Posted tagged ‘War poetry’

War Poetry: Brock Jones’ Cenotaph

August 18, 2019

Brock Jones writes forthrightly about his tours in Iraq as an infantryman in his 2016 poetry volume Cenotaph. Central to his experience and the poetry he writes is the death in combat or by suicide of several of his war-buddies. In particular, the suicide of one buddy, a soldier named Markose, vibrant and charismatic in life, figures in several poems. The elegiac poems serve the volume’s title, a cenotaph being “a monument to someone buried elsewhere, especially one commemorating people who died in a war.” Jones’ own near-suicidal post-war floundering are also strikingly related in several poems. The most harrowing poems, however, recount Jones’ taking of an Iraqi life—a series of poems, titled “Field of View” in the first and in subsequent poems “Alternate Ending,” document and then reimagine a sniper kill:

What I remember—
the recoil, his fall
out of the scope’s circle…

That the event is subject to embellishment, omission, reconceptualizing, and transformation is alluded to in a poem titled “Rogue Memories”:

Curator of the National Archive of Collective Memory
and War Memorabilia called with concerns about some
of my facts, dates and names…. I got a little defensive
and paused to swallow before asking him where it was he
thought all these memories came from.

But there’s no real reason to suspect that the events Jones describes are not 1) autobiographical and 2) true. Therein lies the significance of Cenotaph: very few veteran writers, other than authors of “kill memoirs,” which are beneath contempt, admit to taking of lives, or perhaps can even claim to have done so. Few, and they only with great hesitation, write openly about having killed. It’s hard, I suspect, without being sensational or unseemly or some other version of overly manipulative, and perhaps conveying the impression that one is secretly proud. It must be hard to figure out what to say and how to say it, which accounts, I’m sure, for the “alternate endings” Jones recounts. Cenotaph includes a statement from Vietnam War poet Bruce Weigl that alludes to this impulse. It’s the poet’s job, Weigl states, to find “some kind of miraculous way that if you work hard enough to get the words right, that which you call horrific and wrong is defeated.” Weigl’s words suggest that writing a poem about a specific act of taking life raises questions about the uses of poetry, poetry’s ethics and aesthetics. Billy Collins refers to these difficulties in the Preface by way of commending Jones:

It is difficult to write war poetry because the subject is pre-loaded with emotional weight, but Jones more than manages to render precisely the mess of war with tenderness and insight.

I’m reminded of something a writer, not a veteran, once told me about what she appreciates about war-writers. “Their familiarity with violence deepens them,” she claimed. I’m also reminded of a passage from Karl Marlantes’ What It Is Like to Go to War, in which he writes, “Ask a twenty-two-year-old vet what it is like to have killed, and he’ll probably shrug. Ask the same vet when he’s sixty, and if he’s sober enough to answer….” Cenotaph records a moment in a vet’s long after-war life, some time past the blithe disregard of Marlantes’ twenty-two year old, but not yet completely devastated or ruined. The dominant impression rendered by Cenotaph is not guilt that drags Jones down, but extreme isolation from the common run of humanity wrought by what he has lived through and learned. From the biographical notes accompanying Cenotaph, fortunately, Jones appears to be doing well, gainfully employed and happy with family. Let’s hope that holds, and that writing Cenotaph has helped him attain stability and peace-of-mind. The poem “Eleven Mile,” my favorite, offers hope for that hope:

You hook another rainbow and I forget
the drift of my tattered fly.

Yet to land a fish.  I have no way out
of buying dinner since that’s the usual deal

and there’s no way to catch you
with three fish before dark.

But this memory does not want to be
about fishing or whether real fishermen

use spinners or flies, who caught the most fish,
where to eat dinner on our way back to post,

our return from Iraq to ticker-tape,
drinks on the house and eventual emptiness.

It wants to be about sunlight
reflecting off our favorite river

today same as it did then, before falling
behind those Colorado mountains.

Maybe it is about fishing after all.
It can be about fishing.

More poems from Cenotaph can be found here.

Brock Jones, Cenotaph. University of Arkansas, 2016.

