Posted tagged ‘War poetry’

22 American Iraq and Afghanistan War Poets

April 12, 2017

Soldiers Patrolling Wheatfield, Khost Province, Afghanistan (USAF-ISAF photo)

To honor National Poetry Month, below are poems by twenty-two American writers whose poems reflect and engage America’s twenty-first 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.

1. Chantelle Bateman, “PTSD.” Apiary Magazine.

2. Jeremy Stainthorp Berggren, “Real Vet, Fake Vet.” Warrior Writers.

3. Benjamin Busch, “Madness in the Wild.” Slippery Elm.

4. Eric Chandler, “Maybe I Should Have Lied.” Ash and Bones.

5. Maurice Decaul, “Shush.” Warrior Writers.

6. Jehanne Dubrow, “Much Tattooed Sailor Aboard the USS New Jersey.” poets.org.

7. Elyse Fenton, “Word from the Front.” Reed Magazine.

8. Amalie Flynn, “Where” and “Know.” New York Times.

9. Colin D. Halloran, “I Remember.” Drunken Boat.

10. Victor Inzunza, “The Part of Ourselves We’re Afraid Of.” Pacific Review.

11. Hugh Martin, “Ways of Looking at an IED.” Blackbird.

12. Phil Metres, “Hung Lyres (for Mohamedou Ould Slahi).” Poets Reading the News.

13. Dunya Mikhail, “The Iraqi Nights.” Poetry Foundation.

14. Jenny Pacanowski, “Strength in Vulnerability.” Women Veterans’ Rhetoric.

15. Robert Pinsky, “The Forgetting.” Poetry in Multimedia.

16. Kevin Powers, “Improvised Explosive Device.” Bookanista.

17. Roy Scranton, “And nevermore shall we turn back to the 7-11.” Painted Bride Quarterly.

18. Solmaz Sharif, “Look.” PEN America.

19. Charlie Sherpa, “Toward an understanding of war and poetry told (mostly) in aphorisms.”  Wrath-Bearing Tree.

20. Juliana Spahr, “December 2, 2002.” poets.org.

21. Brian Turner, “At Lowe’s Home Improvement Center.” Poetry Daily.

22. Paul Wasserman, “Fifteen Months, Twenty-Two Days.” Time Now.

Life During Forever Wartime: Siobhan Fallon, Elliot Ackerman, and Elyse Fenton

April 2, 2017

The contemporary war literature genre, a decade or so old, now sees the welcome appearance of second titles by authors whose first books helped create the genre. This year, for example, brings the release of You Know When the Men Are Gone author Siobhan Fallon’s novel The Confusion of Languages, Elliot Ackerman’s novel Dark at the Crossing, his follow-up to Green on Blue, and Elyse Fenton’s Sweet Insurgent, her second volume of poetry following Clamor. Though none of the works directly concern war in Iraq and Afghanistan, they are of interest to this blog for what they tell of the growth of their authors as writers, as well as the direction of their thoughts, formed by war and now exploring new themes and subjects, or, more accurately, variations on old ones: the human cost of America’s endless warfaring.

Fallon’s The Confusion of Languages takes place in Jordan in 2011 against the backdrop of the Arab Spring rebellions spreading across the Middle East. Its primary narrator is Cassandra “Cass” Hugo, the wife of a mid-ranks US Army foreign service officer named Dan. Cass and Dan are not as happy as they might be, unwanted childlessness having withered their love and Dan, consumed by his job, working long hours. Cass finds herself bored and uneasy, nominally a dutiful military spouse interested in keeping up appearances, but a little more susceptible to intrigue and drama than she realizes. Into the lives of Dan and Cass come Creighton “Crick” Brickshaw, another Army officer, and his wife Margaret, along with their baby son Mather. Dan and Cass are Crick and Margaret’s sponsors, and while Dan and Crick bond easily enough, as officers on deployment generally do, Margaret and Cass circle each other tentatively, separated by disposition and outlook. Cass is conscientious and meticulous and Margaret thoughtless and sloppy, but both are sensitive to the point of skittishness, and their dependence on their mostly-absent husbands for love, lifestyle, and security makes them extremely vulnerable. Acting out their impulses against the backdrop of a culture and people they little understand, each makes major mistakes. The catalyst for the novel’s plot is a car accident, not a big mishap as things go, but one here with awful consequences. When Margaret departs for the police station to file a report, Cass volunteers to watch Mather. Alone with Mather for hours, Cass finds Margaret’s journal, which she begins reading, though she knows she shouldn’t. In a second narration revealed by the diary, Cass learns of a hidden life full of disturbing events that now helps account for Margaret’s failure to return.

Ackerman’s Dark at the Crossing portrays an Iraqi-American protagonist named Haris who travels to Syria to fight against the repressive government of President Bashar al-Assad. Haris has fought alongside Americans in Iraq, but troubled by the experience and finding life in America unsatisfying, he yearns for redemption and purpose. Most of the novel takes place not in Syria, though, but in and around the southern Turkey town of Antep, as Haris finds crossing the closed border between the two countries no easy task. Adventures and mysteries quickly accumulate; as an Arab and Muslim, Haris possesses advantages the all-American characters in The Confusion of Languages lack, but he too has been softened by American life, and subsequently finds himself constantly outmatched by the complex and damaged Turks and Syrians he encounters. The advisor team chief I replaced in Afghanistan in 2008 told me that Afghans were rational decision-makers, as long as you understood that their families had already suffered much violence and early death, they were aware that they themselves might be killed any moment, and they were perpetually worried about their families’ financial prosperity in the event of their sudden death. That proved good advice during my year in Afghanistan, and some of that same insecurity underlies the portraits of Syrians, Turks, and Iraqis in Dark at the Crossing. American characters, a Special Forces officer with whom Haris fought in Iraq and thinks about often and an NGO Haris meets in Antep, seem slow in comparison: much like Fallon’s Dan and Crick, if not exactly blustering oafs, they are over-confident and about as self-aware as bricks, whatever claims to professional competence they might project.

