The annual AWP writers’ conference is a feel-good affair more suited for socializing and networking than serious literary pondering. So it was this year, too, in Tampa in March, even as the writing, reading, and publishing throngs arrived stunned by the preceding year’s political tumult. In sunny warm Tampa, however, they–we–took not just solace in each other’s company, but positive good cheer and mutual uplift. This split response—a public hail-fellow-well-met spirit belying the dismay expressed privately at home and at the keyboard—extended even to the war-writing crowd. Serious issues lay on the table, such as the increasingly problematic position of veterans in the overheated contemporary public sphere and the could-be-much-better gender and race demographics of modern war-writing. But those heavy-duty matters took a backseat to catching up with old friends and meeting new ones.
The pattern was evident at the panel I moderated, titled “Crisis, Conflict, and Verse” and featuring an all-star quartet of poet-authors: Brian Turner, Benjamin Busch, Jehanne Dubrow, and Dunya Mikhail. We drew the dreaded 9:00am Saturday morning time-slot, which, along with our forbidding title, conspired to drive attendance downward, as if our topic was just too depressing to contemplate with memories of Friday night festivity still swirling in the brain, along with the fumes of five or ten beers. And truthfully, we kind of frightened ourselves, as first Busch, then Dubrow, and finally Mikhail paradoxically found powerful words to express how their belief in the power of the word has been shaken by recent political and cultural turns. Turner, even as he reported reeling not just from the national state-of-affairs but the agony of his wife Ilyse Kusnetz’s death in 2016, sensed gloom settling in and took it upon himself to infuse our proceedings with levity and hope. Levity, by performing with the always-up-for-anything Busch an impromptu dramatic enactment of the Kay Ryan poem “The Elephant in the Room” and hope by speaking movingly about the importance of friendship and art in the dark days of loss and despair.
The rest of AWP was, for me, a blur of hits-and-misses. I arrived too late to catch a panel organized by veterans studies scholar Mariana Grohowski titled Women, War, and the Military: How to Tell the Story featuring Helen Benedict, Jerri Bell, Tracy Crow, and Mary Doyle, so I’ll leave it to others to report on its proceedings. It’s a great subject, though, one on many people’s minds these days, as both the military and mil-writing-and-publishing scene confront a variety of gender-related problems. MIA at this year’s AWP unfortunately were the authors of several notable 2017 war novels, such as David Abrams, Brian Van Reet, Elliot Ackerman, and Siobhan Fallon, so we weren’t able to hear their thoughts about their recent books and their reception. The online war-writing community was heavily represented, however, with principals from The War Horse; War, Literature, and the Arts; Wrath-Bearing Tree; the Veterans Writing Project/O-Dark-Thirty; and Consequence on-hand, their strength-in-numbers perhaps suggestive of a movement of the war-writing center-of-gravity from the page and the book to the wide-open, fast-moving digital realm.
Mostly though, AWP was about more personal pleasures, such as meeting for the first time authors I admire such as Seth Brady Tucker, Brooke King, Phil Metres, and Steve Kiernan. A dinner with Ron Capps and a small group of Veterans Writing Program mainstays was a joy. A panel on James Salter, whom I consider one of the patron saints of Time Now, held during the last time slot of the conference and attended by me and three others in one of the largest presentation halls at the convention, was as full of inspiring things as I hoped it would be.
Finally, though it’s become a cliché to write about interesting conversations with Uber drivers (like, “OOOO, I’m SO in touch with toilers in the gig-economy boiler room”), the four I had to-and-from my faraway motel offered fascinating glimpses into the lives of south Floridians. One driver was a Coptic Christian immigrant from Egypt, another worked days rehabilitating sex offenders, a third reported that he was getting married in a week, starting a business, and buying a house two years after finding himself broke and homeless, and the fourth had funny tales to tell about late-nights transporting Tampa Bay Buccaneers home from the clubs. I found the drivers’ stories intriguing and encouraging, on the whole. Somewhere in them I caught glimpses of the levity and hopefulness Brian Turner would have us remember, glimpses of people who had not been defeated.
Photo of Benjamin Busch, Dunya Mikhail, me, Jehanne Dubrow, and Brian Turner by Andria Williams. More photos by Williams here.
Now I got a reason, now I got a reason, now I got a reason, now I got a reason…. –“Holidays in the Sun,” the Sex Pistols
Thursday through Saturday this week in Tampa, Florida, is the Association of Writers and Writing Programs conference, the largest gathering of the year for authors, readers, teachers, publishers, and other lovers of literary fiction, poetry, and memoir. Contemporary war-and-military writers are typically well-represented at AWP panels and readings. Numbers are a little down this year, though still substantial, and judging by the panel descriptions and social media chit-chat, everyone is looking forward to contemplating weighty questions: How has everyone survived the tumultuous and nerve-rattling past twelve months? What does it all portend for writing about war?? Where can the best beer selection in Tampa be found???
