Randy Brown’s Welcome to FOB Haiku

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

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.

War Poetry: Philip Metres’ Sand Opera

Sand OperaCompared to the generous amount of contemporary war fiction published in the last few years, volumes of war poetry have been sparse. The fact’s lamentable, because war poetry, it seems to me, possesses vast potential to surprise and intrigue due to the malleability of form and the license granted the imagination. Philip Metres’ Sand Opera is a case in point. A rumination on our millennial wars, particularly Iraq and especially the brutality of Abu Ghraib, told from a a variety of American and Iraqi perspectives, Sand Opera doesn’t disappoint at any level—line, stanza, individual poem, or as a comprehensive whole. The poetry world agrees, for Metres has just been honored as the inaugural winner of the Hunt Prize, a new poetry award sponsored by Yale University that comes with a $25,000 prize. The striking cover of Sand Opera prepares the reader well for what’s inside: Metres has created a “terrible beauty,” to use Yeats’ phrase, out of the grimmest of grim subject matter.

Abu Ghraib, what a horrible and embarrassing memory. Like the worst mistake we ever made, could we please pretend it never happened, never speak its name again, and pray like hell it never ever reoccurs? That’s not going to happen, nor should it, much as we might desire it, but writing about Abu Ghraib artistically in ways that aren’t crudely didactic and sputtering with obvious outrage would seem equally impossible.

The poetic imagination goes where it goes, though, and thankfully finds ways to solve problems encountered along the way. As the title of Sand Opera implies, Metres draws on the idiom of music to recoup one of the nation’s most cringe-inducing moments ever aesthetically while retaining the sting of indictment. Sub-sections within the work are named “arias,” “lyres,” and “recitatives,” and individual poems “blues,” as in “The Blues of Charles Graner” and “The Blues of Lynddie England.” Collectively the assembled voices and musical motifs function as a libretto of horror and anguish—when read cover-to-cover in one sitting Sand Opera easily renders the impression that it would work impressively as a script for a staged performance blending multiple voices, sound, light, movement, and props.

Metres has more than musical motifs at his disposal, too. About half of Sand Opera’s poems are lyrics—expressions of thought emanating from the perspective of discrete poetic personas and employing traditional line and stanza forms. But others are full of postmodern linguistic and typographic trickery. One poem, for example, of a series with the same title—“(echo / ex/)”—consists of nothing but punctuation marks. Other poems draw on “Standard Operating Procedures” (get it?), official chunks of text and diagrams drawn from government documents pertaining to Abu Ghraib (and Guantanamo) that Metres rearranges spatially on the page and then edits, if that is the right word, by redacting words and phrases with the use of black bars—a reenactment of militaristic truth-suppression put to the use of art. Poetry lives and dies on its ability to keep the reader snared in the ongoing thought-image-story web it spins word-by-word and line-by-line, and I for one enjoyed Sand Opera’s showy effects. Postmodern textual experiments generally work as highly self-conscious permutations of what might be called “standard language operating procedures”; poets also employ them to complicate conventional notions of distinctive personas and chronological narrative. But that’s too theoretical and not really even true to my sense of what Metres is doing with language in Sand Opera. For me, the flamboyant page-faces function theatrically or, dare I say it, operatically, to infuse the ideas and words floating therein with the magic of performance.

The limitations of my webpage make it hard to reproduce Sand Opera poems here, but examples can be found at the following poetry websites:

Connotation Press

Diode

Elective Affinities

Matter

To what end does Metres go to such lengths? What does he want us to think about Iraq, Abu Ghraib, and Guantanamo? Individual poems are related from the point-of-view of Iraqi prisoners and American guards with empathy, plausibility, and dramatic intensity. The perspectives of Iraqis are represented more cogently and compellingly than in any other contemporary war imaginative work I’ve yet read, while the poem-portraits of Graner, England, and their fellow military policemen manage the difficult feat of holding them accountable without bludgeoning them as sadistically as they tortured their prisoners or turning them into cartoons. Another set of poems report Metres’ own wrestle with the war from his perspective as an Arab-American whose father served in Vietnam. The last poem in Sand Opera, titled “Compline,” suggests that we are living in dark times, God-forsaken in ways that go past religious platitude, and the only thing worse than being God-forsaken will be to suffer God’s wrath if or when God returns. That idea, like Abu Ghraib, is so painful to contemplate that it can’t be done directly or for long, because it is like staring into a black burning sun. The only way to apprehend the horror is through artistic creations that leaven human and existential despair with as much imagination and love as can be mustered.