Wars, Wives, Mothers: Poetry by Shara Lessley and Pamela Hart

June 29, 2019

The title of Shara Lessley’s poetry volume The Explosive Expert’s Wife refers to the poet’s husband’s job as a post-blast investigator and demining specialist. The specific biographical stimulus for the poems in The Explosive Expert’s Wife is the husband’s three-year tour in Amman, Jordan, where his wife accompanied him. The poems in The Explosive Expert’s Wife reflect a connected fascination with violence associated with war, mines, and bombs and the geography and culture of the Arab world. Three poems in the volume are literally titled “The Explosive Expert’s Wife”; these speak to the author’s concern that her identity and lived-life depend heavily on her husband’s job. Explosive-related technical language saturate them, but the insider knowledge does little to efface, and in fact contributes to, the dominant tones of loneliness and fear. Loneliness not just in the face of her husband’s frequent deployment, but in that even when her husband is home he is not fully “there” because of the all-consuming nature of his job. Fear, for the obvious reasons:

…I don’t know // where the dead go, only that / you promise to make it home // by supper, the hem of your pants / singed with ash.

In other poems, Lessley describes the incongruity of maintaining domestic tranquility and familial pretense with such a husband, with such a job, while on the edges of war. Other poems contemplate bombings in America: the Boston Marathon bombing, a school bombing, an abortion clinic bombing, among others. The idea here is that a weapon emblematic of terrorist and fundamentalist war overseas is also employed frighteningly frequently on native grounds, too, thus troubling easy distinctions between home-front and war-zone.  Throughout, Lessley employs mine, bomb, and explosion imagery to figuratively portray poetry as an expression of inner turmoil and potential danger—a conceit prefigured in the work’s epigraph from Emily Dickinson:

The Soul has moments of Escape— / When bursting all the doors— / She dances like a Bomb, abroad, / And swings upon the Hours

For all the above, the subject of most of the poems in The Explosive Expert’s Wife is the Jordanian world that Lessley comes to know intimately. Her sensibility defined by curiosity and empathy, Lessley’s alert vision and facility for nuance are given play by views not available to most–several poems reference her experience giving birth to one of her children in a Jordanian hospice. Lessley’s poetry, along with the works of former-Marine Elliot Ackerman and Army spouse Siobhan Fallon, render the impression that some of the most alert, knowing inside looks at contemporary Arab and Muslim life written by Americans are coming from writers, for better or worse, like it or not, associated with American military might. The effort to transcend platitude and stereotype plays out in many poems in The Explosive Expert’s Wife. “Advice from the Predecessor’s Wife,” for example, sardonically lists the reductive, brutalizing “wisdom” passed on to Lessley by other ex-pat Americans:

…Blondes are often mistaken / for hookers; consider dying your hair. / By September or October you’ll learn to / tune out the call for prayer.

In a similar vein, “The Marine Ball” describes the incongruity of a fancy-dress military ball held in a hotel that previously was the site of a suicide bombing attack—a recognition of an historical dimension that only Lessley considers important, or even remembers. Set against the backdrop of such cultural-historical obliviousness are poems that display finer powers of observation and subtler processing of impressions. “Scent of the Gods,” (my favorite) juxtaposes the flatulent stench of modern Jordanian public spaces with the rich aromas and other sensory splendors of a traditional bazaar. Another, “In Arabic” packs a surprising amount of Arabic grammatical and calligraphic detail into a short lyrical meditation on linguistic meaning-making. Some of these poems record the poet’s movement into closer empathetic alignment with Arab customs and sensibility, while others address cultural differences that prompt dismay and even aggravation. Among these are several poems that contemplate the subjugation of women in Jordanian public life while remaining alert for hints of rebellion and moments of connection. One of the most arresting poems in The Explosive Expert’s Wife, “The Ugly American,” describes an event that brings an American woman to the point of violent interjection into a troubling Jordanian street scene. Coming upon a group of boys tormenting a helpless donkey, Lessley writes:

The boys beat the jennet because they could, / out of boredom, because she was in heat, // they beat her with sticks and switches and clods / of dirt.

