Posted tagged ‘Jehanne Dubrow’

Dodge (War) Poetry Festival 2014

October 29, 2014
Elyse Fenton at Dodge Poetry Festival 14.

Elyse Fenton, Dodge Poetry Festival 2014.

War subjects and themes were the focus of this year’s Dodge Poetry Festival, the nation’s largest celebration of poetry, held annually in Newark, New Jersey. The marquee event was a contemporary war poem extravaganza called Another Kind of Courage, about which more later. But sprinkled throughout the readings and panel discussions featuring big-time civilian names such as Gary Snyder and Robert Pinsky were poets familiar to readers of this blog such as Brian Turner, Elyse Fenton, and Jehanne Dubrow. The commingling of war-themed poems within the greater flow of versification rendered ample opportunity to think about how war has inflected poetry generally in the 21st century. It also allowed one to take stock of how a first-generation of contemporary war poets might be moving on to subjects and approaches more centered within the poetry mainstream.

Jehanne Dubrow

Jehanne Dubrow

Fenton, for example, appeared on a panel that featured among others Richard Blanco, a gay Hispanic-American poet who read at President Obama’s second inauguration, but America’s recent wars were barely mentioned by the participants. Fenton, the wife of a veteran, read only “After the Blast” from her acclaimed first work Clamor. Her other poems, from a current work-in-progress called “Sweet Insurgency,” had little to do with deployment, combat, or life on the homefront, though the title alone attests to the lingering persistence of things, words, and ideas military in Fenton’s apprehension of the world. Dubrow, for her part, read just three poems from her impressive work Stateside, to include one I love called “Nonessential Equipment,” on a panel that featured no other war poets. Her husband continues to serve in the Navy, but Dubrow has turned her attention to subjects other than the vexations of martial marital relations. Still, the interest in violence and trauma inherent in Stateside continues, or is even intensified, in the poems Dubrow read from a soon-to-be published work about her mother’s harrowing life growing up in El Salvador.

As for Turner, readings at Dodge and another one a week earlier in New York gave ample evidence that he has plenty of poetry to draw on that doesn’t explicitly touch on his service as an infantryman in Iraq. Many examples can be found in Phantom Noise, but others, some that predate his military service and others written after, look at family history, regional influence, and the complexities of modern life. In New York, at an event called Stage Meets Page, Turner traded turns reading with a performance poet named Rives, a winner of freestyle contests and a giver of TED talks. Rives is probably used to blowing poetic competition off the stage, but Turner more than held his own, riffing off Rives’ cues and dipping deep into a black notebook full of funny, startling, brilliant verse that had far more to do with life out of uniform than in. For an example of the same from Dodge, on a panel on masculinity and poetry that also featured the aforementioned Pinsky and Blanco, Turner read “Zippo” from Phantom Noise.

Another Kind of Courage poets and musicians take their bows, Dodge Poetry Festival 2014.

Another Kind of Courage poets and musicians take their bows, Dodge Poetry Festival 2014.

The Another Kind of Courage event brought Turner, Dubrow, and Fenton together with wise war-poet old hands Yusef Komunyakaa and Marilyn Nelson and a group of younger vet poets associated with a collective called Warrior Writers. Together, as organized by festival program director Martin Farawell, they recounted a narrative-in-verse about deployment through the multiple voices of a large and diverse body of poems read by their authors. The general arc of the story focused on psychological trauma and political outrage, which is understandable and dramatic, but by no means the be-all and end-all of what war poetry is and can be. Still, Another Kind of Courage inspired wonder about the possibilities of staging war poetry and showcased many fantastic individual performances. Warrior Writers’ Jeremy Stainthorp Berggren galvanized the audience with the Eminem-like “PTSD (P.lease T.ry S.omething D.ifferent)” and Jennifer Pacanowski’s “Parade,” read to the accompaniment of a simple guitar strum, did much the same in a softer key.

