadowing of transgression and scandal. Not judgy, but in equal parts knowing and wondering, Dubrow contemplates “the perfect clarity of their mistakes.”  The poem conjoins and fulfills the promises made by Dots & Dashes’ two epigraphs to map the coordinates of intimate desire and martial glory:

War feels to me an oblique place. –Emily Dickinson

the dear sound of your footstep
and light glancing in your eyes

would move me more than glitter
of Lydian horse or armored
tread of mainland infantry

-Sappho

The conundrum here is that Dubrow wants to hate the military and war and examine the pain they wreak on her happiness and the nation’s, while at the same time acknowledging that the subjects animate her imagination and provide a context in which love and strength might flourish.  There may not ultimately be satisfactory reconciliation of the two imperatives, but Dubrow and her readers can take heart in the sharpness of their expression in Dots & Dashes.

Dots & Dashes won the 2016 Crab Orchard Series Open Competition.

A Jehanne Dubrow interview with  Memorius: A journal of New Verse and Fiction can be found here.

An American Literary Review interview with Jehanne Dubrow can be found here.

Jehanne Dubrow, Dots & Dashes.  Crab Orchard Review & Southern Illinois University Press, 2017.

War-Writing in the Fun-House Mirror: Eric Bennett’s A Big Enough Lie

Posted January 8, 2018 by Peter Molin
Categories: Art and War

Tags: ,

Are stories and novels by vets about war in Iraq and Afghanistan allegories of their authors’ struggles to make it as writers? A vet-writer once told me that the real drama, the real conflict, and real anxiety being described was not generated by the battlefield, but the MFA workshop and publishing marketplace.

This provocative idea somewhat underwrites Christopher Robinson and Gavin Kovite’s The War of the Encylopaedists. The parts drawn from Robinson’s life as a non-veteran civilian describe a neurotic English graduate student while the parts based on Kovite’s military service describe an army lieutenant’s effort to lead his platoon in Iraq. Together, the two protagonists engage in a quixotic effort to craft a fantastical Wikipedia article about themselves. The novel’s halves are not as tightly stitched together in a synchronized assault on the shared delusions of warrior heroics and authorial grandeur as they might be, but the possibilities are there. Among other things, the reader is invited to consider that whatever the challenges of duty in Iraq, on the whole graduate school is more stressful, less purposeful, and more ripe for satire.

As interesting as is The War of Encylopaedists, the work that most ruthlessly explores the warrior/writer divide is Eric Bennett’s 2015 satirical novel A Big Enough Lie. In no particular order, Bennett takes the piss out of soldiering, mil-and-war writing, MFA programs, military idolatry, literary celebrity, war folly, and publishing foibles. Nothing if not ambitious, Bennett also takes aim at contemporary gender, race, and class contortions, as well as the American rural-urban gulf, and for good measure lobs a few shots at perennial mil-writing aesthetic issues such as authorial authenticity and the literary transformation of fact-based reality into artistic presentation.

A novel of ideas if there ever was one, A Big Enough Lie defies easy explanation, but by describing the characters and plot as simply as possible one can begin to appreciate its scope and ambition.

The novel features two distinct-but-related narrative lines. One, related in third-person, tells the story of John Townley, a timid young man who grows up outside Tallahassee, Florida. Neither popular nor talented, Townley envies his neighbor and high-school classmate Marshall Stang, a brash, charismatic troublemaker. When Townley’s distant cousin, a cosmopolitan New Yorker named Emily White, visits the Townley family, Townley develops a huge unrequited crush on her. Inspired by Emily to become a writer, Townley strives to match her precocious literary sensibility by writing her 1000s of letters, to which she only fitfully responds. Meanwhile, Stang enlists in the army and deploys to Iraq, where he loses a foot.

