War Poetry: Jehanne Dubrow’s Dots & Dashes

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


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.

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