Los Angeles Review of Books interview with Phil Metres here.

Philip Metres, Sand Opera.  Alice James Books, 2015.  Cover art: “I am Baghdad II” by Ayad Alkadhi, Leila Heller Gallery, New York.

Thanks to Roy Scranton for recommending Sand Opera to me.

The Afghan Women’s Writing Project

Washing the DustWashing the Dust from Our Hearts: Poetry and Prose from Writers of the Afghan Women’s Writing Project is, as far as I can tell, the second volume published by the organization named in its title. The first, The Sky is a Nest of Swallows, appeared in 2012, while Washing the Dust from Our Hearts is out just this year. The Afghan Women’s Writing Project (AWWP), formed in 2009 by journalist and novelist Masha Hamilton, is a collective comprised of interested American writers and publishing world friends who facilitate via the Internet writing by women in Afghanistan. Most of the collective’s work is online, but Washing the Dust from Our Hearts and The Sky is a Nest of Swallows represent efforts–pretty substantial ones–to place in print female voices from a land often described as the worst place in the world to be a woman. Afghanistan is also said to be a land thick with poets, with a tradition dating back to the great 13th-century mystic Rumi, but it has been a male tradition never hospitable to women writers and now even less so under the pressure of the Taliban.

The Afghan poets who participate in AWWP do so at great risk—the hardship and danger of writing publicly, especially for Western audiences, is writ large in many Washing the Dust from Our Hearts poems. Women participate, they tell us, because they feel empowered by doing so and because they want the world to know their plight. They use the artistry of poetry to give shape to the suffering of women and the nation at large at the hands of the Taliban during an extended period of war. The beauty of poetry comes in the expression of loss, mixed with pride in their defiant survivors’ strength, and their ability to imagine a better Afghanistan that was and which might be again.

My favorite poem in Washing the Dust from Our Hearts is “My Beautiful and Lovely Kandahar” by a woman named Shogofa, the link to which is at the Afghan Women’s Writing Project website. Another favorite, a stanza from which I will quote here, is “My Wild Imagination” by “M”:

I am one of those women with a wild imagination
who yearns to see equality of Afghan men and women
in action and law. I want lovers to walk
in the streets of Kabul, Herat, Mazar,
holding hands, sharing hugs,
free of harassment and harsh looks aimed at them like bullets.

An interesting aspect of AWWP is that the women write in English; the poems in Washing the Dust from Our Hearts appear in their English original version and also in versions translated into Dari, the Afghan version of Persian, and then transcribed into Arabic script by a woman named Pari. This remarkable alchemy of poetic production and reproduction is made possible by the care and let us not forget resources of the American (and other international) members of the collective. I salute AWWP for their effort and achievement and encourage you to support them.

Afghan Women’s Writing Project homepage here.

A photo of a Kabul bridge, by Roya, from the AWWP website.
A photo of a Kabul bridge, by Roya, from the AWWP website.

Washing the Dust from Our Hearts: Poetry and Prose from Writers of the Afghan Women’s Writing Project. Edited by Lori J.O. Noack; translated by Pari. Grayson Books, 2015.

War Lit 2014: Where It’s Been, Where It’s Going

On Christmas, the New York Times published two articles on contemporary war literature by Michiko Kakutani, the paper’s premier book critic. One article, titled “A Reading List of Modern War Stories,” lists 38 books about Iraq and Afghanistan that Kakutani claims are most worth attention. In the second article, titled “Human Costs of the Forever War, Enough to Fill a Bookshelf,” Kakutani surveys a number of 21st-century war texts, measures their concerns, and generally celebrates their achievement. Though Kakutani’s focus encompasses war memoir and reportage in addition to fiction and poetry, much of the article and most of the accompanying pictures are devoted to authors of literature. The way these things go, Kakutani’s articles will constitute near-definitive pronouncements about post-9/11 war literature, so let’s chitter-chat about them now.

Darul Aman Palace, Kabul, Afghanistan, as seen from a US Army compound.
Darul Aman Palace, Kabul, Afghanistan, as seen from a US Army compound.