Brian Turner, Elyse Fenton, and Jeremy Stainthorp Berggren at Dodge Poetry Festival 14

Brian Turner, Elyse Fenton, and Jeremy Stainthorp Berggren, after the Another Kind of Courage performance. Dodge Poetry Festival 2014

For all of the above, a highlight of Dodge for me was meeting Robert Pinsky for the first time since I took a class from him almost 30 years ago, when, fed up with graduate school, I asked him write a letter of recommendation for my application to Officer Candidate School. Pinsky, a former national poet laureate, published a volume of poetry called Gulf Music in 2007. Interested in knowing if it addressed the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, I purchased a copy and read it between acts at Dodge. I didn’t have to look long, for the very first poem, “Poem of Disconnected Parts,” ruminates on torture in the name of politics as perpetrated by oppressive regimes around the world, the United States unfortunately not excepted. But Pinsky, it turns out, is ambivalent or confused about conflict and violence more than he is stridently opposed; many of the poems in Gulf Music document him trying to work out the exact relationship between the propensity to inflict harm and the inclination to create art. In “Poem of Disconnected Parts,” for example, he writes:

The [torturers] created nicknames for torture devices:
The Airplane. The Frog. Burping the Baby.

Not that those who behead the helpless in the name
Of God or tradition don’t also write poetry.

In “Inman Square Incantation,” he writes:

Forgive us, we don’t exactly believe or disbelieve
What the President tells us regarding the great issues
Of peace, justice, and war—skeptical, but distracted

By the swarm of things.

That seems about right, but in a poem (perhaps aptly) titled “Stupid Meditation on Peace,” the drift of Pinsky’s thought turns more sinister and daring. He begins by describing himself as an “Insomniac monkey-mind,” an image that sets up a series of stanzas that consider the proposition that art depends on the dark energy of conflict:

We choose one of two tributaries: the River
Of Peace, or the River of Productivity.
The current of Art he says runs not between

Banks with birdsong in the fragrant shadows—
No, an artist must follow the stinks and rapids
Of the branch that drives millstones and dynamos.

Is peace merely a vacuum, the negative
Of creation, or the absence of war?
The teaching says Peace is a positive energy:

Still something in me resists that sweet milk,
My mind resembles my restless, inferior cousin
Who fires his shit in handfuls from his cage.

Pinsky’s not wrong, I feel, and he’s way too hard on himself. But these are hard things to say or prove, and must be couched in terms of irony, possibility, and humor, if not self-deprecation and laceration. For certain though, Pinsky the poet is tied up with the life course that took me to the battlefields of eastern Afghanistan: the letter of recommendation I still have is the material proof.

Robert Pinsky seems a little dismayed by my reappearance in his life.

Robert Pinsky seems a little dismayed by my reappearance in his life.

Robert Pinsky, Gulf Music. Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 2007.

Her Own Private Ithaca: Jehanne Dubrow’s Stateside

December 15, 2013

Stateside3Jehanne Dubrow’s volume of poems Stateside portrays a stressful period in the marriage of the poems’ speaker before, during, and after the deployment of her husband, a Navy enlisted sailor or officer.  In so doing, it brings impressive skill and sensitivity to bear on the theme that war is also hell on the home front. Dubrow, who lives on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, sets Stateside‘s poems in nearby locales such as Washington DC, Virginia Beach, and Assateague Island.  I know the Chesapeake Bay/mid-Atlantic region well and love it like crazy, but here it serves as the backdrop for pain and confusion.  Home is where the hurt is, indeed.

Dubrow’s artistry shows in her ingenious adaptation of traditional verse forms and meters.  Many of the poems in Stateside are sonnets, for instance, but Dubrow makes this stuffy form amenable to contemporary thought and speech by mixing up conventional rhyme and stanza schemes and relaxing the stately iambic pentameter rumble.  Check the following, for an example:

     "The Rooted Bed"     

     I’m stateside now, my husband six months gone.
       I think of another soldier and his wife
     they built their bedpost from an olive tree,
       roots spreading underfoot, gray branches splayed
     like fingers, floorboards grassy as a lawn.
       The tree grew through the center of their life.
     They slept beneath its living canopy.
       And once the wife was alone, its shade
     stroked darkened hands across her brow.
       I like to imagine that she often thought
     of chopping down the trunk, fed up with boughs
       which dropped their leaves, black fruit turning to rot.
     I can’t help asking if, when he came home,
       did they lie together there or sleep alone?

Reading Stateside the first time through, I did not notice how structured by meter and rhyme the poems were, but the clever stylistics fill the verse with an allure and power that kept drawing me back.  I can also easily imagine them being very pleasant to hear read aloud, with the music of rhyme, half-rhyme, alliteration, and assonance swirling through the air enroute to the ear.

