Brian Turner dominates conversations about contemporary war poetry, and I will write plenty about Turner in coming posts. But let’s start the blog’s inventory of war-themed poetry with discussion of two other poets, one this post and the second to come. By thinking about their achievement, we can begin to mark the current contours of possibility.
First up is Elyse Fenton, whose Clamor (2010) has won prizes in America and overseas, including the Dylan Thomas Award from the University of Wales for best work in any genre by an author under thirty.
“Clamor” is one of those double-edged words that have two opposing definitions. Just as “cleave” means to both split apart and fuse together, clamor can mean noise and also, in an older archaic definition, silence. The aural doubleness is apt: it expresses the need to speak in conflict with the pressure to remain silent or the struggle to find the right words. Fenton’s husband apparently saw much as an enlisted medic in Iraq, while Fenton, not in the military, remained stateside. Clamor’s poems trace the dual experience of deployment from the vantage point of a couple trying to fathom the unexpected entrance of so much violence, death, injury, pain, and anger into their lives. In many poems, Fenton searches for images and words that stitch together her and her husband’s experiences, geographically separated as they were. Many poems suggest that Fenton poured her nervous energy into gardening, an endeavor that only fitfully proves nourishing. More often the fruit Fenton’s garden yields are blasted images of futility and despair:
Across the yard each petal dithers from the far pear one white cheek at a time like one blade of snow into the next until the yard looks like the sound of a television screen tuned last night to late- night static. White as a page or a field where I often go to find the promise of evidence of you or your unit’s safe return. ("Clamor")
Not surprisingly Fenton’s husband serves as her locus for understanding the inscrutable and horrible war. Sometimes she imaginatively depicts events he experienced in Iraq, as in the poem “Aftermath,” where she writes, “His job was not to salvage / but to bundle the clothes–trash bags full of uniforms / Rorschached in blood.” The event described here is the grisly act of burning the uniform remnants of soldiers killed or wounded, but the aftermath Fenton seems most interested in is her post-deployment relation with her husband. It was he, after all, who volunteered to go, which at one level or another insinuated a rejection of her and which irreversibly bruised the pre-war wholeness of their life together:
No one marries during war, I’m told and yet I’m married to the thought of you returning home to marry me to my former self. The war is everywhere at once. Each eggplant that I pick is ripe and sun-dark in its own inviolable skin. Except there is no inviolable anything And you’ve been home now for a year. ("Conversation")
A poem titled “By Omission” records the strain, reflected as a failure of communication, of a husband so preoccupied by truths he is incapable of sharing that he is driven into speechlessness toward his wife: “…when he said nothing / she knew every silence was a lie he couldn’t tell.” And in return, Fenton confesses her own wartime crimes of the heart: “Forgive me, love, this last // infidelity: I never dreamed you whole” (“Infidelity”). So much resentment, so much silent seething, so much lashing out. So much clamor.