Everything on the booklist is worthy, but even so it is possible to quibble and argue—that’s the nature of such lists, right? For starters, why 38 books and not 37 or 39, let alone a round number like 35 or 40? The number seems both arbitrary and precisely exact at the same time, as if Kakutani either grew tired of reading at 38 or determined that no way her 39th favorite book about the wars was going to make the final cut. In any case, the list tilts to the recently published or soon-to-be-published, with only occasional citations of books published before 2010. Curiously, her list includes no poetry, specifically no Here, Bullet or Phantom Noise by Brian Turner, the first of which in my opinion is the most important contemporary war lit text of them all and Phantom Noise remaining the second best book of post-9/11 war poetry going (Here, Bullet being first). Kakutani does include Turner’s memoir My Life as a Foreign Country, no argument there, but overall her list includes seven first-hand accounts of service in Iraq and only one of Afghanistan, and the novels on Kakutani’s list about Afghanistan include three that have not even been released yet—Elliot Ackerman’s Green on Blue, John Renehan’s The Valley, Ross Ritchell’s The Knife. Omitted, though, is Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya’s 2012 The Watch, which presciently portrayed life on a remote Afghanistan combat outpost, as does a novel that makes Kakutani’s list, Paulo Giordano’s The Human Body, an Italian work only recently published in America. Another Kakutani choice, Lea Carpenter’s novel Eleven Days, portrays Special Operations forces, as do Ackerman’s and Ritchell’s novels, thus contributing to the glamorizing of dark-side operators at the expense of line soldiers who constituted 95% of the deployed military. Finally, Kakutani’s list includes Hassan Blasim’s The Corpse Exhibition, which is great, but as several Times and Twitter commenters have noted, the list is otherwise deficient of Iraq, Afghanistan, or dark-skinned American perspectives.

If Kakutani’s list is idiosyncratic–probably more a compendium of suggestions from friends than the product of a ruthless critical regimen–her essay is excellent—generous, insightful, and eloquent. Kakutani succinctly itemizes the “particularities of the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq” as “changes in technology, the increased presence of female soldiers and, most importantly, the all-volunteer military, which has opened a chasm between soldiers (‘the other 1 percent’) and civilians.” By “changes in technology,” we might think of new weaponry such as IEDs, drones, and armored vehicles. Or means of surveillance, such as the pervasive use of signal intercepts by the intelligence community. Or, the communication platforms such as Skype and social media that have allowed deployed service members to remain much more in touch with the homefront than ever before. In regard to the depiction of these things in war fiction, none have been portrayed all that well or extensively and the journalistic coverage hasn’t been so good either, which means there’s a lot of opportunity for future war authors to help us understand them better. The “increased presence of female soldiers” on the battlefield has certainly been a salient component of contemporary war, though, oddly enough, not so much in the fiction Kakutani directs us toward. She also might have said a bit more about the “increased presence” of women in the formerly male-dominated preserve of war-writing itself. Siobhan Fallon, Kayla Williams, Elizabeth Samet, and Lea Carpenter are on Kakutani’s list, and they, along with Katey Schultz, Roxana Robinson, Helen Benedict, Hilary Plum, Cara Hoffman, Mariette Kalinowski, and others, constitute a significant new cultural phenomenon that complements the shifting nature of military demographics. But Kakutani is right on the money by asserting that the all-volunteer military and the civil-military chasm have been huge abiding concerns in the American war effort and the literature written about it. The issue goes way beyond simple fretting over how to thank soldiers for their service or worrying about PTSD, though those are important subjects oft written on. As Stacey Peebles argues in Welcome to the Suck, the story of every contemporary soldier saga is that of internal battle between competing senses of soldierly and civilian identity: How does being a soldier—killer, cog-in-the-machine, hero, patriot—jibe with the softer and more fluid civilian values and characteristics one brings into the military, never fully abandons while in, and then attempts to reclaim when out? The ailment Peebles diagnosed in a small number of works in 2011 is the essential tribulation defining almost every title in Kakutani’s literary corpus.