All answers will be revealed in the coming days, assuming those of us living in the snowy Northeast can still catch our flights to sunny Florida. My own contribution will be to moderate a panel titled Conflict, Crisis, Verse: Four Poets in Conversation featuring Benjamin Busch, Jehanne Dubrow, Dunya Mikhail, and Brian Turner. This one’s an embarrassment of riches, people, like being asked to coach the 1992 Olympics basketball Dream Team, so I’ll do my best not to screw it up—you might say that all I have to do is roll out the balls, hand-out the jerseys, and then stay-the-hell-out-of-the-way.
Busch’s late-2016 The Road Ahead story “Into the Land of Dogs” really is one for our times, a surreal apocalyptic nightmare vision of war in Afghanistan and afterwards that as much as any tale I’ve read lately drains and wrecks war-and-soldiering of redeeming value, and all the better for doing so. Busch’s poetry, which I love, operates differently. Short lyrics marked by flinty stabs at experiential insight generated by close observation of nature and local event, their hardy stoicism seems forged by the long years Busch has lived in upstate North-country climes, first New York and now Michigan.
Dubrow’s 2017 poetry volume Dots & Dashes is a thing of beauty in particular and in toto. I’m not sure which I like better, the wide-angle poems that ponder the irony of being a poet in an era marked by conflict and violence, or the narrow-focused ones that plumb Dubrow’s marriage to a military officer, but they’re all good. Dubrow is a master of form and technique, as well as of observation, with the fourteen or so sonnets in Dots & Dashes especially remarkable for their exciting, pitch-perfect blends of language, image, and sentiment.
Mikhail, already recognized for her wonderful poetry collection The Iraqi Nights and her prose-poem memoir Diary of a Wave Outside the Sea, will soon be made even more famous by her about-to-be-published work of journalism titled The Beekeeper: Rescuing the Stolen Women of Iraq. The Beekeeper’s subject is the efforts of a roguish band of smugglers, fixers, and humanitarians to save Christian women of the Iraqi Yazidi tribe who have been kidnapped and enslaved by ISIS, as well as about the strength and bravery of the Yazidi women themselves. Beautifully and movingly told, it will almost certainly attract laurels for its heroes (and author) while galvanizing contempt for ISIS brutality.
As for Brian Turner, what can you say? I’m tempted to write Brian f-ing Turner, out of respect for the quality of his writing, his eminence in the field, his generous support of other authors and his readers, and his relentless exploration of new artistic possibilities. Everything I wrote about him in this 2014 blog post is still true now, or even truer. 2017 saw Turner release a hybrid poetry-music blend under the name Interplanetary Acoustic Teamthat features his late wife Ilyse Kusnetz’s poetry and voice. Now, early 2018 has brought The Kiss, a splendid anthology of vignettes by talented writers (including Busch) about one of life’s tenderest moments.
Now who else would think of that but Sergeant Turner? The author Chuck Klosterman has proposed that as long as we are going to elect entertainment celebrities for President, he’d vote for the wise, generous, calm, and patient Willie Nelson. I like that, but Willie’s a little long-in-the-tooth, so how about if we just vote right now Turner for President, if not of the nation, then of the United States of Poetry?
For a list of all AWP panels focused on contemporary war and conflict, see Charlie Sherpa’s Red Bull Rising post here.
Jehanne Dubrow’s poems are always wonderfully realized, rich and complete in sense and spirit, each word and image precisely fitted and instantly accessible while also evoking subtler or higher orders of meaning, the formal artistry as refined as the language is relaxed in syntax and diction. Dubrow, currently an associate professor at the University of North Texas, is the author of Stateside, a 2010 collection of poems about being married to a Navy officer during a time of constant war and the concomitant possibility of separation by deployment and even death. Stateside has many fans among the war-writing community, myself included; its achievement is aptly described by Jesse Goolsby in a Daily Beastarticle as “A necessary and urgent invocation of strength, fear, longing, and love.” Dubrow defies categorization as an author primarily concerned with war in Iraq and Afghanistan, however. Red Army Red, her next book after Stateside, explores her upbringing in Cold War Europe, where her father and mother were American diplomats. The Arranged Marriage, published next, examines another facet of Dubrow’s biography: her mother’s coming-of-age in Honduras, where her Jewish family fled as refugees from Nazi Germany only to encounter other forms of brutality. Connecting the volumes has been a persistent alertness to the way geopolitical conflict and crisis infuse domestic life with the strength, fear, longing, and love noted by Goolsby.
Dubrow’s 2017 collection Dots & Dashes returns to Stateside’s interest in the complicated effects of America’s forever wars on married life and the vexing contortions of thought generated by marriage to a military career officer–what Dubrow calls in a poem titled “Patton” “the combat of routine marriage.” A dust-jacket blurb that reads, “I doubt the word husband appears so many times and with such varied emphases, in any other recent poetry book of comparable quality” is not wrong, for Dubrow’s often-deployed spouse is at the center of many Dots & Dashes poems, cast and shaded in various degrees of charm, curiosity, contempt, and desire. A good example of Dubrow’s craft applied to the minutia of martial marriage is a sonnet –one of many in Dots & Dashes—titled “A Catalog of the Contents of His Nightstand”:
One orphaned oak leaf from his uniform.