Several years later, Townley moves to New York City to pursue his writing dream, but the better part of his time and energy is spent trying to pick up women in dive bars by using a variety of pseudonyms and made-up identities, to include Stang’s. Still pining for Emily, Townley helps her reconnect with Stang, whom she met on her first visit to Florida, to help him ghost-write a war memoir, which subsequently becomes a best-seller. Townley’s own effort to become a writer going nowhere, he somehow is accepted into an elite graduate school writing program by adopting the pseudonym Pat Crane and a fake identity as a wheelchair-bound Iraq War veteran. In grad school, Townley/Crane meets Heather Kloppenberg, a dissolute poet wannabe who, despite her liberal politics and writerly sensibility, loves (to sleep with) soldiers. Townley/Crane and Heather are a couple for half-a-semester, but when he reveals he is neither “Patrick” nor a wounded vet, she dumps him and he drops out of grad school.

Townley subsequently returns to Florida, where he writes a book titled Petting the Burning Dog that purports to be the memoir of Henry Fleming, an army officer presumed missing after his tank platoon is ambushed by insurgents in Iraq. Townley/Fleming’s contrived story is that the real Fleming escaped captivity and made his way through Turkey to Germany and back to America. An unsuspecting public doesn’t question the paper-thin rubric, and Townley/Fleming becomes the literary celebrity of the moment. Invited to appear on a talk show hosted by an Oprah-like figure named Winnie Wilson, Townley/Fleming is joined on-stage by one of the members of the real Fleming’s platoon, a brash, charismatic troublemaking African-American soldier named Antoine Greep. Rather than expose Townley, Greep affirms his identity as Fleming, for he has reasons of his own to perpetuate Townley’s charade. It transpires that Greep and Heather Kloppenberg have hooked-up, but the romance doesn’t last and as the novel nears its end Heather is taking steps to expose Townley’s fraud.

That’s half of it.

Interspersed among the chapters relating Townley’s story are others reported in first-person by the Henry Fleming character. It is not clear whether the story-within-a-story passages are from Townley’s faux-memoir Petting the Burning Dog, for they don’t read like a popular soldier saga of capture and escape. Instead, they present Fleming as a militarized version of Townley, insecure and overly analytical, hapless in the face of more aggressive peers, and more interested in castigating himself and making fun of the US military than in presenting himself as an aw-shucks genuine American hero. Many other overlaps between the two narratives suggest Townley has based Fleming largely on himself. Both men are missing fingers, for example, and Fleming is dumped by a woman named Hilary who conjoins aspects of Emily White and Heather Kloppenberg. Odd authorial intrusions also connect the two narratives, such as the fact that Henry Fleming is the name of the protagonist of The Red Badge of Courage and Townley uses Stephen Crane’s last name to get into grad school, coincidental factoids presented without explanation and thus seeming to emanate Paul-Auster-City-of-Glass style from some self-referential, extraneous narrative place. Other literary antecedents swirling in Bennett’s stew of interconnected narratives, doubled protagonists, and unreliable narrators include Poe’s “William Wilson,” Dickens’ Great Expectations, and Melville’s Pierre and The Confidence Man.

Bennett’s a smart guy, and a lot of A Big Enough Lie works well, but it could also easily be accused of being too clever by half. A graduate of the famed University of Iowa Writers Workshop, Bennett’s an academic who has written a book critiquing MFA programs, so he knows of what he speaks. Still, it is hard to accept his verdict that everyone involved in the writing biz is a craven worm, as they are portrayed in A Big Enough Lie. And by “everyone,” Bennett means readers, too:

And what did they want all of them? They wanted nobodies who became somebodies and somebodies who fell tragically. Done and done. Every other story that made the soft headlines, if you panned out far enough, was stagecraft and exaggeration, hype and deception, entertainment and half-way hoax. John could play that game….

The war compelled the interest of Heather and Emily. It gave Stang the true proportions of heroism. It rocked with mysteries and horrors of conduct and decision, fear and bravery, technology and banality, the themes that could make a piercingly audible thing of the printed page. All the other books in vanishing bookstores bored him and more: symbolized what he himself suffered from, the nothingness of feeling and the nothingness of action.