A section titled “Capturing a War’s Rhythm” is full of claims central to war literature. For instance, Kakutani explores the attraction of the short story for contemporary war writers. She writes, “Short stories, authors have realized, are an ideal form for capturing the discontinuities of these wars, their episodic quality, and so are longer, fragmented narratives that jump-cut from scene to scene.” She then traces a geneology of war lit that starts with the death-soaked collapse of idealism of World War I poets, the black humor of World War II authors Joseph Heller and Kurt Vonnegut, the charred stoicism of Michael Herr and the magical realism of Tim O’Brien, Vietnam-era authors read by everyone writing war lit today, and finds its modern voice in Iraq blog-writing by Colby Buzzell and Matt Gallagher. Kakutani also grounds the modern war lit boom in the MFA program and veterans support workshop scenes—both being fruitful incubators for storytelling talent. Finally, she ponders whether war fiction has adequately responded to larger political and ethical questions. How have authors represented Afghan and Iraqi “others” in a new global era marked by respect for diversity and concern for “nation-building,” impulses that have been met with implacable contempt by our opponents and soiled by our own nation’s new found regard for torture? These are all subjects and ideas I’ve toyed with in Time Now, but Kakutani has brought an outsider’s eye to the body of evidence and incisively and concisely articulated its importance.

Kakutani’s list and essay join two other great surveys of contemporary war literature published in 2014: George Packers’ New Yorker article “Home Fires: How Soldiers Write Their Wars” and Brian Castner’s Los Angeles Review of Books essay “Afghanistan: A Stage Without a Play.” Read them all, again, bookmark them on your computer, and let’s use them as guides as we consider the war fiction, poetry, memoir, and reportage 2015 will bring us.

A US Army advisor team, Afghanistan, 2008.
A US Army advisor team, Afghanistan, 2008.

Dodge (War) Poetry Festival 2014

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

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

Jehanne Dubrow
Jehanne Dubrow

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

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

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

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

Brian Turner, Elyse Fenton, and Jeremy Stainthorp Berggren at Dodge Poetry Festival 14
Brian Turner, Elyse Fenton, and Jeremy Stainthorp Berggren, after the Another Kind of Courage performance. Dodge Poetry Festival 2014

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

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

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

In “Inman Square Incantation,” he writes:

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

By the swarm of things.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

War Memoir/Poetry: Amalie Flynn’s Wife and War

I’m curious why there haven’t been more post-9/11 war novels written from the perspective of a wife and that portray marriage and family life in the period after redeployment. Have we seen any? Siobhan Fallon’s collection of short stories You Know When the Men are Gone, when it appeared in 2011, seemed to announce that marital tension wrought by war would be THE subject most attractive to talented war writers and alert readers. And yet, since then, not so much of anything, really. A story here and there. Some poetry. But no long fiction, from Fallon or anyone else.

Maybe the options for portraying martial domestic life are limited. A chirpy story of foibles on the family homefront while Daddy’s off killing Taliban and Al Qaeda bad guys followed by a happy family trip to Disneyland seems neither serious nor dramatic enough, you know what I mean? A failure of imagination might also be involved. Perhaps, though, it just takes guts to depict the guts of marital strain. The blogosphere is full of writing by savvy wives of deployed service members. Writers such as Andria Williams and Angie Ricketts I’m sure don’t miss much, and their posts give the impression that they could say a lot more even than they do about military married life. But as wives of officers, they, perhaps, are bound by the same chin-up, perpetually optimistic codes of propriety that bind their husbands, and that might be what keeps them from telling all the stories, even in fictional form, that they might. I know it’s true for me, still an active-duty officer, as I think about writing short stories and novels. A little too much interest in keeping up appearances, which sometimes earns officers the accusation that they “are not real people,” is even more toxic for a would-be writer of fiction. You’ve got to put it out there, and you can’t be afraid when it gets a little messy.

Wife and WarAn interesting twist on this line-of-inquiry is afforded by Amalie Flynn’s Wife and War. Subtitled “the memoir,” it more accurately is a memoir-in-verse, as Flynn has spaced out her sentences and paragraphs a few to a page in a way that resembles long-line poetry and mixed these passages with more conventional snippets of lyric verse. Most of the lyric passages refer to the fall of the Twin Towers on 9/11, which Flynn witnessed. An example reads:

But what I didn’t know then is what marriage is like, how it is a net,
like the tulle of my wedding dress. How it is.

The wire mesh, found inside a wall,

Found out on a street, after a building falls down.