The passage in “The Rooted Bed” about boughs and leaves recalls Shakespeare’s great Sonnet 73, in which “yellow leaves, or none, or few” hang on the boughs of trees which are said to be “bare ruined choirs where late the sweet birds sang.” But the real precursor poem here is Homer’s The Odyssey, in which Odysseus and his wife Penelope have built a massive bed attached to a tree, alone in which Penelope sleeps for twenty years while Odysseus goes to war.  A head note to “The Rooted Bed,” taken from The Odyssey, offers a direct clue to Dubrow’s thematic concerns:  “One moment he seemed … Odysseus to the life– / the next, no, he was not the man she knew.”  So too do the titles of the poems that follow “The Rooted Bed”:  “Argos,” “Ithaca,” “Penelope, Stateside,” and so on.  In Penelope, Dubrow finds an historical-literary ancestor who lends gravitas and imagination to her saga of contemporary marital angst.

“The Rooted Bed” and other poems titled “In Penelope’s Bedroom” and “On the Erotics of Deployment” suggest that Dubrow is not shy about exploring the carnal dimensions of modern military marriage.  A great scene from Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof where Big Mama berates Maggie the Cat by saying, “When a marriage goes on the rocks, the rocks are there, right there” while emphatically slapping Maggie’s bed seems to be the spirit of Stateside, too.  Unhappiness in the bedroom begets unhappiness in life, or vice-versa, but in either case it’s not very fun to live through. Poem after poem in Stateside records a husband-wife relationship beset by chill—desire unrequited, communication balked, and passion a memory.

In Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Maggie suspects her husband Brick desires his friend Skipper more than he does her, and she attempts to seduce Skipper to test her theory and spite her husband.  Adultery and homosexuality don’t figure in Stateside, but the psycho-sexual circuitry of Cat crackles throughout the volume.  Dubrow’s poetic speaker can’t help but feel disappointed by her husband, who is preoccupied by career, mission, and unit.  She’s also stung by his obliviousness to her desire, and frankly, a little mystified herself at its persistent strong presence.  The dream of a shared life—public, domestic, and intimate–trashed by the war, she now wonders about Penelope’s sterling rectitude in the face of her many suitors.  Surely her thoughts and emotions must have been more complicated than Homer tells us.  Suggesting how that might be so, she uses the tools of history and poetry to make what is nominally her husband’s war even more her own than it already is.

My favorite poem from Stateside:      

     "Surface Warfare"

     Our arguments move
     across the surfaces
     of things, smooth

     flat areas where silence
     floats for weeks.
     The rule:  whoever speaks

     first loses.  If he patrols
     the living room,
     then I control

     our bed, an Atlantic
     filled with my insomnia,
     the quilts too thick

     to wade through.
     Some nights I think
     drowning would be easier

     and drink mouthfuls of salt.
     No shallows here,
     only the fathoms of marriage,

     and we are anchored side
     by side, the darkness wide,
     percussive as a mine.

Stateside was published in 2010 by Triquarterly Books, an imprint of Northwestern University Press.  It might be read usefully and pleasurably alongside Elyse Fenton’s Clamor, also published in 2010 and Juliana Spahr’s This Connection of Everyone with Lungs, published in 2005.  All three use poetry to explore the war’s devastating impact on trust and intimacy from a woman’s point-of-view.    

More on Stateside from Jehanne Dubrow’s website

A review of Stateside by David Abrams from his blog The Quivering Pen

The Classical Roots of Contemporary War Literature: Been There, Done That, 2500 Years Ago

November 16, 2013
Beyond the walls of this Afghanistan FOB, a hilltop fortress reportedly built by Alexander the Great

Beyond the walls of this Afghanistan FOB, a hilltop fortress reportedly built by Alexander the Great

Many contemporary war authors, artists, and thinkers have turned to classical Greece for subjects, themes, and inspiration.  A quick catalog might begin with Sparta, the recent novel by Roxana Robinson.  The protagonist of Robinson’s novel is a Marine, and I’ve heard Robinson speak about how pervasively awareness of Spartan culture and ethos runs in the Marines.  “The History of the Peloponnesian Wars is practically required reading at Quantico,” she reports.  Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya’s novel The Watch recasts Sophocles’ Antigone by placing it in war-torn Kandahar.  It begins with an Afghan woman’s entreaty to American soldiers on a combat outpost to release the body of her brother–an interesting storyline very much like Antigone‘s own.  A fine collection of poems, Stateside by Jehanne Dubrow, draws on Homer’s Odyssey to explore the plight of the poetic speaker, a modern-day Penelope awaiting the return of her Odysseus.  It’s hard not to imagine almost any of Siobhan Fallon’s tales of fraught return-from-deployment marriages in much the same light.  But Sophocles’ Ajax might be the best Greek work in regard to the homecoming.  Where The Odyssey portrays Penelope’s long nine-year wait for her man to return from war, Ajax portrays the even more tortured period AFTER the heroic Ajax returns from war to his war-trophy wife Tecmessa.  Where Penelope barely gets to say a word in The Odyssey, Tecmessa’s anguished voice resounds throughout Ajax, as she wonders what the hell has happened to her husband.  After Ajax slaughters a herd of sheep in a delusional rampage, Tecmessa screams:

