2015 brought two volumes of verse by authors whose previous works are central to the contemporary war poetry corpus. Interestingly, neither of the new works address Iraq or Afghanistan directly or at length. In The Arranged Marriage, Jehanne Dubrow, the author of Stateside, a collection exploring a military spouse’s anxiety about deployment, now gives us a collection of poems based on the life of her mother, who was forced into an abusive marriage in her native Central America. In Icarian Flux, Colin D. Halloran, the author of the verse-memoir Shortly Thereafter, about his Army tour in Afghanistan, imaginatively considers the myth of Icarus. Both volumes offer strong models of artists engaged with and even formed by military experience, but who refuse to let their art or their identities be defined by war and service. We might remain alert, however, for overlaps, lingering traces, and subtler forms of connection to the military even as we consider Dubrow’s and Halloran’s new interests in their own lights. Leaving The Arranged Marriage for another day’s discussion, here I’ll briefly explore Icarian Flux’s very interesting post-war and post-war-lit dimensions.
Halloran’s specific point-of-identification with Icarus, the boy who flew too close to the sun, is hard to determine, even in a poem—the first in the volume—titled “Self-Portrait as Icarus.” Icarus typically represents overreaching ambition and failure to follow directions. Seen somewhat more positively, he stands for incautious but inspired youth, reckless and headstrong for sure, but still one who seems to be made to pay a little too dearly for his mistakes. Halloran may have in mind his tour in Afghanistan, which ended abruptly as a result of a non-combat injury, but the Army and deployment are mentioned only in the author’s bio and not, as far as I can tell, in the poetry. Halloran’s Icarian fall could could also be years of troubled drift post-service, collapsed relationships, or even his initial literary forays, inflected with high hopes and subsequent disappointments. Icarus’s wax-and-wings, undone by the sun, may figure specifically in Halloran’s imagination then as his soldier’s weapons and gear, his pen and his books, or more generally as his confident sense-of-self—none of which equipped him to survive the challenges to which he put himself. The opening lines of “Self-Portrait as Icarus” in fact suggest that Halloran thinks he may be doomed to repeated falls, with failure ingrained by fate in his character:
If you can’t achieve greatness elsewhere,
find it in the fall
my next will be at night
not because of lessons learned
but because I want to see
the stars from the other side….
Halloran presents himself here as a connoisseur of disappointment, an expert of loss, and a student of life after failure. The poems following “Self-Portrait as Icarus” reflect that self-image as almost every poem portrays the act of falling from a variety of intriguing perspectives. “Rain Fall,” for example:
The thing about falling
is that you’re not alone.
Your solitary descent
becomes bigger than yourself:
alone among the many,
Something about driving at night inspires Halloran; just as one of the best poems in Shortly Thereafter, “The Moon’s Still Up,” describes a night convoy in Afghanistan, several of my favorites in Icarian Flux also find Halloran at the wheel in the dark. A good example is “Interstate Icarus”:
As I follow the pavement eastward
I’m driving on the tops of trees.
I challenge the glow on the other side
and meet me.
And as I find the hint of its intentions
captured in cirrus and nearly eye-level,
I ease off the gas
Not every poem in Icarian Flux so aggressively pursues the imagery and symbolism of Icarus. Three great ones (too long-lined to be reprinted here), “Lakeridge Drive,” “We Were Kings,” and “On Potholes and Exes,” ruminate on loss, memory, and disappointment while expanding the range of images and tones typical of the rest of the volume. “Troy,” a sestina composed of one-word lines, dazzles with its manipulation of form. Many poems rely on carefully controlled repetition of key words and images; knowing what I know of Halloran as a public speaker, these incantatory poems would be a joy to hear him read out loud. Finally, a series of poems remind us that though the connotations of falling are mostly negative, the word and image also apply to one of life’s most positive experiences, falling in love. But, of course, it’s complicated: “Falling: In Love,” for example, advances the notion that failure can be redeemed by love, even as it also suggests how impossible or implausible is the task:
I find it wholly foreign,
falling with someone there
to catch me
or at least
ripped out by wind
or thrown up on impact
gather shards of wax,
and wear a feather
around her neck,
not on her wings,
reform the wax,
add wick, not quill
and light it
in my memory.
Poetry’s generalized and abstract symbolic register, reliant not on accessible biography and obvious narration, but figurative setting and privately-observed detail, is not for everyone, or even anyone all the time. But those of us who love it, especially as we consider specific poems in the context of what we do know about their authors and their total body of work, will greatly appreciate Icarian Flux. We all fall, Halloran reminds us, and the getting-back-up-again is never as simple and easy as conventional homilies and platitudes would have it. From one angle, stripping his poetry of the freighted terminology of deployment and trauma might be seen as Halloran’s effort to broaden his appeal to readers resistant to the rhetoric of veteran woe. A better read is that Halloran has drawn on the wider range of cultural resources to speak of loss and low periods in ways that encompass the entirety of human life and are not dependent merely on one aspect of it.
Colin D. Halloran, Icarian Flux. Main Street Rag Publishing Company, 2015. The quoted passages have been slightly modified due to the limitations of WordPress.