How it entangles you, and how hard it is to walk away.

Flynn has lived through a lot more than just the horrifying experience of being present at Ground Zero. An equally traumatizing event from childhood, a miscarriage (or two?), and a rocky patch in her relationship with her Navy officer husband following his deployment all make their way into Wife and War’s 400+ pages. My interest here though is not Flynn’s life but her choice of poetry to tell her story. Long narrative poems haven’t been in literary fashion since the first half of the nineteenth century, but I can understand their appeal to contemporary writers looking for a means of expression more starkly stated than diffusely explained while still being more suggestive than explicit. The modus of Wife and War is to render a striking scene, event, or image minimalistically and then hint at rather than explore and analyze the cluster of emotions, perspectives, and implications that might accrue to it. For example, on one page:

I am still awake, in this new house, our bed, and my husband’s arm,
crossing over my chest, like a deadbolt.

[Next page]

And I think about the mechanism of a lock. The safety on the M4 my
husband carried for one year in Afghanistan,locked but ready.Or the way
we sleep, too often, now, now that he is home, how we sleep, together, in
our bed, but locked on opposite sides. Or our hearts, that organ we assign
too much to, or maybe, not enough, locked inside of our rib cages.

[Next page]

That’s good, plenty good enough as is for most. But there’s also a lot of white space left on the page that might be used to fill in details, provide context, sketch in character (and more characters), explain a little more, if not better, in either fact or fiction. Kudos to Flynn for thinking how the resources of literature might be brought to bear on one’s personal narrative, kudos to her for letting us see the shape that marriage to a service member might take. Wife and War’s amalgam of memoir and verse probably won’t inaugurate a new public affection for narrative poetry, but it does bravely beckon other war writers to give the spaces inside a military marriage–its guts–the attention they deserve.

Amalie Flynn’s Wife and War: The Memoir. 2013.

Requiem for Sergeant T: Brian Turner’s My Life as a Foreign Country

“I am a drone aircraft plying the darkness above my body, flying over my wife as she sleeps beside me, over the curvature of the earth, over the glens of Antrim and the Dalmation coastline, the shells of Dubrovnik and Brcko and Mosul arcing in the air beside me, projectiles filled with poems and death and love.”

My LifeSo begins Brian Turner’s My Life as a Foreign Country, a start that just barely illuminates the the work’s enigmatic title and strange epigram taken from Eugenio Montale: “Too many lives go into the making of just one.” Half-memoir and half-rumination on the cosmology of soldiering and combat, My Life as a Foreign Country blends crystal-clear accounts of Turner’s upbringing in California and service in the Army with historical digressions, hallucinatory alterations of the here-and-now, and imagined vignettes describing the lives and thoughts of a cast of characters ranging from Iraqi bomb-makers to Japanese kamikaze pilots. It’s a lot to absorb, and matters are not helped by the subdivision of the book into 11 unnamed chapters further broken into 136 smaller sections, titled only by numbers, ranging in length from a sentence to a few pages. There’s kinda-sorta a logical narrative progression from chapter to chapter and within each chapter, but the trail is faint and easily lost, especially on the first reading. For sure there’s work to be done trying to explain the literal progression of Turner’s narrative, for those who like their readings literal, but clearly My Life as a Foreign Country is meant more to be experienced than explained. Even so, I’ll offer a few general comments about Turner’s methodology and vision.

Readers familiar with Turner’s poetry in Here, Bullet and Phantom Noise will recognize some subjects and themes treated in those volumes, such as car bombs, nighttime raids, soldier suicides, and life within a squad and on a FOB. The turn to prose sacrifices the preciseness, conciseness, and suggestiveness of the poetry in favor of a more expansive treatment of this familiar material that allows for more dialogue, description, characterization, and reflection. Turner can be as terse as Hemingway in parts, but his natural bent is to let his sentences flow with the momentousness of what they are describing. An example from one of the most moving chapters in the book, in my opinion, describes the thoughts of a young Iraqi male as he floats along the Tigris looking for a place to fire a mortar at American forces:

And Malik leans into the rowing, fascinated by the machine of his body, how the muscles of his arms take to the task of rowing so that the separation of body and oar become a fiction, Malik closing his eyes to subtract the night sounds of the world around him, until all that exists are the blades of their oars slipping into the water, two brothers in unison, propelling the boat forward with such ease he thinks they could just keep rowing, hour after hour, down through Baghdad and beyond, through sunrise and sunfall until they reached the wide mouth of the sea, the lights of Basra glowing behind them as they rowed into the crests and hollows of the Persian Gulf, Malik standing high at stern and calling out into the salt spray, calling to the adventurers who traveled these waters before him, the adventurers to come, saying, “’I’m here, world—Malik, as alive as anyone who has ever lived. Malik.’