In response, the American woman described in the poem clenches a rock in her hand and prepares to defend the donkey against the youth, when at poem’s end a native elder steps in to shoo the boys away. Does the poem describe an isolated instance or is it exemplary evidence of something profound? Is it an epiphany offering self-understanding or is it a parable of power and conflict? These are complexities facing the character in the poem as the action unfolds, the poet as she describes the event, and readers in their moment of interpretation.

Shara Lessley’s webpage can be found here.

In her 2018 poetry volume Mothers Over Nangarhar, Pamela Hart describes a crisis-of-understanding generated by her son’s enlistment in the Army and subsequent deployment to Afghanistan. Several poems explain that Hart’s son, against her mother’s wishes, was fascinated by the military from childhood; the poet asserts, sans question-mark, “Did I raise him to be a warrior,” as if the words had ceased being a query and were now a fundamental reality. Hart’s son’s actual deployment intensifies the stakes: “This is the story of the idea of war and the son who might kill or be killed,” she writes. Linking the poems in Mothers Over Nangarhar is the conceit that mother and son learn about military culture and war together: “My pencil writing its way into the story of a son.” The start-point for this epistemological journey, for the mother at least, is incomprehension: “The signs are signs of other things. What do I as a mother know of this. Nothing.” Trying to resist being a helicopter mom, to make a cringe-worthy analogy, nor implying that she now lives vicariously through her son, Hart stakes out a familial and authorial position in which she retains dignity while searching for wisdom in the midst of dismay and fear. As the poems follow one another, she gains understanding, and she establishes a small foothold in the military world through participation in family support activities. The increasing knowledge and surer social position brings worry, however, that the military now dominates her life—her thoughts, her social relationships, her daily activities—as much as it does her son’s. As Rowan Ricardo Phillips states in his fine introduction, “The book circles its subject with the poignant uncertainty of whether it is merely observing or being dragged down into the depths.” Or, as “The Women” puts it:

We unspool our biggest / dread and make / it into a beautiful spider

What Phillips calls Hart’s “poignant uncertainty” makes some of the images and lines in Mothers Over Nangarhar, to quote Phillips some more, “mazy,” suggestive in the way of the book’s epigram from Rimbaud—“Arriving from always, you’ll go away everywhere.” In other words, evocative and possibly profound, but not especially concrete in terms of detail, intent and effect, and explanations of higher-order links between individual service and global warfare. Others, however, pop with unexpected impression and connection. On a personal level, I was delighted to read of the “stucco houses, the red-tiled roofs” of Fort Benning, GA, since I once lived in such a house at the “Home of the Infantry” (as the Army, not Hart, calls it), and both my sons were born at Fort Benning. Another poem, “My Soldier,” about a visit to Mount Vernon the poet makes with her son, astonished me with its coincidental relevance, since I had just visited Mount Vernon myself two weeks before reading Hart’s poem. There, as does Hart in her poem, I had mused about the circuits connecting domestic space, family, “The Father of Our Country,” war-fighting, and my own military career. Several poems (to include the title poem) use maps, land navigation, satellite images, and drone perspectives as geo-visual metaphors for the quest for knowledge; in so doing they, again to quote Phillips, operate “[s]omewhere between theory and therapy but free of the constraints of both.” My favorite poems in Mothers Over Nangarhar emit a distinct, confident sense of themselves from start-to-finish. For me, these are “Praise Song,” “At the Shooting Range,” “Jalalabad,” and most of all “Kevlar Poem,” about Stephanie Kwolek, the Dupont scientist who invented Kevlar. “Praise Song” and “Kevlar Poem” are not available online, but “At the Shooting Range” and another excellent one, “Jalalabad,” are, at Hart’s webpage, so I invite you to check them out and then read Mothers Over Nangarhar entire.

Shara Lessley, The Explosive Expert’s Wife. Wisconsin UP, 2018.

Pamela Hart, Mothers Over Nangarhar. Sarabande Books, 2018.

War, Poetry, Experience: Hugh Martin, Abby E. Murray, Nomi Stone

March 3, 2019

Recent poetry volumes by Hugh Martin, Abby E. Murray, and Nomi Stone reflect the ongoing pull of war and military themes on poets and the authors’ fascination with the poetry as a means of reflecting on their experiences as soldiers, military spouses, and military observers, respectively. “Experience,” it seems to me, is a key word for sussing out the nature of the books’ achievements. I remember a telling Tweet or Facebook post from Lauren Kay Johnson a few years back in which she queried veteran friends and followers about a word that might be used as a synonym or alternative to the word “experience” to categorize their time in the military and on deployment. Responses were mixed, or not especially helpful, as I recall: more evidence that the word might be both overused and under-interrogated as an all-purpose label for how we conceptualize time spent in uniform, at war, or rubbing up against the strange culture of the military in ways that seem interesting, important, or even transformative.

Hugh Martin, In Country

Most of the poems in Hugh Martin’s In Country, as in his first volume, The Stick Soldiers, consist of vignettes of events Martin lived through on his tour in Iraq as an Ohio National Guardsman in 2004. A few poems are set afterwards, and these more directly address what it means to live-on following service on the ground in combat in Iraq. Some, such as the title and title-poem, which reference Bobbie Ann Mason’s great Vietnam novel of the same name, touch on even larger circles of historical-cultural signification. Martin is not given to over-arching pronouncements or editorializing within the space of his poems, however. Instead, he emphasizes observed detail and understated tactics of suggestion and inference. What I get from his poems, and it may not be at all what Martin intended, is a need to document the idea and fact that he, the poet Hugh Martin, in 2018, is the same young man who went to war in 2005 and with a gun strapped to his body did the things war asks soldiers to do–break down doors and shoot people, for starters. The dots connecting the two Hugh Martins go mostly implied or unconnected or too-scary to face directly, which is OK by me, since they go largely unresolved in my own mind in regard to my own deployment and life afterwards, too. So, I can relate to the perceived overall sensibility of In Country, just as I can easily relate to the vignettes of actual deployed experience that Martin captures in verse, such as this one:

“Test Fire”
-south of Jalawala

After we drive through
the barren hills
where the earth unrolls

itself for miles, where the soil’s
as stale as boxed cookies
sent from the Youngstown

USO, the gunners fire
machineguns at the ridge
wall’s face—small

dust-explosions lift
to the sky like faded desert
larks while the rest of us

shoot from our knees, our
chests, as copper casings
rain like loose change

across the dirt, then
as we convoy back
to Cobra from nowhere

the Bedouin come
to collect the shells
& stuff them in sacks

& after they go: only
boot & footprints,
a careful cursive of tire-tracks.

Abby E. Murray, How to Be Married After Iraq

Many of the poems in Abby E. Murray’s How to Be Married After Iraq reflect the authors’s felt disjunction between her identity as a woman and a poet with an MFA and PhD in literature and her role, or chosen life, as the wife of a career infantry officer. Those poetic moments ring with whimsical irony, but the best poems in How to Be Married After Iraq do much more than express bemusement and ambivalence. Murray, much like fellow military-spouse poet Elyse Fenton, is a superb chronicler of the distortions on her own psyche and the nation’s wrought by endless life during wartime, distortions on which her vantage point in the inner-circle of the warrior kingdom gives her exemplary purchase. The social milieu of officer marriages, and, speaking from (again) personal knowledge, especially that of infantry officer marriages, is strange and cloistered, so much so that I sense it can be off-putting to observers from the outside. The almost perverse blend of intense competitiveness, ambition, physical vitality, and homosociality of the men as they are observed by their wives has been ably recounted by Siobhan Fallon in fiction and Angela Ricketts in non-fiction, and part of their accomplishment lies in noting the tension inspired by their own complicity in the experience. Fallon, Ricketts, and now Murray have missed nothing, taken great notes, and, when they are so inclined, punch very hard. Here’s the beginning of a Murray poem that begs to be paired with Brian Turner’s “At Lowe’s Home Improvement Center”:

“Sitting in a Simulated Living Space at the Seattle Ikea”

To sit in a simulated living space at Ikea
is to know what sand knows
as it rests inside the oyster.
This is how you might arrange your life
if you were to start from scratch:
a newer, better version of yourself applied
coat by coat, beginning with lamplight
from the simulated living room.
The man who lives here has never killed.
There is no American camouflage drying
over the backs of his kitchen chairs,
no battle studies on the coffee table.
He travels without a weapon,
hangs photographs of the Taj Mahal,
the Eiffel Tower above the sofa.
The woman who lives here has no need
for prescriptions or self-help,
her mirror cabinet holds a pump
for lotion and a rose-colored water glass,
her nightstand is stacked with hardcovers
on Swedish architecture….

And onward to a striking set of closing lines:

you wish you could say this place
is not enough for you, that you’re better off
in the harsh light of the parking garage,
a light that shows your skin beneath your skin,
the color of your past self,
pale in places, flushed in others.

Nomi Stone, Kill Class

As a veteran of the Army’s National Training Center, Joint Readiness Training Center, Jungle Operations Training Center, and most valuably, pre-Afghanistan deployment scenario-training at Fort Riley, I for one am fascinated by the idea of a verse volume that takes these places as its subject. Voilá, Nomi Stone in Kill Class has written a series of linked poems inspired by her anthropological field work at several US military training centers that prepare soldiers for Iraq and Afghanistan by putting them through role-playing scenarios staged by émigrés from the war-ravaged regions to which the soldiers will deploy. Stone’s poems are not especially interested in presenting themselves as accessible and easily absorbed, however. Narrative linearity, connective explanations, and summarizing statements are few; instead Stone offers shards, impressions, aggressive line-breaks, non-standard punctuation, abrupt transitions, and oblique references. The intimidating verse surface in Kill Class reflects the complexity of Stone’s background and subject position: educated as a poet in the manner of formidable modern masters such as Jorie Graham and as a Columbia-trained cultural anthropologist, Stone appears to have sometimes or often crossed lines and became a role-player herself named “Gypsy” in the training scenarios, so, like Jen Percy in Demon Camp, she deliberately foregrounds her (un)trustworthiness as an objective observer while at the same time asserting her insider bona-fides. Stone’s critique of war and the military is no more savage than they deserve, and her human sympathies extend almost equally to Muslim role players and American paratroopers, while the complicated poetics mirror the complexities of twenty-first century war, culture, militarism, identity, performativity, and the subjective nature of reality and the elusive processes of meaning-making. Kill Class may not give away its insights cheaply, but readers who invest the time will find much to appreciate about the interpretive experience it summons.

“War Game: Plug and Play”

Wait. Begin Again.
Reverse loop. Enter the stage.
The war scenario has: [vegetable stalls], [roaming animals],
and [people] in it.    The people speak

the language of a country we are trying
to make into a kinder country. Some
of the people over there are good /
others evil / others circumstantially

bad / some only want
cash / some just want
their family to not die.
The games says figure

out which
are which.

Finally, it’s almost certainly against the reading strategies proposed by Kill Class to read for conventionally “poetic” images, but Stone is quite capable of some stunners, such as the following lines from “War Game: America”:

There is a door in every word;
behind it, someone grieving.

****

Hugh Martin, In Country. BOA, 2018.

Abby E. Murray, How to Be Married After Iraq. Finishing Line Press, 2018.

Nomi Stone, Kill Class. Tupelo Press, 2019.

War Fiction, Poetry, and Film 2018

December 1, 2018

USASOC #7, by Bill Putnam, used with permission.

2018 was a bounteous year for new fiction about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Titles by veterans Elliot Ackerman, Will Mackin, Ray McPadden, and Nico Walker burst with interest and talent, and works by non-veterans Raymond Hutson, Kathleen McInnis, Hilary Plum, Stephen Markley, and Ahmed Saadawi offer as much or more.

