War Poetry: Brock Jones’ Cenotaph

Brock Jones writes forthrightly about his tours in Iraq as an infantryman in his 2016 poetry volume Cenotaph. Central to his experience and the poetry he writes is the death in combat or by suicide of several of his war-buddies. In particular, the suicide of one buddy, a soldier named Markose, vibrant and charismatic in life, figures in several poems. The elegiac poems serve the volume’s title, a cenotaph being “a monument to someone buried elsewhere, especially one commemorating people who died in a war.” Jones’ own near-suicidal post-war floundering are also strikingly related in several poems. The most harrowing poems, however, recount Jones’ taking of an Iraqi life—a series of poems, titled “Field of View” in the first and in subsequent poems “Alternate Ending,” document and then reimagine a sniper kill:

What I remember—
the recoil, his fall
out of the scope’s circle…

That the event is subject to embellishment, omission, reconceptualizing, and transformation is alluded to in a poem titled “Rogue Memories”:

Curator of the National Archive of Collective Memory
and War Memorabilia called with concerns about some
of my facts, dates and names…. I got a little defensive
and paused to swallow before asking him where it was he
thought all these memories came from.

But there’s no real reason to suspect that the events Jones describes are not 1) autobiographical and 2) true. Therein lies the significance of Cenotaph: very few veteran writers, other than authors of “kill memoirs,” which are beneath contempt, admit to taking of lives, or perhaps can even claim to have done so. Few, and they only with great hesitation, write openly about having killed. It’s hard, I suspect, without being sensational or unseemly or some other version of overly manipulative, and perhaps conveying the impression that one is secretly proud. It must be hard to figure out what to say and how to say it, which accounts, I’m sure, for the “alternate endings” Jones recounts. Cenotaph includes a statement from Vietnam War poet Bruce Weigl that alludes to this impulse. It’s the poet’s job, Weigl states, to find “some kind of miraculous way that if you work hard enough to get the words right, that which you call horrific and wrong is defeated.” Weigl’s words suggest that writing a poem about a specific act of taking life raises questions about the uses of poetry, poetry’s ethics and aesthetics. Billy Collins refers to these difficulties in the Preface by way of commending Jones:

It is difficult to write war poetry because the subject is pre-loaded with emotional weight, but Jones more than manages to render precisely the mess of war with tenderness and insight.

I’m reminded of something a writer, not a veteran, once told me about what she appreciates about war-writers. “Their familiarity with violence deepens them,” she claimed. I’m also reminded of a passage from Karl Marlantes’ What It Is Like to Go to War, in which he writes, “Ask a twenty-two-year-old vet what it is like to have killed, and he’ll probably shrug. Ask the same vet when he’s sixty, and if he’s sober enough to answer….” Cenotaph records a moment in a vet’s long after-war life, some time past the blithe disregard of Marlantes’ twenty-two year old, but not yet completely devastated or ruined. The dominant impression rendered by Cenotaph is not guilt that drags Jones down, but extreme isolation from the common run of humanity wrought by what he has lived through and learned. From the biographical notes accompanying Cenotaph, fortunately, Jones appears to be doing well, gainfully employed and happy with family. Let’s hope that holds, and that writing Cenotaph has helped him attain stability and peace-of-mind. The poem “Eleven Mile,” my favorite, offers hope for that hope:

You hook another rainbow and I forget
the drift of my tattered fly.

Yet to land a fish.  I have no way out
of buying dinner since that’s the usual deal

and there’s no way to catch you
with three fish before dark.

But this memory does not want to be
about fishing or whether real fishermen

use spinners or flies, who caught the most fish,
where to eat dinner on our way back to post,

our return from Iraq to ticker-tape,
drinks on the house and eventual emptiness.

It wants to be about sunlight
reflecting off our favorite river

today same as it did then, before falling
behind those Colorado mountains.

Maybe it is about fishing after all.
It can be about fishing.

More poems from Cenotaph can be found here.

Brock Jones, Cenotaph. University of Arkansas, 2016.

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