The most stunning passage in the book, by far, is a reworking of a Rick Moody poem called “Boys.” Rendered in prose form by Turner and given the prosaic chapter title name of 49, we can do better by calling it by its first line: “The soldiers enter the house.” What follows is four pages of insanely intense and vivid and evocative description of the lives and thoughts of soldiers conducting a midnight raid on a compound belonging to a scared Iraqi family. A small quote won’t do it justice, but even a snippet such as, “The soldiers enter the house with only nine credits earned toward an associate’s degree in history from the University of Maryland. They kick in the door and enter the house with the memory of backyard barbecues on their minds” displays Turner’s gift with words and, even better, his ability to see poetic potential in mundane facts. The passage is incantatory even when read silently, and is even more so when read aloud, as I have heard Turner do so in performance.

My Life as a Foreign Country decidedly departs the time-space continuum in its later stages when Turner straight-facedly describes an RPG hit that kills him: “Sgt. Turner is dead,” he writes. The author-Turner is not dead, of course, but the imagined death, I’m thinking, bespeaks the author-Turner’s desire, at long last, to put his identity as a soldier behind him, a problematic venture given that it is his identity as a warrior that has inspired his poetry and gained him a paying audience. But noticeably absent in a memoir by an accomplished author are extended descriptions of Turner’s writerly development before joining the military, while in, and afterwards. To parse the book’s title, then, we can say that the “foreign country” he speaks of are the parts of his life—boyhood and a short period in adulthood—when he was consumed by soldiering, not art. The two clearly have never not been connected for Turner, but My Life as a Foreign Country foregrounds contemplation of the first, while leaving his literary life for another day.

Too bad, a little, because Turner fascinates in person when he speaks about the genesis of his poems and poetic craft. Those aren’t the fish he’s frying in My Life as a Foreign Country, but I’ve learned that Turner often bases poems on deep private allegiances to other poems he knows and loves, as the passage quoted above draws on Rick Moody’s “Boys.” I’ll go out on a limb here and say that the precursor text for My Life as a Foreign Country is Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself.” We see the similarity in the unnumbered stanzas, we see it in the shared interest in cosmic connectivity, we see it in the brooding preoccupation with death and the swirls of mortality that buffet our lives. Whitman kills off his poetic persona, too, at the end of “Song of Myself,” only to promise the reader that he has been resurrected in different form: “I effuse my flesh in eddies and drift it in lacy jags / I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love / If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles.”

Whitman concludes, “Failing to fetch me at first keep up encouraged / Missing me one place search another / I stop somewhere waiting for you.” I can’t state exactly what Sergeant Turner is up to at the end of My Life as a Foreign Country, but since I know him not just as a gruff former NCO but also as a sweet soul who cares deeply, I’m not surprised to read very near the book’s conclusion that, “because Sgt. Turner is dead, he will remain at his post.” Like Whitman at the end of his own long poem, Turner is somewhere ahead looking out for us while we scramble to catch up.

Brian Turner, My Life as a Foreign Country. Norton, 2014. I read an early draft of My Life as a Foreign Country and am honored to be mentioned in the acknowledgements.

War Poetry: Colin D. Halloran’s Shortly Thereafter

Shortly ThereafterOther than Brian Turner’s Here, Bullet and Phantom Noise we haven’t seen much poetry by veteran authors published by major or mid-major presses.  As far as I know, Kevin Powers’ Letter Composed During a Lull in the Fighting, out earlier this year, is the first by a vet author other than Turner to get major publishing push. This phenomenon surprises me, because I thought Turner’s example would have been inspirational to both would-be war poets and the publishing industry. I wish this weren’t so, because I like poetry a lot. Poems are quick to read, and yet capable of intriguing or even astonishing turns of language, image, and thought in a compressed and intensified space. A good one makes me smile, or wonder, and fills me with regard for the author.