2018 poetry titles include new work by Army vet Hugh Martin, Marine spouse Lisa Stice, and Army spouse Abby Murray. As far as I have noted, the only major movie about war in Iraq or Afghanistan to have appeared in 2018 is 12 Strong, about Special Forces in the early days of the war in Afghanistan, though Vice, about war architect Vice-President Dick Cheney, is set to hit theaters on Christmas.

What am I missing? Let me know and I’ll add it to the lists.

Iraq and Afghanistan War Fiction

Bob Kornheiser, Crossing the Wire (2004)
Nadeem Aslam, The Wasted Vigil (2008)
David Zimmerman, The Sandbox (2010)
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)
Elliot 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)
Susan Aspley, Granola, MN: Love and War in a Nutty Little Town (2016)
The Road Ahead, Adrian Bonenberger (Army) and Brian Castner (Air Force), eds. (2016)
Matt Gallagher (Army), Youngblood (2016)
Matthew Hefti (Air Force), A Hard and Heavy Thing (2016)
Tom King and Mitch Gervais, The Sheriff of Babylon, vol 1: Bang. Bang. Bang.(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)
David Abrams (Army), Brave Deeds (2017)
Elliot Ackerman (USMC), Dark at the Crossing (2017)
Helen Benedict, Wolf Season (2017)
Caleb Cage (Army), Desert Mementos: Stories of Iraq and Nevada (2017)
Siobhan Fallon (Army spouse), The Confusion of Languages (2017)
Tom King (CIA) and Mitch Gervais, The Sheriff of Babylon, vol. 2: Pow. Pow. Pow. (2017)
Christopher Meeks and Samuel Gonzalez, Jr. (Army), The Chords of War (2017)
Brian Van Reet (Army), Spoils (2017)
Elliot Ackerman (USMC), Waiting for Eden (2018)
Raymond Hutson, Finding Sergeant Kent (2018)
Kathleen J. McInnis, The Heart of War: Misadventures in the Pentagon (2018)
Will Mackin (Navy), Bring Out the Dog (2018)
Stephen Markley, Ohio (2018)
Ray McPadden (Army), And the Whole Mountain Burned (2018)
Hilary Plum, Strawberry Fields (2018)
Ahmed Saadawi, Frankenstein in Baghdad (2018)
Nico Walker (Army), Cherry (2018)

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)
Frances Richey (Army mother), The Warrior: A Mother’s Story of a Son at War (2008)
Jehanne Dubrow (Navy spouse), Stateside (2010)
Elyse Fenton (Army spouse), Clamor (2010)
Frances Richey (Army mother), Voices of the Guard (2010)
Brian Turner (Army), Phantom Noise (2010)
Allan Gray (Army), Overwatch (2011)
Tom Sleigh, Army Cats (2011)
Colin Halloran (Army), Shortly Thereafter (2012)
Abby E. Murray, Quick Draw: Poems from a Soldier’s Wife (2012)
Jason Poudrier (Army), Red Fields (2012)
Seth Brady Tucker (Army), Mormon Boy (2012)
Paul Wasserman (USAF), Say Again All (2012)
Charles Bondhus, All the Heat We Could Carry (2013)
Stanton S. Coerr (USMC), Rubicon (2013)
Kerry James Evans (Army), Bangalore (2013)
Amalie Flynn (Navy spouse), Wife and War (2013)
Hugh Martin, The Stick Soldiers (2013)
Chuck Rybak, War (2013)
David R. Dixon (USMC), Call in the Air (2014)
Frederick Foote (Navy), Medic Against Bomb: A Doctor’s Poetry of War (2014)
Gerardo Mena (Navy), The Shape of Our Faces No Longer Matters (2014)
Seth Brady Tucker (Army), We Deserve the Gods We Ask For (2014)
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)
Victoria Kelly (spouse), When the Men Go Off to War (2015)
Philip Metres, Sand Opera (2015)
Tom Sleigh, Station Zed (2015)
Washing the Dust from Our Hearts: Poetry and Prose from the Afghan Women Writing Project (2015)
Paul David Adkins (Army), Flying Over Baghdad with Sylvia Plath (2016)
Jonathan Baxter (Army), The Ghosts of Babylon (2016)
Lance B. Brender (Army) and C. Rodney Pattan (Army), In Cadence (2016)
Kim Garcia, Drone (2016)
Nicole Goodwin (Army), Warcries (2016)
Karen Skolfield (Army), Frost in the Low Areas (2016)
Lisa Stice (USMC spouse), Uniform (2016)
Home Front: Jehanne Dubrow’s Stateside, Elyse Fenton’s Clamor, Bryony Doran’s Bulletproof, and Isabel Palmer’s Atmospherics (2016, UK only)
Paul David Adkins (Army), FM 101-5-1 MCRP 5-2A: Operational Terms and Graphics (2017)
Eric Chandler (USAF), Hugging This Rock (2017)
Jehanne Dubrow (Navy spouse), Dots & Dashes (2017)
Elyse Fenton (Army spouse), Sweet Insurgent (2017)
Benjamin Hertwig (Canadian Army), Slow War (2017)
Lynn Marie Houston, Unguarded (2017)
Hugh Martin (Army), In Country (2018)
Abby Murray (Army spouse), How To Be Married After Iraq (2018)
Lisa Stice (USMC spouse), Permanent Change of Station (2018)