Loose change. A pair of collar stays. A tube
of mentholated chapstick going warm.
An accordion of ancient Trojans, lube
that’s meant to tingle when it touches the skin.
The leather cuff he bought in Santa Fe.
A sample of cologne that smells like gin,
cigars, and prohibition, the satin sway
of bodies in a sweating room. A card
his mother sent–she wonders when he’ll write
again. A tin of peppermints now hard
and powdery as chalk. A tiny light
he aimed at shadows as we lay in bed
(bright spheres) until the battery went dead.
“A Catalog of the Contents of His Nightstand” is one of many in the collection that reference the marital bed; Dubrow, or, more circumspectly, her narrator, is not shy about exploring the erotic contours of military marriage or admitting that she finds her husband sexy very much in part because he wears a uniform. “When I Marry Eros,” for example, begins, “He’s dressed in the uniform / of war, our wedding photograph / a shot of cream and navy….” In poems describing times when he’s away on deployment, she pines for him physically and even petulantly, and the fear of a wandering eye or even infidelity—mostly his but perhaps even her own–both scares and thrills her.
[If You Are Squeamish]
Don’t sift through shelves
In the officer’s quarters,
or lift a blanket from the rack
to find a photograph
of a body split, splayed,
an article of clothing made
hard by longing. Don’t scroll
his phone’s green messages.
The ocean is another
Whatever washes up—
those things are rubble
on a beach. It’s best to leave
some shells unlistened, some
shards of jaded glass unseen.
The sexual frisson of the husband poems is all the more interesting in context with other Dots & Dashes poems, which generally look askance at the national military effort. Several poems, such as “Cadets Read ‘Howl,’” “Five Poetry Readings,” and “POEM” (Personal Observation Encased in Metaphor), sardonically examine the incongruity of an elevated poetic sensibility bumping up against lumpenproletariat military culture; the difficulty of communicating across the civil-military divide is the issue here. Others, such as “Reading Poetry on Maryland Public Radio” and “Runaway Military Surveillance Blimp Drifts from Maryland to Pennsylvania,” make more trenchant statements about the militarization of everyday life in America in the 21st-century.
Two of the best poems—too long to reprint here—make breathtaking moves to encapsulate history within the framework of Dubrow’s personal biography and perspective. “Much Tattooed Sailor aboard USS New Jersey,” available online here, connects World War II sailors with Dubrow’s husband’s fresh ink to suggest the persistent intertwining of war, artistry and expression, pain, and desire. Given Dubrow’s range of interest, it is not surprising, perhaps even inevitable, that one of the most intriguing poems in Dots & Dashes is “Photograph of General Petraeus and Paula Broadwell.” “How often do we watch two people stand / like this, held undistorted in the frame?” Dubrow asks, awed by the photograph’s powerful foreshadowing of transgression and scandal. Not judgy, but in equal parts knowing and wondering, Dubrow contemplates “the perfect clarity of their mistakes.” The poem conjoins and fulfills the promises made by Dots & Dashes’ two epigraphs to map the coordinates of intimate desire and martial glory:
War feels to me an oblique place. –Emily Dickinson
the dear sound of your footstep
and light glancing in your eyes
would move me more than glitter
of Lydian horse or armored
tread of mainland infantry
The conundrum here is that Dubrow wants to hate the military and war and examine the pain they wreak on her happiness and the nation’s, while at the same time acknowledging that the subjects animate her imagination and provide a context in which love and strength might flourish. There may not ultimately be satisfactory reconciliation of the two imperatives, but Dubrow and her readers can take heart in the sharpness of their expression in Dots & Dashes.
Dots & Dashes won the 2016 Crab Orchard Series Open Competition.
A Jehanne Dubrow interview with Memorius: A journal of New Verse and Fiction can be found here.
An American Literary Review interview with Jehanne Dubrow can be found here.
To honor National Poetry Month, below are poems by forty American writers that reflect and engage America’s 21st-century wars in Iraq or Afghanistan, directly, indirectly, or possibly only in my mind.* They run the gamut from the nation’s poet-laureate to MFA-honed to raw, and are written by veterans, spouses, and interested civilian observers, but they’re all great individually and collectively they articulate the nation’s crazy play of emotions as it sought redress for the sting of the 9/11 attacks. Many thanks to the authors for writing them and much love also for online media sites that feature poets and poetry–please read them, support them, share them, and spread the word.
The links should take you directly to each of the poems, except for Jeremy Stainthorp Berggren’s and Maurice Decaul’s, which are featured on the Warrior Writers page. An additional click on “Writing” will get you in the ballpark, and you can figure it out from there. If you discover a dead link or that access to a poem is blocked by a pay-wall, please let me know.
*Seth Brady Tucker’s “The Road to Baghdad” probably draws on Tucker’s experience in the 1990 Gulf War, but was first published in 2011 and can certainly be read as a contemporary war poem.
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.
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.
TheAnother 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.
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, Gulf Music. Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 2007.
Jehanne 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:
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.
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?” Cy heard the mission commander ask him through the intercom. Loud booms resounded everywhere from the impact of the rocket-fired grenades. 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.