Other than Brian Turner’s Here, Bullet and Phantom Noise we haven’t seen much poetry by veteran authors published by major or mid-major presses. As far as I know, Kevin Powers’ Letter Composed During a Lull in the Fighting, out earlier this year, is the first by a vet author other than Turner to get major publishing push. This phenomenon surprises me, because I thought Turner’s example would have been inspirational to both would-be war poets and the publishing industry. I wish this weren’t so, because I like poetry a lot. Poems are quick to read, and yet capable of intriguing or even astonishing turns of language, image, and thought in a compressed and intensified space. A good one makes me smile, or wonder, and fills me with regard for the author.
Turner and Powers both write of Iraq. Is there any soldier poetry from Afghanistan?
Ladies and gentlemen, let me introduce Colin D. Halloran and his 2012 volume Shortly Thereafter. After a semester of college in Connecticut, Halloran dropped out to deploy to Afghanistan in 2006 as an Army infantryman. Detached from the big Brigade Combat Teams, his unit served on a small FOB populated by a grab-bag of civil affairs units, Provincial Reconstruction Teams, Afghan army advisors, and special operators. My FOB in Afghanistan was much like that, too, so it’s easy for me to imagine what kind of soldier Halloran was—eminently useful, always cheerful, ever-ready to drive, gun, pull security, or whatever else needed doing in support of the older, more experienced soldiers and their esoteric missions. Judging from Shortly Thereafter, it was mostly good for Halloran, because it was all interesting and exciting.
Unfortunately, though, his tour ended early when he badly injured his leg in a fall from the back of a truck and had to be evacuated:
Not the first injured to leave my platoon, and even though at first I fought to stay, when the knee began to give, when doctors had seen the damage, the incapacitation, the risk I posed, I was bound for home. Forced to leave the violent province, newfound brothers, life of combat, return to this life that lacks adrenal kicks, my head hung in the silence Of guilt, pain, personal defeat, and the slow slipping of pride.
Halloran berates himself for things out of his control, but can take solace in the many striking poems crafted from the stuff of his deployment. The poems are mostly lyrics, but together they constitute a memoir in verse, with Halloran taking us from predeployment to Afghanistan and then life after the Army, when he returns to school and tries to put the war behind him. In a jacket blurb, none other than Brian Turner praises “Carnivale, Tarin Kowt” for its precise lines and curious eye for the Afghan geography and milieu:
Macabre marionettes reel The dance of the departed, Adorning the tower Or prostrating at its base, A message left at The epicenter of this vivid city. Four roads seem to stretch forever out from this dust-shrouded circle; short mismatched buildings line the intersecting avenues, crooked balconies smiling down at children who share streets with hens and strays…
In poems like this Halloran’s personal saga slips away and a more generalized evocation of the fantastical Afghan landscape and the details of soldiering there emerges. “Chess at the Gate,” for example, describes a foreboding game of chess with a wizened Afghan linguist. Several other poems recount hairy escapades driving in big Army armored trucks through precarious mountain passes. These poems rang very true for me—for every story I have of bullets whizzing by my head, I have five about crazy vehicle adventures in the Afghanistan mountains and wadis. In “The Moon’s Still Up,” Halloran describes a night mission that could have been one of my own:
When we first set out – it seems like days now, though surely it's only hours – the moon hung heavy in the sky, an insistent luminescence in green while, through night vision, we picked our way precisely through the desert night. Now, as we stop before entering the pass ahead, (a perfect place for ambush with its single narrow road, high sloping walls, one way in and out) the moon still hangs, resisting the desert sun's dominance. I can't help but wonder why it's lingering, what it's waiting to see – there's nothing but a road that's barely discernible from the desert around it, expanse interrupted violently by sharp mountains ahead of me, and those behind, which somehow remind me of Scotland, uneven, shadowed green trying to force its way out – what in the landscape warrants staying in the sky today? The seven trucks do their best to blend in, men posed alert next to them, eyes begging the mountains to reveal their secrets, beads of sweat sneaking onto trigger fingers, wondering what the moon is waiting to watch unfold.
Also excellent is “Tightroping Trucks,” in which Halloran describes driving blind along a cliff-face goatpath, totally dependent on the instructions yelled at him by his gunner and truck commander, who can see parts of the trail he cannot. It, along with “The Moon is Still Up” and another poem titled “I Want to Paint the Sunrise,” can be read here at the BluePrint Review online literary journal.
There’s a lot more to Shortly Thereafter than vivid portraits of driving derring-do, but I believe by now my respect for Halloran’s service and enjoyment of his poetry are clear. Halloran is out of the Army now and living in Boston while teaching at Fairfield University. More poetry, please, Mr. Halloran, whether it be war-related or not, and soon.
An interview with Halloran can be found here, as well as a portrait of him sitting on the hood of an up-armored Humvee, which seems appropriate.
Colin D. Halloran’s Shortly Thereafter was published in 2012 by Main Street Rag Publishing Company.