The armed forces, like MFA programs, are fat targets for lampooning (“50-meter targets,” to use army-speak, as opposed to rifle-range targets 400 meters away), and satire’s satire, but A Big Enough Lie‘s sometime problem is that it lacks the comedic élan that, say, David Abrams or Ben Fountain bring to humorous depiction of the military, or, if we want to invoke Hall-of-Fame comic war-writing, Joseph Heller or Kurt Vonnegut. It’s not just that A Big Enough Lie makes it hard to like its main characters, as Abrams and Fountain and the Robinson/Kovite team achieve easily, to say nothing of Heller and Vonnegut, it’s that the novel conveys the impression that readers are not welcomed in on the joke, but more likely are also targets of it. Readers of Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, for instance, can smugly laugh along with Ben Fountain at the rich fat-cats and meathead football fans who fête war-hero Billy at a Cowboys game, but the laughs don’t come as readily when the literary world of writers and readers serve as foils for the author’s vision of contemporary American idiocy. Hey, I resemble that!

That’s a pun, people.

If readers—veteran or otherwise—can get over the feeling that they are being insulted by A Big Enough Lie, many passages in Fleming’s narrative are striking. Bennett must have had very good sources to craft passages such as the following:

We had seconds to mobilize. Breitbart was already out the door. In the scramble, an awareness of the futility of our training dogged me perversely. At Hohnefels and Grafenwoehr we spent days and days planning and rehearsing a single training exercise. Here in a combat zone with threats from all sides we had twenty seconds to prepare for a mission we never in our wildest dreams dreamed of. I tried to breathe deeply, to focus and operate, simply operate….

Practically every significant command in the army comes twice, takes two forms, first as a rumor, a beast as winged and strange as its apotheosis in Virgil, flapping through the ranks, stirring confusion, burring its own form….

For Greep, the American operations were a dark circus, free from the rule of law….

Moving lots of troops (somebody in the army believes) requires the pre-staging area, the post-pre-staging area, the staging area, the post-staging area, and the post-post-staging area. Imagine sitting on a scorching interstate as the wreckers clear a fatal pileup. Imagine that for an hour. Imagine that feeling: the heat, the impatience, the ignorance, the total absence of motion, the underlying premise of motion. Then imagine driving a hundred yards and doing it again for an hour. And again. And again. And one last time.

So six hours later, we hit the road.

Part of Bennett’s point here, I think, is to trivialize the achievement of veteran-authors. Writing about war isn’t that damn hard, such passages suggest, and the important thing is not that an author has personally experienced any of it, but that the writer can use words to render a simulacrum of reality with accuracy and verve. Or, perhaps, my too earnest and easily-confused brain ponders, the point is that such insightful, funny passages actually aren’t working, because their fraudulent origin and pretense disqualifies them from serious consideration. More clearly damning of vet-authors, though, is Fleming’s self-portrait, which seems to suggest that he has joined the army to both compensate for masculine inadequacies and find material to write about. Fleming describes his rationale for joining as a classic “nerd-made-good” move, to use John Renehan’s formulation, though the “made good” part remains problematic.

I wasn’t hanging Sheetrock because I was bookish, a milquetoast in his [Fleming’s father] eyes, not that he ever used that word—“pussy” would have been more in his register—and, in this upside-down world, I joined the army and became a second lieutenant and went to war because I was deficient in this way. War seemed like a cool solution, or at least the obvious one. Henry Fleming, yours truly, was just too cautious and normal otherwise to mess his life up in a newsworthy way. Any writer worth his salt has got to draw close to the flame of chaos, and if he can’t do it through his personality, he can do it through the Department of Defense. You’ll notice Ernest Hemingway didn’t spend his late adolescence hanging out in Kansas….

I had enlisted to gather textures for fiction—to place myself in situations where my life took on interest….

A Big Enough Lie works best as a lively meta-commentary for readers predisposed to think 1) the war in Iraq was foolishness, as is the desire to join the military 2) MFA programs and the publishing business are also foolishness, as is the desire to be a writer. If you are a veteran or a writer, or both, and those two ideas do not describe your natural drift of thought, A Big Enough Lie will force consideration of whether such an ugly pair of shoes fits you, given Bennett’s presentation of evidence that suggests they might do so very well.

In a Harper’s magazine review here, Sam Sacks elevates A Big Enough Lie slightly above what he finds otherwise to be a mediocre Iraq and Afghanistan war-fiction pack.

Eric Bennett, A Big Enough Lie. Northwestern University Press, 2015.


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