Ackerman’s tone is dark and ominous, in the manner of Graham Greene, and so it seems only a matter of time before things go bad for Haris, which they do, by turns worse-and-worse in ever-more surprising plot twists. Things don’t end well for Fallon’s characters, either, though their chin-up and chirpy tones, as conveyed by the novel’s dual narrations, masks the catastrophe, put into play by their naivety, that awaits them–while Haris seems to know things are bound to end badly, the two young American women in Fallon’s novel have trouble imagining anything really terrible can befall them. Both stories interest through their portrayal of adults, rather than the post-adolescents who populate most contemporary war literature, and both authors tap an ages-old theme, now truer than ever, regarding Americans abroad: their delusions and essential immaturity poorly equips them to understand the complexities of a region ravaged by recent conflict on top of the thousands of years of near-continuous strife that preceded it.

The end-of-American-innocence is also on display in Fenton’s Sweet Insurgent, though the poems are situated domestically within the author’s household and hometown. An epigraph reveals that Fenton’s daughter is the “sweetest insurgent,” but the poems themselves don’t document the redemptive power of motherhood or the promise of youth, but the blighted cultural landscape with which marriage, motherhood, and youth must now contend. The forever wars (Fenton’s husband is a veteran) linger in the backdrop of Fenton’s meditations, figuring most prominently by providing harrowing new vocabulary that speaks to the angst of the time: “insurgent,” “human shield,” “innocent victim,” “double tap,” and “interrogation report.” The final lines of the title poem provide a vivid example:

….not every bomb can be
dismantled so it must stay buried,
one good ear bent & ticking in the dirt.                                                          

Images of fires, helicopters, and other variations on human crisis, along with those depicting death in the natural world, filter through the poems, too, as actual occurrences, things to worry about, and metaphors for emotional and psychological stress. Professions of vulnerability compete with avowals to fortify; the report of the senses, linked to the urges of desire, is ambiguously pitched between rush to disaster and instinct for survival. In “Wild Deer,” for example, Fenton forebodingly dwells on the death of animals with which she identifies:

Wild Deer

They come down from the hill wilds overnight, three wild deer
drawn to the morning glory’d wire of our lies, our rows

of plenty drawn between the spanse of scrub and road.

In the deer pen of my mind the wildest thoughts nose through
the scurf to nibble juniper, forget what green desire brought them

here. More timid than their summer kin October deer step

soft-shod through the frosted noose of breath that ropes
each hornless head. How easily they start and scare. How easily

I turn from them before the sun-gilt leaves they hungered for

leave them starved of any thought but home. No gentling I know
will lead them out. They’ll lunge themselves to death by a neighbor’s

buckshot or a broken neck. But first they’ll eat their fill.

The tone is terse, fragmented, and haunted; Fenton, I believe, distrusts sensational images (as well as clichéd ones) and thus fights to bring into being a new survivalist rhetoric adequate to life during perpetual wartime. When words such as courage and community are exhausted, she implies, concepts such as love and family are imperiled, too.

The last poem in Sweet Insurgent is titled “Independence Day,” and it’s not a celebration; Ackerman’s, Fallon’s, and Fenton’s excellent books each dramatize deeply-seated concern connected to the downward spiral of America’s frazzled empire. Reverberating through the three works in varying pitches, dawning on the reader with the force of epiphany, is the realization that Americans are having a lot of trouble dealing with problems that being an American has brought on.

Elliot Ackerman, Dark at the Crossing.  Knopf, 2017.

Siobhan Fallon, The Confusion of Languages. GP Putnam’s Sons, forthcoming in June, 2017.

Elyse Fenton, Sweet Insurgent. Saturnalia Books, 2017.

2016

December 16, 2016
Photo by Bill Putnam, used by permission.

Photo by Bill Putnam, used with permission.

By my count, 2016 saw ten contemporary war fiction titles published, one more than in 2015. 2017 promises new novels by David Abrams, Siobhan Fallon, Elliot Ackerman, and Brian Van Reet, as well as a short-fiction anthology edited by Brian Castner and Adrian Bonenberger called The Road Ahead, so that’s a lot to anticipate. The only new poetry collection published in 2016 was a British anthology titled Home Front that reprints two great books authored by American military spouses—Elyse Fenton’s Clamor and Jehanne Dubow’s Stateside—alongside work by two British authors, Bryony Doran and Isabel Palmer. Happy to say, both Dubrow and Fenton will have new work appearing in 2017, titled Dots & Dashes and Sweet Insurgent, respectively. Hollywood released three Iraq or Afghanistan movies in 2016; 2017 will bring the movie adaptation of The Yellow Birds, but I’m not sure what else.

Below is my annual compendium of Iraq and Afghanistan war fiction, poetry, and movies. Works appearing in 2016 are in bold. If you think I’ve missed anything let me know. A separate list of romance, male adventure, and young adult fiction is in the works.

Iraq and Afghanistan War Fiction

Nadeem Aslam, The Wasted Vigil (2008)
Siobhan Fallon (Army spouse), You Know When the Men Are Gone (2011)
Helen Benedict, Sand Queen (2011)
David Abrams (Army), Fobbit (2012)
Ben Fountain, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (2012)
Kevin Powers (Army), The Yellow Birds (2012)
Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya, The Watch (2012)
Sinan Antoon, The Corpse Washer (2013)
Nadeem Aslam, The Blind Man’s Garden (2013)
Lea Carpenter, Eleven Days (2013)
Masha Hamilton, What Changes Everything (2013)
Hilary Plum, They Dragged Them Through the Streets (2013)
Roxana Robinson, Sparta (2013)
J.K. Rowling (aka Robert Galbraith), The Cuckoo’s Calling (2013)
Katey Shultz, Flashes of War (2013)
Fire and Forget: Short Stories from the Long War, edited by Roy Scranton (Army) and Matt Gallagher (Army) (2013)
Paul Avallone, Tattoo Zoo (2014)
Greg Baxter, The Apartment (2014)
Hassan Blasim, The Corpse Exhibition (2014)
Aaron Gwyn, Wynne’s War (2014)
Cara Hoffman, Be Safe, I Love You (2014)
Atticus Lish (USMC), Preparation for the Next Life (2014)
Phil Klay (USMC), Redeployment (2014)
Michael Pitre (USMC), Fives and Twenty-Fives (2014)
Eliot Ackerman (USMC), Green on Blue (2015)
Eric Bennett, A Big Enough Lie (2015)
Brandon Caro (Navy), Old Silk Road (2015)
Mary “M.L.” Doyle, The Bonding Spell (2015)
Jesse Goolsby (USAF), I’d Walk With My Friends If I Could Find Them (2015)
Carrie Morgan, The Road Back from Broken (2015)
John Renehan (Army), The Valley (2015)
Ross Ritchell (Army), The Knife (2015)
Christopher Robinson and Gavin Kovite (Army), War of the Encylopaedists (2015)
Matt Gallagher (Army), Youngblood (2016)
Matthew Hefti (Air Force), A Hard and Heavy Thing (2016)
Odie Lindsey (Army), We Come to Our Senses (2016)
Elizabeth Marro, Casualties (2016)
Luke Mogelson, These Heroic, Happy Dead (2016)
Harry Parker, Anatomy of a Soldier (2016)
Scott Pomfret, You Are the One (2016)
Roy Scranton (Army), War Porn (2016)
Whitney Terrell, The Good Lieutenant (2016)
Maximilian Uriarte (USMC), The White Donkey (2016)

Iraq and Afghanistan War Poetry

Juliana Spahr, This Connection of Everyone with Lungs (2005)
Brian Turner (Army), Here, Bullet (2005)
Walt Piatt (Army), Paktika (2006)
Sinan Antoon, The Baghdad Blues (2008)
Jehanne Dubrow (Navy spouse), Stateside (2010)
Elyse Fenton (Army spouse), Clamor (2010)
Brian Turner (Army), Phantom Noise (2010)
Paul Wasserman (USAF), Say Again All (2012)
Colin Halloran (Army), Shortly Thereafter (2012)
Amalie Flynn (Navy spouse), Wife and War (2013)
Hugh Martin, The Stick Soldiers (2013)
Kevin Powers (Army), Letter Composed During a Lull in the Fighting (2014)
Sylvia Bowersox (Army), Triggers (2015)
Randy Brown, aka “Charlie Sherpa” (Army), Welcome to FOB Haiku (2015)
Colin Halloran (Army), Icarian Flux (2015)
Philip Metres: Sand Opera (2015)
Washing the Dust from Our Hearts: Poetry and Prose from the Afghan Women Writing Project (2015)
Home Front: Jehanne Dubrow’s Stateside, Elyse Fenton’s Clamor, Bryony Doran’s Bulletproof, and Isabel Palmer’s Atmospherics (2016, UK only).

Iraq and Afghanistan War Film

In the Valley of Elah, Paul Haggis, director (2007)
Lions for Lambs, Robert Redford, director (2007)
The Hurt Locker, Kathryn Bigelow, director (2008)
Standard Operating Procedures, Errol Morris, director (2008)
Stop-Loss, Kimberly Pierce, director (2008)
Generation Kill, David Simon and Ed Burns, executive producers (2008)
Brothers, Jim Sheridan, director (2009)
Restrepo, Sebastian Junger, director (2009)
The Messenger, Oren Moverman, director (2009)
Green Zone, Paul Greengrass, director (2010)
Return, Liza Johnson, director (2011)
Zero-Dark-Thirty, Kathryn Bigelow, director (2012)
Lone Survivor, Peter Berg, director (2013)
American Sniper, Clint Eastwood, director (2014)
Korengal, Sebastian Junger, director (2014)
The Last Patrol, Sebastian Junger, director (2014)
Fort Bliss, Claudia Myers, director (2014)
Man Down, Dito Monteil, director (2015)
A War, Tobias Lindholm, director (2015)
Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, Ang Lee, director (2016)
War Dogs, Todd Phillips, director (2016)
Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, Glenn Ficarra and John Reque, directors (2016)

I’ve not listed the important theatrical and literary memoir titles that I’ve included in past years, because I haven’t tracked them as closely in the past twelve months as I have previously. To make up for that omission, I’ve compiled a list of interesting and substantial contemporary war non-fiction books published in 2016, which in my mind was a banner year for such works.

