Randy Brown, aka “Charlie Sherpa,” is the keeper of Red Bull Rising, a popular web compendium of information and commentary about the seemingly incongruous subjects of war literature and the Army National Guard. The title of Brown’s website refers to the 34th Infantry Division “Red Bulls,” a storied Iowa Guard unit with whom Brown served for many years. Having known a fair number of Red Bulls on my deployment to Afghanistan, I recognize qualities I associate with them in Red Bull Rising‘s voice and ethos, such as job pride and team focus. The Iowans I knew were congenial, but also quiet and serious, guarded I felt about their emotions and true thoughts, their humor manifesting itself in acerbic wit aimed at absurdity of circumstance. No Iowa soldiers I knew were poets, but now Brown’s new volume of verse, Welcome to FOB Haiku: War Poems from Inside the Wire, puts the Midwestern blend of earnestness and cleverness I saw in Afghanistan to work on behalf of poetry about service, deployment, and war.
Brown’s title foregrounds his attraction to haiku—the 17-syllable, three-line Japanese predecessor of the Tweet—as a compressed, minimalist way to comment on military language and experience. Great examples abound in FOB Haiku; veterans will recognize in the example below how Brown imaginatively engages with an acronym—SPORTS—taught to all basic trainees about how to calmly resolve a weapon malfunction in the heat of combat:
Your weapon is jammed?!
Slap. Pull. Observe. Release. Tap.
Then squeeze the trigger.
Many poems in FOB Haiku, not just the haikus, similarly riff on military lingo to strike short, sharp, and reasonably hard at sources of anxiety inherent to life in the Army. Besides haikus, Brown often employs the sonnet form, or references literary touchstones such as Hamlet and “Dulce et Decorum.” These poems might be said to appeal to readers who are already poetry lovers and point to Brown’s fusing of martial and literary registers to make each apprehensible to readers of all stripes. The poems’ military tones portray the contortions the Army inflicts not just on its members’ language and lived lives, but their identities and emotions, while the literary playfulness makes the contortions palatable by inflecting them with humor and historical connection. Brown says as much in an afterword:
In all of this my objective is to clearly communicate across military branches, experiences, generations, and the civil-military divide. I hope that the techniques described and used here will bridge potential gaps in understanding and make these stories accessible to new audiences.
The word “stories” is key here, for while few FOB Haiku poems are narratives, all point to the fact that what we feel to be true about military service is in fact imaginatively constructed. It’s not the stories we tell so much, but the stories in our minds that define who we are and what we hope to be. The idea that the words we use to process experiences and observations are themselves imaginative creations with histories and implications becomes clear in a poem titled “we are the stories”:
we are the stories
we tell ourselves
the ones we’ve worn out
and broken in
for now we can march on for days
where once we would get blisters
on our souls
The best FOB Haiku poems forego playfulness and academic learnedness to make more serious calculations in a more plain-spoken voice of the cost of service and war. In these the adherence to form is looser, but image, word, and line are more precise, more personal, and more independently conceived, and as a result more arresting. “love note from a drone,” for example, addresses the postmodern way of war. It starts:
I had been watching you for days,
fingers hovering above the button,
waiting for release.
I am sorry I crashed your wedding….
“fighting seasons” explores the dissonance felt by soldiers, Iowa men and women of the land and sky, transported halfway around the world to battle an enemy equally tied to the turning of the Earth. It begins:
Even a city boy from Eastern Iowa
follows the markets, like sports, on the A.M. radio
and have a vague sense of the harvests to come….
Among other positions in the Iowa Guard, Brown served often in his unit’s Tactical Operations Center, the command post headquarters responsible for tracking actions of subordinate units and relaying radio reports higher and lower. The duty clearly played to Brown’s strengths as an alert observer of people and events, as well as a wielder of words, and in fact probably honed them. In “static” Brown uses military radio-speak to tersely drive home the broken-and-distorted (a military radio-speak pun of my own) effect of military duty and its associated language on the life of home and family.
Turns out, the psychiatrist
is a former Navy Corpsman.
He says your 5-year-old problem is
That some signals can’t get through.
I learned brevity on Army radios,
pushing-to-talk in 5-second bursts,
waiting a beat to hear the response,
always thinking one phrase ahead.
Instead of speaking louder, I’m told
I should dial into your distance,
Quietly fine-tuning our conversations
As if I am cracking a safe.
How was your day, “over.”
Did you make any new friends, “over.”
Daddy loves you, “out.”
The Iowans I knew were committed to job performance and organizational goals, and were reluctant to say mean things about other people. Their dry wisecracking, I’m thinking, helped reduce pressure to perform and conform. Wise counsel and communication might be said to be another means to understand pressure-laden situations. Judging from his online persona and Welcome to FOB Haiku‘s cover blurbs, Brown seems to have served a valuable dual role as an Iowan citizen-soldier: part court-jester and part seasoned voice-of-experience. His excellent poetry does much the same for military, veteran, and civilian readers of war literature.
Randy Brown, aka “Charlie Sherpa,” Welcome to FOB Haiku: War Poems from Inside the Wire. Middle West Press, LLC, 2015. The limitations of WordPress have caused me to slightly modify the quoted passages.