Turner and Powers both write of Iraq.  Is there any soldier poetry from Afghanistan?

Ladies and gentlemen, let me introduce Colin D. Halloran and his 2012 volume Shortly Thereafter.  After a semester of college in Connecticut, Halloran dropped out to deploy to Afghanistan in 2006 as an Army infantryman.  Detached from the big Brigade Combat Teams, his unit served on a small FOB populated by a grab-bag of civil affairs units, Provincial Reconstruction Teams, Afghan army advisors, and special operators.  My FOB in Afghanistan was much like that, too, so it’s easy for me to imagine what kind of soldier Halloran was—eminently useful, always cheerful, ever-ready to drive, gun, pull security, or whatever else needed doing in support of the older, more experienced soldiers and their esoteric missions.  Judging from Shortly Thereafter, it was mostly good for Halloran, because it was all interesting and exciting.

Unfortunately, though, his tour ended early when he badly injured his leg in a fall from the back of a truck and had to be evacuated:

        Not the first
  injured to leave my platoon, and even though at first
  I fought to stay, when the knee began to give, when doctors had seen
  the damage, the incapacitation, the risk I posed, I was bound for home.
  Forced to leave the violent province, newfound brothers, life of combat,
  return to this life that lacks adrenal kicks, my head hung in the silence
  Of guilt, pain, personal defeat, and the slow slipping of pride.

Halloran berates himself for things out of his control, but can take solace in the many striking poems crafted from the stuff of his deployment. The poems are mostly lyrics, but together they constitute a memoir in verse, with Halloran taking us from predeployment to Afghanistan and then life after the Army, when he returns to school and tries to put the war behind him.  In a jacket blurb, none other than Brian Turner praises “Carnivale, Tarin Kowt” for its precise lines and curious eye for the Afghan geography and milieu:

   Macabre marionettes reel
   The dance of the departed,

   Adorning the tower
   Or prostrating at its base,

   A message left at
   The epicenter of this vivid city.

   Four roads seem to stretch forever
   out from this dust-shrouded circle;

   short mismatched buildings line
   the intersecting avenues, crooked balconies

   smiling down at children who
   share streets with hens and strays…

In poems like this Halloran’s personal saga slips away and a more generalized evocation of the fantastical Afghan landscape and the details of soldiering there emerges.  “Chess at the Gate,” for example, describes a foreboding game of chess with a wizened Afghan linguist. Several other poems recount hairy escapades driving in big Army armored trucks through precarious mountain passes.  These poems rang very true for me—for every story I have of bullets whizzing by my head, I have five about crazy vehicle adventures in the Afghanistan mountains and wadis. In “The Moon’s Still Up,” Halloran describes a night mission that could have been one of my own:

   When we first set out – it seems like days now,
   though surely it's only hours – the moon hung heavy in the sky,
   an insistent luminescence in green
   while, through night vision, we picked our way
   precisely through the desert night.

   Now, as we stop before entering the pass ahead,
   (a perfect place for ambush with its single narrow road,
   high sloping walls, one way in and out)
   the moon still hangs, resisting the desert sun's dominance.

   I can't help but wonder why it's lingering,
   what it's waiting to see – there's nothing
   but a road that's barely discernible from the desert around it,
   expanse interrupted violently by sharp mountains ahead of me,
   and those behind, which somehow remind me of Scotland,
   uneven, shadowed green trying to force its way out –
   what in the landscape warrants staying in the sky today?

   The seven trucks do their best to blend in,
   men posed alert next to them, eyes begging
   the mountains to reveal their secrets,
   beads of sweat sneaking onto trigger fingers,
   wondering what the moon is waiting to watch unfold.

Also excellent is “Tightroping Trucks,” in which Halloran describes driving blind along a cliff-face goatpath, totally dependent on the instructions yelled at him by his gunner and truck commander, who can see parts of the trail he cannot.  It, along with “The Moon is Still Up” and another poem titled “I Want to Paint the Sunrise,” can be read here at the BluePrint Review online literary journal.

There’s a lot more to Shortly Thereafter than vivid portraits of driving derring-do, but I believe by now my respect for Halloran’s service and enjoyment of his poetry are clear.  Halloran is out of the Army now and living in Boston while teaching at Fairfield University.  More poetry, please, Mr. Halloran, whether it be war-related or not, and soon.