During the night our wonderful Ajax
Was hit with madness and went beserk
You will see the proof of it in the tent:
Holocausts dripping with gore by his hand

Ajax serves as the dramatic centerpiece for Theater of War, an acclaimed troupe who stage readings of the play to elicit discussion and activism on behalf of struggling veterans.  If you have a chance to see a Theater of War performance, by all means do so.  They also perform readings of another Sophocles play, Philoctetes, which like Ajax portrays the aftermath of war on a soldier wounded physically and emotionally by his experiences.  Philosopher Nancy Sherman uses Philoctetes as the literary lens through which she explores issues of moral injury and repair in her recent work The Untold War.

I’m fine with all this Greek love, but it does make me appreciate all the more Brian Turner’s persistent effort to seed his poetry with references to Iraqi, Arabic, and Mesopotamian classic literature, folklore, and history. For my part, I turned first to ancient Rome when crafting the following short tale called “Cy and Ali.” It’s based on Ceyx and Alceone,” a tale from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, a collection that itself draws on Greek antecedents for subjects, themes, and inspiration.  Read on if you care to.

     Cy busied himself with the by–now routine activities of a combat patrol: gathering his personal gear and stowing it in the truck, drawing the big .50 caliber machine gun and mounting it in the gun turret, setting the frequencies and security codes on the radio, helping out the other crew members and being helped by them in turn. As he waited for the mission commander to give the patrol brief, he thought about his wife for a few moments. Ali had not wanted him to go on this deployment; he had had options that would have kept him in the States, at least for a while longer, and she could not understand why he had been so eager to return to Afghanistan.

     “I think you are crazy,” she had told him. Left unstated was the suspicion that he liked the idea of going to war more than he liked the idea of being with her. She loved him dearly, and though he professed his love for her, too, she couldn’t help but feel that he didn’t value their relationship as much as she did. Cy also wasn’t sure what to think, either then or now while he waited for the patrol brief to begin. Returning to Afghanistan had been very important to him, but beyond his claims about needing to be with his unit and doing his duty, he sensed that there was a cold hard nugget of selfishness about his willingness to jeopardize his marriage—not to mention his life—for the sake of the deployment.

     Rather than give Ali an excuse or an explanation, he had offered a compensation. “When I get back, I promise I’ll make it up to you,” he had said, “I’ll go back to school, or find some job where I won’t have to deploy again anytime soon.”

     The offer seemed lame, even to Cy, like he had thought about it for two seconds, but Ali acceded to it anyway. She loved Cy in part because he was a soldier, but some things about being a military wife were really bad. Now she busied herself with her own classes, her part-time job, and her friends and family. But she worried a lot, and had a premonition that things might not end well.

     The day’s mission was nothing special: accompany an Afghan army unit while they resupplied three of their outlying outposts. The mission commander explained that the Americans’ role was to inspect the readiness of the Afghan outposts, and to provide artillery and medical support in case anything happened along the way. Cy’s job was gunner on the mission commander’s truck, which was to be third in the order of march behind two Afghan trucks. From the truck’s exposed turret he was to man the .50 cal while keeping an eye out for suicide bombers, IEDs, and ambushes. But nothing was expected to happen; “There has been no enemy activity on the planned route in the last 48 hours,” the mission commander informed them. They had traveled the day’s route many times before with nothing more serious occurring than a vehicle breakdown. Sure they planned well and rehearsed diligently, but that was all the more reason the actual mission was probably going to be not much.

     Which is why what happened, at least at first, had an unreal feel. Three miles out, on Route Missouri, Cy saw the two lead Afghan trucks come to abrupt halts and their occupants pile out. The Afghan soldiers took up firing positions on the right side of the road and pointed their weapons back to the left side. Because he had headphones on and was chattering with the other truck occupants, Cy was unable to immediately distinguish the sound of gunshots, and it took him a moment to comprehend that the Afghans had stumbled into an ambush. Other Americans also soon gleaned what was going on and suddenly the intercom crackled with questions, reports, and commands.

     “Action front…. Scan your sectors….. Anyone have positive ID?…. There they are…. 11:00 200 meters. Engage, engage!”

     Cy identified three turbaned gunmen firing at the Afghan army trucks from behind a low wall. He charged his machine gun and began to shoot. He had fired the .50 cal dozens of times in training and thus was surprised by how far off target were his first two bursts. But very quickly he found the range, and was rewarded by seeing the big .50 caliber rounds chew up the wall behind which the insurgents were hiding. Dust and debris filled the air; Cy couldn’t tell if he had hit anyone, but surely the fire was effectively suppressing the enemy. By now, the other American trucks had identified the gunmen and were firing, too. Still, it was so hard to figure out exactly what was happening. That the three insurgents behind the wall were capable of resisting the torrent of fire unleashed on them by the American and Afghan soldiers seemed impossible, but no one could tell if there were other enemy shooting at them from somewhere else.

     Soon, however, the sound of explosions began to fill the air. Again, it was not immediately clear that the Afghan army soldiers and the insurgents were now firing Rocket Propelled Grenades at each other. “What’s going on up there, Crazy?” Cy heard the mission commander ask him through the intercom. Loud booms resounded everywhere, both from the discharge of the weapons and from their rounds’ impact. Cy next heard “RPG! RPG!” echo through the intercom as the Americans understood that they too were now under attack. A round exploded against the truck to his left and Cy felt the blast wave wash over him. How could the enemy engage them so accurately?

    As the battle unfolded, Cy realized the situation was serious, no joke. The rest of the crew was protected inside the armored truck, but he was partially exposed in the machine gun turret. He continued to fire the .50 cal, doing his best to punish the insurgents who were trying to kill them. The noise was deafening, but in the midst of the roar of his own weapon and the other American guns, as well as the cacophony of human voices on the intercom, he discerned that enemy fire was pinging around him and sizzling overhead. Though he was not scared, he thought about his wife.

     Ali had felt uneasy throughout the day. She had not been able to communicate with Cy, which in itself was not so unusual. She understood that sometimes missions made it impossible for him to call or write. Still, she sent him emails and texts and the lack of a response for some reason felt ominous. That night, she had had a terrible dream. Cy appeared, looming over her, silent and reproachful, and Ali had awoken with a start. Nothing like this had ever happened before, not even close. She didn’t know what to do, so she watched TV for a while and then began surfing the Internet. She thought about calling her husband’s unit rear-detachment commander, but decided not to. There was no one she could talk to who wouldn’t think she was overreacting, so she didn’t do anything except continue to worry. 

     The next morning two officers appeared at Ali’s door. “The Secretary of Defense regrets to inform you that your husband has died as a result of enemy fire in eastern Afghanistan,” one of them intoned. It was all too true, but for Ali the reality of the situation dissolved in a swirl of chaotic thoughts and physical sickness. 

     Ali waited on the tarmac at Dover Air Force Base with Cy’s parents. An honor guard was also present, as well as a contingent from her husband’s unit, and a general whom she had never seen before and whose name she didn’t catch. Everyone was very nice to her, but Ali was confused. She didn’t know if she was supposed to be strong and dignified or to collapse in a pool of tears. She also didn’t know if she was angry with her husband, angry toward the Army, or just some strange combination of sad and proud. As her husband’s casket emerged from the plane, Ali felt herself drawn toward it. First she was taking small tentative steps, as if she were nervous about breaking some kind of rule or protocol. Then she was running, moving quickly toward the casket while the others in attendance waited behind. She was barely aware of what she was doing, but her feet seemed to no longer be touching the ground. It was as if she were floating or flying, and her arms were beating like wings of a giant bird. “O, Cy, is this the homecoming you promised me?” she thought, or maybe said aloud. Then she remembered throwing her arms around the casket, but at the same time she also felt herself rising into the air, in unison with her husband, who now was alive again and also seemed a magnificent, noble bird. Together, Cy and Ali soared upward, and the plane and the honor guard and the onlookers whirled beneath them as they circled in the sky.


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