The title of Graham Barnhart’s 2019 poetry volume The War Makes Everyone Lonely reflects the author’s interest in the destructive effects of war. An epigraph from Robert Persons’ film documentary General Orders No. 9 about the aftermath of the American Civil War in the South reinforces the point: “You are not a witness to ruin. / You are the ruin to be witnessed.” The biographical details made available by Barnhart’s poems suggest that Barnhart is from Pittsburgh, not the American South, but the significance of participation in failed wars, though unstated, may be pertinent. The poetry does not suggest that Barnhart, who served in both Iraq and Afghanistan as a Special Forces medic, is physically disabled, incarcerated, or wracked by drug-and-alcohol abuse. He may be, but the ruination, as expressed, is mostly mental. The symptom, and maybe the root problem, too, consists primarily of being easily triggered by events post-war to remember details, sometimes large and graphic, sometimes small and mundane, associated with his military service. Spoiler alert: the stimulated memories are interesting, but they are never reassuring.
Triggers figure prominently in the second poem in the volume, “What Being in the Army Did.” Featured first in a list of esoteric details describing things the poet learned in uniform is, “Things you’d expect. / Taught me a trigger’s weight– // its pull….” In this case, the weight of a trigger’s pull is just a technical detail, but the image presciently describes the narrative logic of many poems in The War Makes Everyone Lonely. In “The Coffee Aisle,” for example, brand names such as “Columbian Supremos” and “Jamaica Blue Mountains” inspire memories of joe drunk in theater to decompress after treating traumatic medical injuries. In another poem, a night drive through a snowstorm with his mother and grandmother brings back memories of a convoy in the snow in Afghanistan. A gunshot heard in the distance while attending an outdoor wedding induces an instinctive calculation of distance and direction toward the gunman, along with memories of having done the same “all those nights before” in training and on deployment. In “1900,” mountains viewed in Greece mobilize memories of hills designated as targets in theater: “X-ray, Juliet, Hotel, Romeo. / Recite their names. Your catalog of fire.”
The poet addresses the subject of easily-invoked memories directly in “Everything in Sunlight I Can’t Stop Seeing”:
don’t announce themselves.
It takes so little. I want to say the hinged arm
of a driver-side mirror balled with plastic wrap
looks like a reckless stump dressing….
Though The War Makes Everyone Lonely is defined by its interest in the unbidden mental association of events and scenes across time, not every poem is about the dynamics, logic, and rhetoric of unprovoked memory. Many are short vignettes describing common military experiences “reflected in tranquility” (to use Wordsworth’s great phrase): two are about gas-chambers and another one (a great one, in fact) called “Range Detail” makes much of a dreary rifle range chore “picking up brass” (expended shells) after the day’s shooting is done. Another excellent one, “How to Stay Awake on a Training Exercise,” inspired personal flashbacks to sleepless stints in the field desperately trying to keep eyes open. Others plumb more exotic events, related to Barnhart’s training as a combat medic and experience on deployment, such as survival training, working with Afghans, and patching up wounded bodies. Many images and events are graphic and even sensational, but Barnhart overall seems more interested in the subtle ways military service shapes and creates awareness and influences the mind and behavior long afterward.
The overall vision is bleak, but the impression that the author uses well the power of poetry to hold things together rings true. I’m not a poet, so take it for what it’s worth, but the handling of subjects and themes seems right to me in choice of words, images, line-breaks, tone, and all the other accoutrements of poetic craft. If you don’t trust me, trust the fact that he’s been able to place so many individual poems in elite poetry journals and find a prestigious publisher such as the University of Chicago Press—he’s good.
We now have a solid cohort of warrior poets from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars who combine outside-the-wire credibility with refined poetic chops: Brian Turner, of course, Colin Halloran, Hugh Martin, and Brock Jones, for starters. We might also note other vet-poets from the Midwest, as are Barnhart and Martin—I’m thinking of Eric Chandler and Randy Brown (Charley Sherpa)–who against-expectations-and-odds have found poetry the medium of expression for sorting out their thoughts about waging war on America’s behalf in the twenty-first century. To paraphrase from the title of one of Barnhart’s poems, these veterans are very good at “noticing and focusing.” Who’s next? What’s next?
Graham Barnhart, The War Makes Everyone Lonely. University of Chicago Press, 2019.