An interview with Halloran can be found here, as well as a portrait of him sitting on the hood of an up-armored Humvee, which seems appropriate.

Colin D. Halloran’s Shortly Thereafter was published in 2012 by Main Street Rag Publishing Company.

Unhappy Memorial Day: Kevin Powers’ Letter Composed During a Lull in the Fighting

Powers LetterThose who have fallen in our nation’s wars deserve unambiguous commemoration on Memorial Day, and all other days for that matter. But for veterans and artists it’s not that simple.  Remembering the dead while gathering strength to go on become vexed projects, shaded by doubt and perspective.  Memory and hope crash together disjointedly; forgetfulness and despair operate at cross-purposes. Kevin Powers’ new book of poems, titled Letter Composed During a Lull in the Fighting, illustrates the truth of these points, though it doesn’t address American dead in the Iraq War very often or directly. If anything, the deaths of Iraqi civilians and his own father concern Powers more, as well as those of the historical inhabitants of the Richmond, Virginia locale in which many of the poems are set.  In a poem called “The Locks of the James,” he writes:

If I’m honest, mine is the only history
that really interests me, which is unfortunate,
because I am not alone.

Though the deaths of fellow American soldiers doesn’t preoccupy Powers, killing and dying considered more abstractly definitely does. The poems in Letter Composed During a Lull in the Fighting trace the intertwining processes of remembering, reflecting, and projecting, roughly but not always centered on an awareness of mortality brought to an intensified pitch by combat.  The title is sensational, but misleading. Few of the poems are composed in media res with the speaker in the warzone.  Instead, most are recollections in more-or-less tranquility after return home.  “Meditation on a Main Supply Route,” a poem that has the speaker comparing notes with a Vietnam War vet, is typical:

I am home and whole, so to speak.
The streetlights are in place along the avenue
just as I remembered
and just as I remember
there is tar slick on the poles
because it has rained. It doesn’t matter.
I know these roads will work
their way to me. They may arrive
right here, at this small circle of light
folding in on itself where brick
and broken sidewalk meet.
So, I must be prepared. But I can’t remember
how to be alive. It has begun
to rain so hard I fear I’ll drown.
I guess we ought to
take these pennies off our eyes,
strike them new likenesses;
toss them with new wishes
into whatever water can be found.

The “pennies off our eyes” that turn living vets into walking ghosts is a sense of obligation born of guilt.  In “Photographing the Suddenly Dead,” Powers writes:

We no longer have to name
the sins that we are guilty of.
The evidence for every crime
exists. What one
must always answer for
is not what has been done, but
for the weight of what remains
as residue—every effort
must be made to scrub away
the stain we’ve made on time.

The last poem in the collection, “Grace Note,” tries to muster the imagination to figure out how to carry on purposefully into the future after war:

And I know better than to hope,
but one might wait
and pay attention
and rest awhile,
for we are more than figuring the odds.

“The world has been replaced / by our ideas about the world,” Powers had warned in the volume’s opening poem, “Customs,” and by the collection’s end we know he hadn’t been kidding. For a veteran-artist such as he is, every day is a day of remembrance and every poem a document of pain. Letter Composed During a Lull in the Fighting’s most imaginatively exciting poem, “Improvised Explosive Device,” consists of an extended metaphor in which Powers compares a poem to an IED:

If this poem has left you deaf,
if the words in it are smoking,
if parts of it have passed through your body
or the bodies of those you love, this will go a long way
toward explaining why you will, in later years,
prefer to sleep on couches.

“Yet you will weep and know why,” wrote English poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, not about war, but about death generally.  As Hopkins’ poem, “Spring and All,” ends, Hopkins claims that it is for herself whom the poem’s subject weeps, not anyone else.  Powers seems to have arrived at similar view, while suggesting that it could only have been obtained by contemplating the death of his father, innocent Iraqis, and all the Americans killed-in-action or died-of-wounds in the nation’s wars.

Veterans' tombstones, Towson, Maryland.
Veterans’ tombstones, Towson, Maryland.

Kevin Powers, Letter Composed During a Lull in the Fighting. Little, Brown, and Company, 2014.

%d bloggers like this: