Benjamin Busch, Vassar fine arts major and two-time USMC Iraq vet, reminds me of an amalgam of my best friend and myself when we were eight years old. Frank Hobbs lived two doors down in Lynchburg, Virginia. Every day we would play army in the neighborhood and woods behind our houses. When we weren’t outside we were drawing pictures of battleships, fighter plane dogfights, and football games.
Almost 50 years later, I’m in the Army and Frank is an artist and art teacher at Ohio Wesleyan University. Not only does he paint like a dream, he writes like one, too. I highly recommend checking out his blog and website, which feature plenty of his works and smart, interesting talk about art. His paintings are landscapes, but they are as much about painting as they are of the objects and terrain they portray. As naturalistic and realistic as the pictures appear, you never ever lose awareness of the artist’s mind at work and the evocative array of color, line, and texture created by the painted brushstrokes on canvas.
In Dust to Dust, Busch brings that same artist’s sensibility to his portrait of his service in Iraq. If Colby Buzzell’s My War is arranged episodically and chronologically, and features a haphazard pastiche of war-related documents, Dust to Dust is highly artificed, everywhere and all the time organized in unconventional ways by Busch’s controlling eye and hand. In truth, only about a quarter of the book describes Busch’s life in uniform, as he places his desire to join the Marines and deployment experience in the context of his life and ruminations about the natural order of things. The book is not organized chronologically; chapters are named after elemental entities—water, metal, soil, etc.—and within each chapter unfold biographical episodes that directly or tangentially exemplify how natural elements have structured Busch’s life. Think back, for example, in your own life, about ten episodes in which, say, water figured, and now write about them in sequence while probing their connected meaning. As lived, the connections might have gone unnoticed, but in Dust to Dust they become manifest for Busch, thanks to his biographical-archaeological excavation work. In James Joyce’s phrase, it’s a “retrospective rearrangement” of events that, to an artist and like-minded reader, makes more sense than a boring chronological recounting or focus on obvious “highlights.”
This is difficult to explain and perhaps confusing (or, if you are like me, delightful) to read. Fortunately, Busch is a fine writer and many of the events he describes are interesting in and of themselves. In another post, I’ve mentioned the two most moving scenes in the book: one where he describes telling his parents he has joined the Marine Corps and another in which he writes of his mother’s decline and death. But Busch can be funny as well. A great episode describes Busch trying to salvage an abandoned car that has been occupied by a hive of wasps:
“I went into my trailer and put on three layers of sweatshirts, jeans, two layers of sweatpants, two pairs of socks, boots, a scarf, an extreme sports bike helmet that I had found in a Salvation Army store, ski goggles, and winter gloves. It was July and I boiled in the density of inappropriate clothing. It was difficult to bend my arms and legs. There were no brakes anyway, and I figured there to be an unlikely requirement for dramatic steering so my immobility was of little concern. We looped the chain to the front, and I opened the door to an explosion of wasps.
“I sat on the seat and I could feel the hive crush and stir through my clothes. The wasps hovered and dove at me, and the compartment filled with them. It was like seeing molecules of gas heated. I almost felt that I had changed scale, become smaller, the wasps larger at this distance than they should be. I recall nothing of the short trip to the top of the hill except that I went there with every wasp on earth.”
Not to read too much into it, especially because the scene gets funnier, but it plays like an eerie comic foreshadowing of Iraq, where Busch would pile on body armor prior to driving down IED-strewn roads in military vehicles.
An IED strike indeed is the climax of Dust to Dust, where Busch describes the death of a fellow Marine officer and friend with whom he had patrolled side-by-side throughout a long day brightened only by their exchange of jokes. “We had a similar sense of humor and were also like-minded about how to approach the embattled city,” Busch writes. Unable to evacuate his now dead friend before the sun goes down, Busch must pull security around his friend’s burning truck through the night—life imitating the art of Walt Whitman’s great Civil War poem “Vigil Strange I Kept on the Field One Night.” Then, within a few years, first Busch’s father and next his mother died. This nexus of death focalizes Dust to Dust; as the book nears its close we see that the point of Busch’s long meditations and idiosyncratic selection of anecdotes has been to plum his own preoccupation with mortality and sense that mortality was even more preoccupied with him. Busch hints that his life-long desire to serve in the Marines and see combat, if not tantamount to a death wish, was a compulsive ride on a very unsafe roller coaster, sure to end badly for someone, if not him. It can’t quite be nature’s plan, because war is a social act and the decision to join the military a personal one. But the intricate organizational texture of Dust to Dust replicates the densely intertwined yarn of life’s discreet threads.
In the book’s closing pages, Busch describes finding a copy of John Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost on the desk of his father—the novelist Frederick Busch—some years after his father had passed. He reprints Milton’s famous final lines, which describe Adam and Eve making their way out of Eden “hand in hand, with wand’ring steps, and slow.” Paradise Lost represents a heroic effort, perhaps man’s best, to impose artistic order on the revolt of Satan and man’s fall and eventual salvation through religious faith. Milton aimed to “justify the ways of God to man.” But that formulation doesn’t work for Busch; in the philosophy of Dust to Dust art is the only stay against eternal oblivion: “It is the living task of every artist to suffer the constant premonition of death while drawing plans for immortality.” In my signed copy of Dust to Dust, Busch wrote, “We are stars and oceans and earth. It will be language that survives. Live forever.”
I’ll buy that. I wonder if Frank Hobbs does?
Benjamin Busch, Dust to Dust: A Memoir. Ecco, 2012.