Iraq and Afghanistan War Film

In the Valley of Elah, Paul Haggis, director (2007)
Lions for Lambs, Robert Redford, director (2007)
Battle for Haditha, Nick Broomfield, director (2007)
Body of War, Ellen Spiro and Phil Donahue, directors (2008)
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 (HBO) (2008)
The Objective, Daniel Myrick, director (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)
Hyena Road, Paul Gross, director (2015)
Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, Ang Lee, director (2016)
Blood Stripe, Remy Auberjonois, director (2016)
Neither Heaven Nor Earth, Clement Cogitore, director (2016)
Nobel, Per-Olav Sorensen, director (Netflix) (2016)
War Dogs, Todd Phillips, director (2016)
Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, Glenn Ficarra and John Reque, directors (2016)
Last Flag Flying, Richard Linklater, director (2017)
Sand Castle, Fernando Coimbra, director (Netflix) (2017)
Thank You For Your Service, Jason Hall, director (2017)
The Wall, Doug Liman, director (2017)
War Machine, David Michod, director (Netflix) (2017)
The Yellow Birds, Alexandre Moors, director (2017)
12 Strong, Nicolai Fuglsig, director (2018)

AWP18-Tampa, FL

April 20, 2018

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.

Approaching Tampa across the causeway in the AM. That would be so cool if the round orb on the right were the moon, but alas it was just a spot on the car window.

On to Tampa! AWP18

March 7, 2018

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 Team that 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.

Habibi: Dunya Mikhail’s The Iraqi Nights

February 4, 2018

Poet, memoirist, and journalist Dunya Mikhail’s biography complicates the vantage point of her poetry while adding variety to the American-fighting-man-centric flavor of post-9/11 war writing. Raised a Christian in Iraq, Mikhail came off age as an artist-intellectual in the difficult last years of Saddam Hussein, the First Gulf War, and the Iraq-Iran War. Attracted to the art and thought of the West, as well as the promises of democracy and strife-free everyday life, she emigrated to America in the 1990s, where she has made a home in Michigan, completed an MA in Near Eastern Studies at Wayne State, and commenced a career teaching Arabic and Arabic Studies at the university level.

The impulse to write fomenting in the wake of the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, Mikhail began publishing a series of works, varied in genre, that trace the war’s reverberations primarily among the non-combatant civilian populaces in both her native and adopted countries. In 2005 came The War Works Hard, a volume of poetry, 2009 brought a memoir titled Diary of a Wave Outside the Sea, 2013 an anthology titled 15 Iraqi Poets, and 2014 a poetry chapbook titled The Theory of Absence (Islands or Continents). Later this year will appear The Beekeeper: Rescuing the Stolen Women of Iraq, a series of interviews with Yazidi (a small sect of Iraqi Christians) women who faced torture and death at the hands of ISIS for refusing to convert to Islam. Mikhail’s best-known work, arguably, is The Iraqi Nights, a collection of poems originally written in Arabic and then translated into English by Kareem James Abu-Zeid and published by small-press stalwarts New Directions in 2014.

