Paul Wasserman served in Iraq as an Army NCO aircrewman. That terse job description might reflect a job as a helicopter crewchief or gunner, but reading between the lines of his poetry chapbook Say Again All suggests something more esoteric. It seems that Wasserman’s job entailed signal or intelligence support of special operation forces, carried out in planes circling high overhead rather than, say, Chinooks or Blackhawks ferrying ground warriors to and from combat. He brings to the task of portraying such service in poetry master’s degrees in philosophy and comparative literature. He now lives in New York City, part of the thriving veteran artists’ scene there.
Befitting Wasserman’s refined education and dark-side operational experience, Say Again All does not describe his war experience literally or sensationally. Various poems allude high-mindedly to Socrates, Homer, and NYC poetry giant Delmore Schwartz, though pop culture icons such as The Clash and Charles Bukowski are also name-checked. The closest Wasserman gets to a straightforward evocation of his deployment comes in the clever “Fifteen Months, Twenty-Two Days”:
1 war 6 states 5 countries 273 missions 1228.5 flight hours 30 rounds, unfired 15 days rest 4 medals 3 kills 1 case of friendly fire in the unit 2 cases of cowardice 1 case of cancer 52 steak nights 1 quasi-mutiny 5 divorces 1 pregnancy 1 unauthorized brewery 2 acts of bestiality, witnessed 34 paperbacks 2 overseas bars, right sleeve.
In most poems, however, Wasserman more subtly explores war and deployment as they profoundly order and reorder his experience of time and space. Say Again All‘s epigraph from Delmore Schwartz reveals that interest: “‘Only the past is immortal.” The theme is returned to in, among many other poems, “The Moon Here is Lower”:
And time is pooling in our eyes The spill of it burning off noise Everyone got issued a year in theater We signed for it while our vaccinations dried We crush it in our pockets And let the tunnel-fill fall the length of us Out over our boots The way we lift the desert Sifting an exit Into the greenless rock and powder A private act of distance On daily trips to the airfield
Wasserman’s interest in language is given full play by the magical military lingo that enchants everyone, educated or not, who comes in contact with it. The title Say Again All is radio shorthand for “Repeat everything you just said, I didn’t get it the first time”–a good title for a book that won’t give away all its secrets in one read. In “Dead Wounded Missing,” Wasserman deconstructs the military’s use of the title phrase as a more-than-slightly-crude means of classifying casualties and lost or captured soldiers:
the first two words put together might be a new way of exhaustion useful, perhaps for the last time one is ever exhausted the growth of language by precision words to be used once.
Other poems display a keen eye for the surreal or absurdist moments of the war, not the least of them being the incongruity of being an aircrewman who holds master’s degrees in philosophy and literature. In “Artifacts,” Wasserman finds much company in the ranks of the over-educated. He describes a supply sergeant who studies “New Persian,” an MP who uses her leave to go trekking in Spain, and a pilot with a history degree who narrates the history of the Babylonian sites of antiquity over which they fly. “Artifacts” also references Yossarian, the anti-hero protagonist of Catch 22, the great black comedy of Army Air Force service in World War II. The allusion aptly refers to Wasserman’s own airborne perspective. Even total commitment to unit and mission, with life or death at stake, can’t efface the fact that the war is relentlessly experienced socially and personally as efforts to find connection and understanding in the midst of isolation and confusion.
Say Again All is available through Lulu Books, the online self-publishing venue.