2016 Iraq and Afghanistan Non-fiction

Andrew Bacevich, America’s War for the Middle East (2016)
Rosa Brooks, How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything: Tales from the Pentagon (2016)
Brian Castner, All the Ways We Kill and Die: An Elegy for a Fallen Comrade and the Hunt for His Killer (2016)
Eric Fair, Consequence: A Memoir (2016)
Sebastian Junger, Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging (2016)
David J. Morris, The Evil Hours: A Biography of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (2016)
Mary Roach, Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War (2016)
J. Kael Weston, The Mirror Test: America at War in Iraq and Afghanistan (2016)

…and not to overlook two books that offer glimpses of the strategic thinking and worldviews of the leaders of newly-elected President Trump’s national security team:

Kori Schake and Jim Mattis, editors, Warriors and Citizens: American Views of the Military (2016)
Michael Flynn, The Field of Fight: How We Can Win the Global War Against Radical Islam and Its Allies (2016)

I haven’t yet read all the non-fiction named above, but one that impressed me greatly is Brian Castner’s All the Ways We Kill and Die. Castner, for my money, gets the nitty-gritty of Iraq and Afghanistan combat—complete with accounts of mIRC communication systems, combined ground-air ops, and insurgent IED tactics—better than any work I’ve seen previously. He combines attention to detail with eloquent expression of what it means to belong to close-knit organizations of fighting men and women. Castner, who served three tours in the Middle East as an Air Force Explosive Ordnance Disposal officer, knows of what he writes, and he uses his narrative to interrogate his decade-long obsession with war’s allure and consequences.

I read All the Ways We Kill and Die alongside a second work that does much the same, but from a very different angle: Hilary Plum’s memoir Watchfires (2016). The follow-up to Plum’s intriguing novel about domestic anti-war radicalism They Dragged Them Through the Streets (2013), Watchfires explores connections between Plum’s personal and familial experience of illness and dysfunction with national and global currents of war, terrorism, and aggression. “Moreover, I, on my side, require of every writer, first or last, a simple and sincere account of his own life,” wrote Thoreau, and though Plum’s account is not simple, she seems to have accomplished in Watchfires what Castner has also done, and what every thinking person might try, according to Thoreau: define honestly and precisely how one’s private life and thoughts relate to the violent spirit of the times.

Brian Castner, All the Ways We Kill and Die: An Elegy for a Fallen Comrade, and the Hunt for His Killer. Arcade, 2016.

Hilary Plum, Watchfires. Rescue Press, 2016.

War Poetry: Hugh Martin’s The Stick Soldiers

December 8, 2016

the-stick-soldiersSomehow I missed Hugh Martin’s excellent poetry volume The Stick Soldiers when it was released in 2013, so now let me make amends. Martin’s accessible and very affecting verse attempts to make sense of the author’s deployment to Iraq and the disorienting times afterwards in ways that to me seem valuable and fresh. Neither overwrought nor undernourished, the poems in The Stick Soldiers strike notes that allow clearly-rendered physical description to give way to higher, unanticipated orders of meaning. A fine example is “The Range”:

“The Range”

We shoot green silhouettes
of men. Their blank faces

are painted beige, their plastic
chests checkered with holes,

but still, they rise in the July sunlight
like a boy too stupid to know

when to stay down, when to quit.
Drill Sergeant Grant paces

the gravel walk. He stops
to lie beside me on the beaten grass.

Between shots in the deep hush
of some, he says breathe, breathe

as we watch the targets fall
flat to the earth. I never

speak, but only fire, study
the range for the next one—

hold my breath, tap
the trigger, take them down,

one by one, like it was all
the world needed done.

A second example is “The Rocket”:

“The Rocket”

Blue as the pale sky this rocket
lay beside a dry wadi
alone where there was nothing
for miles, as if a man too tired
to take it any further
had set it here years ago, this spot
on the sun-hardened ground.
There was no wind. There was no one
but us, our trucks parked
at the edge of the valley. Sergeant Sumey,
tired of staring, walked to the rocket.
We all knew better than to touch
a thing like this, but all of us, all our hands,
had done it many times before. Sumey grabbed
the rocket like a handle to the earth,
lifted it—no longer than his M-4—
above his shoulder, and leaned back,
widened his stance, as if about to throw it
to the barren hills in the east,
so we could watch its arc, its twirl,
as if doing the rocket the favor
of making sure it left the world in pieces.

While “The Range” and “The Rocket” have a set-piece feel describing events experienced by many soldiers, other poems render more sustained looks at Martin, or his narrator, in interaction with those close to him personally. A stanza from “Four-Letter Word,” for instance, places unwitting family members in juxtaposition with a soldier who can’t help but note the triteness of their conversational gambits. It also demonstrates what for me is Martin’s great ear and eye for the exact word and right line-length:

“Four-Letter Word”

5.

Home for Christmas leave.

This is our son, he’s going to Iraq.
He’s leaving for Iraq.
His unit is being mobilized for Iraq.

He has to go to Iraq.
I’ll get you a drink, you’re going to Iraq.
E-mail me when you get to Iraq.

Hopefully things will get better when you get to Iraq.
Are you scared about going to Iraq?
Did you know you would have to go to Iraq?

I can’t imagine going to Iraq.
Is there a chance you might not go to Iraq?
Where will you be in Iraq?

What will you be doing in Iraq?
How long will you be in Iraq?
Iraq? Really? Iraq?

The perspectival chasm dividing the narrator and his family in “Four-Letter Word” is amplified in the volume’s title poem, in which the soldier-narrator describes drawings sent to his unit by American schoolchildren:

“The Stick Soldiers”

We tape our favorites to the door.
In blue crayon, a stick-figure soldier poses
as he’s about to toss
a black ball,
fuse burning,
at three other stick figures,
red cloth wrapped over faces,
Iraki written
across stick chests […]

The narrator then places those pictures in contrast with the drawings by Iraqi schoolchildren on sides of buildings the soldiers drive by:

Further down the wall, a stick man holds
an RPG
aimed toward the Humvee,
the waving soldier’s head […]

A number of other poems describe Martin post-deployment and post-service. These too work in a quiet vein: not traumatized, the narrator just thinks a lot about what he lived through in Iraq, and he is discomfited more than he is alienated, outraged, or made dysfunctional. Though the volume’s subjects have been well-covered by other veteran-writers, Martin’s calmness about it all distinguishes his approach. Our current political and cultural moment is not one for understated emotional control and nuanced ambivalence, but if the nation ever settles down again enough to value thoughtfulness and eloquence, The Stick Soldiers’ wise view of a soldier’s experience of war awaits.

Hugh Martin, The Stick Soldiers, with a foreword by Cornelius Eady. BOA Editions, Ltd., 2013.

Colin D. Halloran’s Icarian Flux

January 31, 2016

CvrIcarianFlux_bookstore2015 brought two volumes of verse by authors whose previous works are central to the contemporary war poetry corpus. Interestingly, neither of the new works address Iraq or Afghanistan directly or at length. In The Arranged Marriage, Jehanne Dubrow, the author of Stateside, a collection exploring a military spouse’s anxiety about deployment, now gives us a collection of poems based on the life of her mother, who was forced into an abusive marriage in her native Central America. In Icarian Flux, Colin D. Halloran, the author of the verse-memoir Shortly Thereafter, about his Army tour in Afghanistan, imaginatively considers the myth of Icarus. Both volumes offer strong models of artists engaged with and even formed by military experience, but who refuse to let their art or their identities be defined by war and service. We might remain alert, however, for overlaps, lingering traces, and subtler forms of connection to the military even as we consider Dubrow’s and Halloran’s new interests in their own lights. Leaving The Arranged Marriage for another day’s discussion, here I’ll briefly explore Icarian Flux’s very interesting post-war and post-war-lit dimensions.

Halloran’s specific point-of-identification with Icarus, the boy who flew too close to the sun, is hard to determine, even in a poem—the first in the volume—titled “Self-Portrait as Icarus.” Icarus typically represents overreaching ambition and failure to follow directions. Seen somewhat more positively, he stands for incautious but inspired youth, reckless and headstrong for sure, but still one who seems to be made to pay a little too dearly for his mistakes. Halloran may have in mind his tour in Afghanistan, which ended abruptly as a result of a non-combat injury, but the Army and deployment are mentioned only in the author’s bio and not, as far as I can tell, in the poetry. Halloran’s Icarian fall could could also be years of troubled drift post-service, collapsed relationships, or even his initial literary forays, inflected with high hopes and subsequent disappointments. Icarus’s wax-and-wings, undone by the sun, may figure specifically in Halloran’s imagination then as his soldier’s weapons and gear, his pen and his books, or more generally as his confident sense-of-self—none of which equipped him to survive the challenges to which he put himself. The opening lines of “Self-Portrait as Icarus” in fact suggest that Halloran thinks he may be doomed to repeated falls, with failure ingrained by fate in his character:

If you can’t achieve greatness elsewhere,
find it in the fall

my next will be at night
not because of lessons learned
but because I want to see

the stars from the other side….

Halloran presents himself here as a connoisseur of disappointment, an expert of loss, and a student of life after failure. The poems following “Self-Portrait as Icarus” reflect that self-image as almost every poem portrays the act of falling from a variety of intriguing perspectives. “Rain Fall,” for example:

The thing about falling
in rain
is that you’re not alone.

Your solitary descent
becomes bigger than yourself:
communal
alone among the many,
also alone.

Something about driving at night inspires Halloran; just as one of the best poems in Shortly Thereafter, “The Moon’s Still Up,” describes a night convoy in Afghanistan, several of my favorites in Icarian Flux also find Halloran at the wheel in the dark. A good example is “Interstate Icarus”:

As I follow the pavement eastward
up mountains
I’m driving on the tops of trees.

I challenge the glow on the other side
to rise
and meet me.

And as I find the hint of its intentions
captured in cirrus and nearly eye-level,

I ease off the gas
and slow

my inevitable

descent.

Not every poem in Icarian Flux so aggressively pursues the imagery and symbolism of Icarus. Three great ones (too long-lined to be reprinted here), “Lakeridge Drive,” “We Were Kings,” and “On Potholes and Exes,” ruminate on loss, memory, and disappointment while expanding the range of images and tones typical of the rest of the volume. “Troy,” a sestina composed of one-word lines, dazzles with its manipulation of form. Many poems rely on carefully controlled repetition of key words and images; knowing what I know of Halloran as a public speaker, these incantatory poems would be a joy to hear him read out loud. Finally, a series of poems remind us that though the connotations of falling are mostly negative, the word and image also apply to one of life’s most positive experiences, falling in love. But, of course, it’s complicated: “Falling: In Love,” for example, advances the notion that failure can be redeemed by love, even as it also suggests how impossible or implausible is the task:

I find it wholly foreign,
falling with someone there
to catch me

or at least

collect feathers
ripped out by wind
or thrown up on impact

gather shards of wax,
forged, melted,
fallen, reformed

and wear a feather
around her neck,
not on her wings,

reform the wax,
add wick, not quill
and light it

in my memory.

Poetry’s generalized and abstract symbolic register, reliant not on accessible biography and obvious narration, but figurative setting and privately-observed detail, is not for everyone, or even anyone all the time. But those of us who love it, especially as we consider specific poems in the context of what we do know about their authors and their total body of work, will greatly appreciate Icarian Flux. We all fall, Halloran reminds us, and the getting-back-up-again is never as simple and easy as conventional homilies and platitudes would have it. From one angle, stripping his poetry of the freighted terminology of deployment and trauma might be seen as Halloran’s effort to broaden his appeal to readers resistant to the rhetoric of veteran woe. A better read is that Halloran has drawn on the wider range of cultural resources to speak of loss and low periods in ways that encompass the entirety of human life and are not dependent merely on one aspect of it.

Colin D. Halloran, Icarian Flux. Main Street Rag Publishing Company, 2015. The quoted passages have been slightly modified due to the limitations of WordPress.

Randy Brown’s Welcome to FOB Haiku

December 20, 2015

FOB HaikuRandy Brown, aka “Charlie Sherpa,” is the keeper of Red Bull Rising, a popular web compendium of information and commentary about the seemingly incongruous subjects of war literature and the Army National Guard. The title of Brown’s website refers to the 34th Infantry  Division “Red Bulls,” a storied Iowa Guard unit with whom Brown served for many years. Having known a fair number of Red Bulls on my deployment to Afghanistan, I recognize qualities I associate with them in Red Bull Rising‘s voice and ethos, such as job pride and team focus. The Iowans I knew were congenial, but also quiet and serious, guarded I felt about their emotions and true thoughts, their humor manifesting itself in acerbic wit aimed at absurdity of circumstance. No Iowa soldiers I knew were poets, but now Brown’s new volume of verse, Welcome to FOB Haiku: War Poems from Inside the Wire, puts the Midwestern blend of earnestness and cleverness I saw in Afghanistan to work on behalf of poetry about service, deployment, and war.

Brown’s title foregrounds his attraction to haiku—the 17-syllable, three-line Japanese predecessor of the Tweet—as a compressed, minimalist way to comment on military language and experience. Great examples abound in FOB Haiku; veterans will recognize in the example below how Brown imaginatively engages with an acronym—SPORTS—taught to all basic trainees about how to calmly resolve a weapon malfunction in the heat of combat:

Your weapon is jammed?!
Slap. Pull. Observe. Release. Tap.
Then squeeze the trigger.

Many poems in FOB Haiku, not just the haikus, similarly riff on military lingo to strike short, sharp, and reasonably hard at sources of anxiety inherent to life in the Army. Besides haikus, Brown often employs the sonnet form, or references literary touchstones such as Hamlet and “Dulce et Decorum.” These poems might be said to appeal to readers who are already poetry lovers and point to Brown’s fusing of martial and literary registers to make each apprehensible to readers of all stripes. The poems’ military tones portray the contortions the Army inflicts not just on its members’ language and lived lives, but their identities and emotions, while the literary playfulness makes the contortions palatable by inflecting them with humor and historical connection. Brown says as much in an afterword:

In all of this my objective is to clearly communicate across military branches, experiences, generations, and the civil-military divide.  I hope that the techniques described and used here will bridge potential gaps in understanding and make these stories accessible to new audiences.

The word “stories” is key here, for while few FOB Haiku poems are narratives, all point to the fact that what we feel to be true about military service is in fact imaginatively constructed. It’s not the stories we tell so much, but the stories in our minds that define who we are and what we hope to be. The idea that the words we use to process experiences and observations are themselves imaginative creations with histories and implications becomes clear in a poem titled “we are the stories”:

we are the stories
we tell ourselves
especially
the ones we’ve worn out
and broken in
like boots,
for now we can march on for days
where once we would get blisters
on our souls

The best FOB Haiku poems forego playfulness and academic learnedness to make more serious calculations in a more plain-spoken voice of the cost of service and war. In these the adherence to form is looser, but image, word, and line are more precise, more personal, and more independently conceived, and as a result more arresting. “love note from a drone,” for example, addresses the postmodern way of war. It starts:

I had been watching you for days,
fingers hovering above the button,
waiting for release.
I am sorry I crashed your wedding….

“fighting seasons” explores the dissonance felt by soldiers, Iowa men and women of the land and sky, transported halfway around the world to battle an enemy equally tied to the turning of the Earth. It begins:

Even a city boy from Eastern Iowa
follows the markets, like sports, on the A.M. radio
and have a vague sense of the harvests to come….

Among other positions in the Iowa Guard, Brown served often in his unit’s Tactical Operations Center, the command post headquarters responsible for tracking actions of subordinate units and relaying radio reports higher and lower. The duty clearly played to Brown’s strengths as an alert observer of people and events, as well as a wielder of words, and in fact probably honed them. In “static” Brown uses military radio-speak to tersely drive home the broken-and-distorted (a military radio-speak pun of my own) effect of military duty and its associated language on the life of home and family.

Turns out, the psychiatrist
is a former Navy Corpsman.
He says your 5-year-old problem is
That some signals can’t get through.

I learned brevity on Army radios,
pushing-to-talk in 5-second bursts,
waiting a beat to hear the response,
always thinking one phrase ahead.

Instead of speaking louder, I’m told
I should dial into your distance,
Quietly fine-tuning our conversations
As if I am cracking a safe.

How was your day, “over.”

Did you make any new friends, “over.”

Daddy loves you, “out.”

The Iowans I knew were committed to job performance and organizational goals, and were reluctant to say mean things about other people. Their dry wisecracking, I’m thinking, helped reduce pressure to perform and conform. Wise counsel and communication might be said to be another means to understand pressure-laden situations. Judging from his online persona and Welcome to FOB Haiku‘s cover blurbs, Brown seems to have served a valuable dual role as an Iowan citizen-soldier: part court-jester and part seasoned voice-of-experience. His excellent poetry does much the same for military, veteran, and civilian readers of war literature.

Randy Brown, aka “Charlie Sherpa,” Welcome to FOB Haiku:  War Poems from Inside the Wire.  Middle West Press, LLC, 2015.  The limitations of WordPress have caused me to slightly modify the quoted passages.

2015: An Updated War Literature and Art Compendium

December 7, 2015
Soldier with mine detector, Iraq, 2005, by Bill Putnam.

Soldier with mine detector, Iraq, 2005, by Bill Putnam. Used with permission.

I’ve updated the list of fiction, poetry, memoir, criticism, photography, and film I compiled last year about this time–new entries are bolded. 2015 was a busy year for contemporary war literature, with at least six novels published and four volumes of poetry. Also notable were new books by Colby Buzzell and Roy Scranton, two veterans who made their names as war writers but who are now expanding their reach to subjects far beyond their experiences as junior enlisted soldiers in Iraq.

Not many Iraq and Afghanistan titles are making year-end “best of” lists in major media venues so far in 2015, I’m sorry to observe. Critics–the “beadles of literature,” as they were called by early American novelist John Neal–apparently are not as impressed by this year’s offerings as they have been in past years by war-writers such as Phil Klay, Ben Fountain, and Kevin Powers. Or, perhaps they’ve decided “Mission Accomplished” in terms of what needs to be said artistically about fighting in Iraq or Afghanistan. Let’s hope that novels by Roy Scranton, Matt Gallagher, and others to be published next year reverse the trend. Movies about Iraq and Afghanistan also seemed scant in 2015—what am I forgetting?—but in 2016 film versions of Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk and The Yellow Birds will be released.

I’ve added a list of major theatrical, dance, and operatic performances that address war in Iraq or Afghanistan.

If you think I’ve missed an important or interesting work, please let me know.

Iraq and Afghanistan War Fiction:

Nadeem Aslam: The Wasted Vigil (2008)
Siobhan Fallon (Army spouse): You Know When the Men Are Gone (2011)
Helen Benedict: Sand Queen (2011)
David Abrams (Army): Fobbit (2012)
Ben Fountain: Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (2012)
Kevin Powers (Army): The Yellow Birds (2012)
Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya: The Watch (2012)
Sinan Antoon, The Corpse Washer (2013)
Nadeem Aslam: The Blind Man’s Garden (2013)
Lea Carpenter: Eleven Days (2013)
Masha Hamilton: What Changes Everything (2013)
Hilary Plum: They Dragged Them Through the Streets (2013)
Roxana Robinson: Sparta (2013)
J.K. Rowling (aka Robert Galbraith): The Cuckoo’s Calling (2013)
Katey Shultz: Flashes of War (2013)
Fire and Forget: Short Stories from the Long War, edited by Roy Scranton (Army) and Matt Gallagher (Army) (2013)
Paul Avallone: Tattoo Zoo (2014)
Greg Baxter: The Apartment (2014)
Hassan Blasim, The Corpse Exhibition (2014)
Aaron Gwyn: Wynne’s War (2014)
Kara Hoffman: Be Safe, I Love You (2014)
Atticus Lish (USMC): Preparation for the Next Life (2014)
Phil Klay (USMC): Redeployment (2014)
Michael Pitre (USMC): Fives and Twenty-Fives (2014)
Eliot Ackerman (USMC): Green on Blue (2015) 
Eric Bennett, A Big Enough Lie (2015)
Brandon Caro (Navy): Old Silk Road (2015)
Jesse Goolsby (USAF): I’d Walk With My Friends If I Could Find Them (2015)
Carrie Morgan, The Road Back from Broken (2015)
John Renehan (Army): The Valley (2015)
Ross Ritchell (Army): The Knife (2015)
Christopher Robinson and Gavin Kovite (Army): War of the Encylopaedists (2015)
Matt Gallagher, Youngblood (2016)
Matthew Hefti, A Hard and Heavy Thing (2016)

Iraq and Afghanistan War Poetry:

Juliana Spahr: This Connection of Everyone with Lungs (2005)
Brian Turner (Army): Here, Bullet (2005)
Walt Piatt (Army), Paktika (2006)
Sinan Antoon, The Baghdad Blues (2008)
Jehanne Dubrow (Navy spouse): Stateside (2010)
Elyse Fenton (Army spouse): Clamor (2010)
Brian Turner (Army): Phantom Noise (2010)
Paul Wasserman (USAF): Say Again All (2012)
Colin Halloran (Army): Shortly Thereafter (2012)
Amalie Flynn (Navy spouse): Wife and War (2013)
Kevin Powers (Army): Letter Composed During a Lull in the Fighting (2014)
Sylvia Bowersox (Army):  Triggers (2015)
Randy Brown, aka “Charlie Sherpa” (Army): Welcome to FOB Haiku (2015)
Colin Halloran (Army): Icarian Flux (2015)
Philip Metres: Sand Opera (2015)
Washing the Dust from Our Hearts: Poetry and Prose from the Afghan Women Writing Project (2015)

Iraq and Afghanistan Memoir and Reportage (selected). I’ve greatly reduced this list from last year—I’m only including works that seem supremely artistic, imaginative, conceptual, or literary in their approach. Or, those that seem uniquely alert to new possibilities for publication, such as Colby Buzzell’s and Matt Gallagher’s memoirs, which originated in blogs begun in Iraq.

Colby Buzzell (Army): My War: Killing Time in Iraq (2005)
Sebastian Junger: War (2010)
Matt Gallagher (Army): Kaboom: Embracing the Suck in a Savage Little War (2010)
Benjamin Busch (USMC): Dust to Dust (2012)
Brian Castner (Air Force): The Long Walk: A Story of War and the Life that Follows (2012)
Adrian Bonenburger (Army): Afghan Post: One Soldier’s Correspondence from America’s Forgotten War (2014)
Jennifer Percy: Demon Camp (2014)
Brian Turner (Army): My Life as a Foreign Country (2014)
Colby Buzzell (Army): Thank You For Being Expendable (2015)
Roy Scranton (Army): Learning to Die in the Anthropocene (2015)

Iraq and Afghanistan War Photography:

Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington: Infidel (2010)
Benjamin Busch (USMC): The Art in War (2010)
Michael Kamber: Photojournalists on War: The Untold Stories from Iraq (2013)

Iraq and Afghanistan War Film:

In the Valley of Elah, Paul Haggis, director (2007)
Lions for Lambs, Robert Redford, director (2007)
The Hurt Locker, Kathryn Bigelow, director (2008)
Standard Operating Procedures, Errol Morris, director (2008)
Stop-Loss, Kimberly Pierce, director (2008)
Generation Kill, David Simon and Ed Burns, executive producers (2008)
Brothers, Jim Sheridan, director (2009)
Restrepo, Sebastian Junger, director (2009)
The Messenger, Oren Moverman, director (2009)
Green Zone, Paul Greengrass, director (2010)
Return, Liza Johnson, director (2011)
Zero-Dark-Thirty, Kathryn Bigelow, director (2012)
Lone Survivor, Peter Berg, director (2013)
American Sniper, Clint Eastwood, director (2014)
Korengal, Sebastian Junger, director (2014)
The Last Patrol, Sebastian Junger, director (2014)
Fort Bliss, Claudia Myers, director (2014)

Iraq and Afghanistan War Theater, Opera, and Dance 

Exit 12 Dance Company, directed by Roman Baca (USMC), New York City (2007)
Duty, Honor, Profit:  One Man’s Struggle with the War in Iraq, written and directed by D. Richard Tucker/ACT Theater, Seattle (2008)
The Telling Project (participatory staged readings), founded by Jonathan Wei (2008)
Theater of War (staged reading of Greek drama and interactive cast-and-audience discussion), directed by Brian Doerries (2008)
The Great Game: Afghanistan (drama), directed by Nicolas Kent and Indhu Rubasingham, New York City (2009)
Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo (drama), written by Rajiv Joseph, directed by Moises Kaufman, starring Robin Williams, New York City (2011)
Home of the Soldier (musical drama), written by Ben Cunis, directed by Paata Tsikurishvili/Synthetic Theater, Arlington, VA (2012)
You Know When the Men Are Gone (drama), based on stories by Siobhan Fallon, directed by Joel Mullennix and Amy Kossow/Word for Word Performing Arts Company, San Francisco (2013)
Goliath (drama), written by Takeo Rivera, directed by Alex Mallory/Poetic Theater, New York City (2014)
Dijla Wal Forat: Between the Tigris and the Euphrates (drama), written by Maurice Decaul (USMC), directed by Alex Mallory/Poetic Theater, New York City (2015)
The Lonely Soldier Monologues, based on Helen Benedict’s The Lonely Soldier: The Private War of Women Serving in Iraq, Concept Theater, London (2015)
The Long Walk (opera), based on Brian Castner’s memoir of the same name, music by Jeremy Howard Beck, libretto by Stephanie Fleischmann/American Lyric Theater, Saratoga, NY (2015)

Iraq and Afghanistan War Criticism:

Elizabeth Samet: Soldier’s Heart: Reading Literature Through Peace and War at West Point (2007)
Stacey Peebles: Welcome to the Suck: Narrating the American Soldier’s Experience in Iraq (2011)
Elizabeth Samet: No Man’s Land: Preparing for War and Peace in Post-9/11 America (2014)
Brian Doerries: The Theater of War: What Ancient Greek Tragedies Can Teach Us Today (2015)
Ikram Masmoudi: War and Occupation in Iraqi Fiction (2015)

The lists are subjective and idiosyncratic, neither complete nor authoritative. Still, they might help those interested more clearly and broadly view the fields of contemporary war literature and film. My lists do not reflect hundreds of stories, poems, and photographs published individually in anthologies, magazines, and on the web. Some of my favorite stories, by authors such as Mariette Kalinowski, Maurice Decaul, Will Mackin, and Brian Van Reet, and photographs, such as the one by Bill Putnam published here, thus do not appear. Another deficiency is the lack of works by international authors and filmmakers, particularly Iraqi and Afghan artists. That project awaits completion.


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