The title, playing off A Thousand-and-One Nights, casts Mikhail as a contemporary Scheherazade, a spinner of story-poems, if not to save her own life literally, then to make sense of life generally during a period in which death is omnipresent. The title poem, the first in the volume, combines prose, short lyrics, and line drawings to portray the weight of war and conflict in her native country:

In Iraq,
after a thousand and one nights,
someone will talk to someone else.
Markets will open
for regular customers.
Small feet will tickle
the giant feet of the Tigris.
Gulls will spread their wings
and no one will fire at them….

A poem called “The Plane,” about a third-of-the-way in, explicitly references American soldiers while also spatially transitioning from Iraq to the States:

The plane arriving from Baghdad
carries American soldiers:
it rises above the moon
reflected on the Tigris,
above clouds piled like corpses,
and an ancient harp,
and the beaten breasts,
and the ones who were kidnapped;
it rises above
the destruction that grows with the children,
and the long lines at the passport office,
and Pandora’s open box.
The plan and its exhausted passengers
will land six thousand miles away
from an amputated finger
lying in the sand.

Mikhail’s homeland floats in-and-out through the rest of The Iraqi Nights, as in “Iraqis and Other Monsters,” a poem that speaks to the contempt and fear Iraqis inspire in Americans, and especially American soldiers:

They are terrifying.
Their heads are dark and tremulous;
they roam the desert
in the forms of bulls and lions,
with swords gleaming in their eyes
They rub their mustaches when they make promises….

It’s one thing, I would say, to bear witness to the horrors of one’s native country and even to flee them and condemn them from abroad, but it’s probably quite another to realize that the inhabitants of your adopted homeland view people much like yourself as monsters and murderers. To escape that treacherous realization, the poems in The Iraqi Nights seek means of accommodation, reconciliation, and momentary escape.

Thus one set of The Iraqi Nights poems reference Chinese and Japanese touchstones, as if Mikhail, something of an exile in her adopted land, had gone globetrotting in search of a poetic vocabulary and cultural sensibility not so obviously infused by violence, misunderstanding, bad memories, and horrible histories. Many short lyrics adopt a mythopoetic style to register a cosmic vision informed by loss, death, the carnage of time, and the fragility of the moment, while others, such as “The Sold Parrot,” are very specific renderings of epiphanies emerging out of the everyday:

Everything is new
today
for the parrot:
Where’s the silver fish
that used to greet the parrot with its tail,
the bubbles flowing from its mouth?
Where’s the tank with all its stars?
Where’s the little boy
who always stopped
to stare at it
and sometimes even tried to touch it?
And most importantly of all:
where’s the woman who used to feed it from her hand
while he repeated after her:
habibi—“beloved.”
Habibi?

Habibi? Indeed. The poems in The Iraqi Nights are shot-through, in all meanings of the phrase, with images of love, love lost, and the continuing search for. Or, more precisely, the search for the conditions in which love is possible, or at least not so hard, as in “Footprints on the Moon”:

When I set foot on the moon
everything told me that you were there, too:
my lighter weight,
the loss of gravity,
my heart’s rapid beating,
my mind empty of everyday concerns,
the lack of memories of any kind,
the earth off in another place,
and these footprints…
All of this points to you.

Mikhail knows, if anyone knows, of whence she speaks.

****

Interviews with Dunya Mikhail here and here.

An excellent essay by Sand Opera author Phil Metres, an American-born poet also of Arab-Christian descent, on the continuing existence of Orientalism in American letters, art, and culture here.  That Metres, as much a lover of NBA basketball and American punk rock and hardcore as I am, can be so alienated within the land of his birth offers purchase on Mikhail’s “dream of a future beyond violence,” to paraphrase a back-cover blurb from The Iraqi Nights.

Dunya Mikhail, The Iraqi Nights, translated from the Arabic by Kareem James Abu-Zeid. New Directions, 2014.


%d bloggers like this: