“The Sun Came
BY ETHERIDGE KNIGHT
And if sun comes
How shall we greet him?
The sun came, Miss Brooks,--
After all the night years.
He came spitting fire from his lips.
And we flipped—We goofed the whole thing.
It looks like our ears were not equipped
For the fierce hammering.
And now the Sun has gone, has bled red,
Weeping behind the hills.
Again the night shadows form.
But beneath the placid face a storm rages.
The rays of Red have pierced the deep, have struck
The core. We cannot sleep.
The shadows sing: Malcolm, Malcolm, Malcolm.
The darkness ain't like before.
The Sun came, Miss Brooks.
And we goofed the whole thing.
(Though ain't no vision visited my cell.)”
Since the beginning of the 21st Century we’ve had warnings to get our act together, warnings that seem to be getting larger in amplitude, more frequent and with greater urgency.
The biggest terrorist attack on American soil briefly served as warning to stop being complacent with the suffering of those who couldn’t benefit us, to heal our divisions and realize we ‘are more alike . . than we are unalike’ (Maya Angelou)
Three pandemics sounded the alarm for the big pandemic for which we knew we were unprepared. The alarm said stop contributing to the development of superbugs, ensure healthcare is available to the most vulnerable, ensure we recognize the source of strength is our citizens and our workforce – not our stock prices and wealth.
A financial collapse sounded the alarm that exploitation is not a financial system and the signs of a strong economy is in the purchasing power and the stability of the working class.
The sun came and we chose, like Gwendolyn Brooks’ poem, to ‘sleep in the coolness / of snug unawareness.’
Poets tend not to effect change directly. But what poets do is to point out the errors in our allusions, to sound the warning signs that we are heading toward the cliff. If we were represented by one figure in literature – perhaps it should be Cassandra, gifted with the gift of prophecy, cursed to watch the tragedy unfold regardless.
Gwendolyn Brooks, and Etheridge Knight, in conversation with Brooks – wrote from the perspective of this curse – having watched great leaders like Dr. King, Medgar Evers and Malcolm X revered in history books gunned down in their prime and seemingly having their words not reflected in the communities they led – where injustice persisted.
Illusions and missed opportunities for change.
This is one reason poets find their lives in danger under authoritarian regimes – they are a danger to the illusion. In the US, where the illusion of exceptionalism infects citizens at all levels – no sort of oppression is needed. The work of ignoring truths that are not convenient, that are outside our ‘snug unawareness,’ is done for the authoritarians at the lowest level of society.
Today is Etheridge Knight’s birthday and we have another reminder that we are in the process of ‘goof(ing) the whole thing.’
The Sun, in the form of a life altering light on inequality and a realization that the most essential members of our society are those with the ability to nourish, to teach or to heal – has been here. It’s been an opportunity to make changes that set the balance which for decades has been geared toward extracting our resources upward and endangering our future for the short term wealth of a few. Technology has allowed us to see suffering in distant places before it reached us. But we’ve used that technology to send rumors and stir up protests in the name of abstract ideas like being free from the things that might save our lives. Instead of looking out for those doing vital work we are rallying around the few doing the damage and their ‘right’ to extract. And if we’re paying attention to how this plays out through history we should be alarmed enough to act knowing that warnings only happen so many times.
I would be lying to say it was just another day; I would be lying to say this disappointment is anything new.
To everyone who worked their ass off the past two years energizing an apathetic majority who allowed a vocal minority to impose their will -- thank you. And PLEASE do not lose hope.
Part of me realizes that last sentence was to myself. No matter what happened in the midterms last night and in the races that are still being counted today would still involve getting up and doing the real work of getting to know our neighbors (a broad term that includes those neighbors miles and countries away) and fighting, not as much to win elections, to convince our neighbors what needs saving, what needs building, and that bigotry and fear leave only destruction.
Legend has it that after the General Scipio defeated Carthage in the Third Punic War, he plowed the earth around Carthage and sowed salt in the ground - a way of driving the defeat home by making everything that had sustained Carthaginians - dead. It is the hatred that takes over when 'winning' is the only value a group holds - that possessing something with no value rates higher than letting it have value somewhere else.
Well, we are not conquered. You are not conquered. You are no one's raw materials there for the taking. But that point won't be won with bumper stickers and t-shirt slogans but expanding that definition of neighbor, getting to know them, not running away from ideas that scare you, and talking with neighbors about what makes community work - schools, libraries, opportunities, etc - and building that.
And stop being kinder, gentler when it comes to bigotry. Yes, I know no one wants to lose friends or alienate family, but it's not over 'politics' it's over hate and that's a poison with which the bigots have chosen to salt their earth. Refusing to live in their cesspool and demanding they change to bring the 'family' together is an option.
Thirty years ago this would have baffled me and hurt. It still hurts the knowing that people would choose this toxicity over fertile ground that a greater number of people could share. But that hurt is just the blinders coming off and the sun getting in the eyes.
The Bruce Cockburn song is heavy on my mind this morning and the village idiot on the throne is very real. He is literally salting his own earth. But dwelling on it isn't going to do a damn thing. After the feeling passes it will be time to find those who want to talk about saving what needs saving.
I hope this finds you well. Please take time to take care of yourself.
'The village idiot takes the throne
His the wind in which all must sway
All sane people, die now
Be lifted up and carried away
You've got no home in this world of sorrows'
There's a parasite feeding on
Everybodys bag of rage
What goes out returns again
To smite the mouth and burn the page
Under the rain of all our dark tomorrows
I can see in the dark its where I used to live
I see excess and the gaping need
Follow the money see where it leads
It is to shrunken men stuffed up with greed
They meet and make plans in strange half-lit tableaux
Under the rain of all our dark tomorrows
You've got no home in this world of sorrows'
Bruce Cockburn, 'All Our Dark Tomorrows'
In a classroom on an Air Force Base
sixteen hundred miles away the talk
has stopped and the eyes have shifted
to the world that’s frozen behind me
on the projection screen.
The wall has turned into a ball
of flame, cool to the touch,
but hot enough to stop the world
in its tracks. No one’s in danger
here – seventeen years later
we finally know it for a fact.
But at this moment on the southern
plains the unknown hangs
above our classroom like
a greying funnel clouds, and there’s
a ball of flame jumping out
of a skyscraper window in a slow
motion hour of flesh becoming rain.
Seventeen years later, a Dodge Ram
follows too close behind a small
green Accord, a Confederate flag
waving from its bed. You might think
the symbolism’s too much, that
I’m making it up and I wish –
people spoiling for a fight have given
themselves the last full measure of permission.
In 2001 we’re left with this single image,
this ball of flame, the gate’s locked down,
the phone line’s dead, and no one
knows where the next attack will be
or what happens when panic spreads.
Being soldiers we gather wire, a hanger,
an old tv on a rickety cart, and begin
stringing a makeshift tower from
the guttering, until tragedy unfolds
on a snowy screen.
each other watch and know half
will be overseas, sleeping on rock
before the year has ended. Time passes.
No one says a word, watches the parade
of snowy faced talking heads repeat
‘what we know now’ which is nothing.
Someone asks ‘Does anyone have family there?’
and two have already walked to the back of the room,
pressing numbers, exhaling, trying again.
Later in assembly the Chief says ‘Go home.
Spend time with your family. No work tomorrow –
we’ll call when we know.’ Even then
people move slowly, hypnotically.
Outside the gate there are lines,
cars trying to get in, cars waiting for gas,
pedestrians being searched. We learn later
a man has tried to run over a mother
and daughter, wearing hijabs,
in a nearby parking lot, and that gasoline
was selling black market style
for eight dollars a gallon, and next
day listen to story after story of the tragedy
of the lost investors, as if their wealth –
my wife cuts in, ‘the people buffing the floor,
those cooking on the top floor, they had
Her sentence hits me now,
all these years later,
watching the Accord run a red light
to get away from the patriot in the pickup,
and north south traffic slowly entering
the intersection, everyone drawing
invisible but firm lines.
A woman wearing
an abaya waits to cross with me –
you might think the moment’s too
convenient, too symbolic – but we
don’t care. We say hello, walk together
across the intersection when the light changes,
the way we would have done beneath
a greying sky, without thinking before the world froze,
before we drew those fixed invisible lines.
“It began to seem that one would have to hold in the mind forever two ideas which seemed to be in opposition. The first idea was acceptance, the acceptance, totally without rancor, of life as it is, and men as they are: in the light of this idea, it goes without saying that injustice is a commonplace. But this did not mean that one could be complacent, for the second idea was of equal power: that one must never, in one’s own life, accept these injustices as commonplace but must fight them with all one’s strength. This fight begins, however, in the heart and it now had been laid to my charge to keep my own heart free of hatred and despair. " -- from Notes of a Native Son
Occasionally as an undergrad with a very undistinguished academic record, there were still moments I could point to as burst of light that, added together, made up my education. One of those moments was encountering James Baldwin and grappling with his words no matter how much they made me squirm - like the kid with the hangover hearing the fire and brimstone sermon on Sunday morning. (Having been raised in a church with a conservative, fundamentalist bent - I knew both feelings.)
Carrying around Notes of a Native Son and The Fire Next Time sometimes drew looks, a concerned 'why are you reading that,' cringeworthy as the opening supper scene of American History X.
And as a kid growing away from the handed down 'wisdom' of the community where white supremacy was both overt and subtle, and even in the words of those who passed for progressive - I don't think I could express it, not knowing how to stand up to the people who were the first to teach right from wrong, how to make expressing anger a bridge rather than a fire under a bridge.
Baldwin writes in a later work, “America’s sense of reality is dictated by what it is trying to avoid.” Which seems to be the spirit of 'why are you reading that?'
I'm aware that attempting to write about this can sometimes come across as an apologetics for one's own privilege or ignorance. I'm also aware that dealing with truths that make us uncomfortable won't happen when worrying about what reading a certain book or dealing awkwardly with an insight looks like.
I hope if anything positive can come out of this year it's in engaging ideas that make us uncomfortable and that suppressing that righteous anger in favor of 'civility' isn't building a bridge, it's just silently accepting a chasm.
Honored to speak at the Poetry Society of Texas - Summer Conference. I am not a scholar - yet I can't imagine writing without touching bases with the many poets who have come before me, and the writers who are out there writing now. This is the rambling talk that goes Billy Pilgrim style from past to present and back again, from Homer to the Vietnam era poets and a few other places.
"A Foot In Both Worlds
First I want to say Thank you to the Poetry Society of Texas for the opportunity, not just to read but to hear so many terrific poets. Any time you can spend time with family whether we’re connected by our words and images or blood, it’s a great week.
My recurring title in workshops with both veterans and in prisons is usually ‘A Foot In Both Worlds.’ We’re in a place of dualities where conventional wisdom says that War poetry is its own subject, that the veteran’s identity is its own monolithic identity and it leaves no room for diversity of experience, of viewpoints or even the diversity of the veterans.'
I will admit the spirit of Billy Pilgrim (the central figure in Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse 5) takes over sometimes when writing about this, as in being unstuck in time, where the past and present, Iraq and Texas, my influences and some of the new writing, are informing each other. It's something that most of the writers mentioned below will share.
It had bothered me at times to see people who wrote strong descriptions of war and other traumas to be labeled war poet as if that were the essential part of their identity. The ones who made the biggest impact had rich lives out of uniform. And yet their work in bringing something to life still boiled down to a bumper sticker in the media, or lately used to stifle the dissent of protestors showed much work still to be done.
For me, one of the most important parts of my education has been the lens that poetry and literature opened. I learned the costs of the Civil War through Whitman, about World War 1 through Owen and Rosenberg, about Vietnam through Yusef Komunyakaa and Tim O’Brien.
I’ve learned about Central America conflict and world wide conflict through the efforts of Carolyn Forche. I’ve watched friends and made friends through sharing stories of the past 25 years and witnessed how the story of the one through an artist like Brian Turner can cut through what can often seem like a jumble of figures, narratives that are prescribed in a way that some would call ‘War Porn.'
And then there's Homer. I’m not going to stand up here and analyze Homer as if I were a Classicist. I’m merely a veteran and a poet who finds a mentor in the folks who have been here before.
But I've used poetry, like many,in workshops for veterans and in prisons and the biggest issue, some of the poems that capture the minds of students is Reconciliation -the return of the warrior or the prisoner back into the community. Which is a reason that at the beginning of workshops before anyone reads their own work aloud – we read. And perhaps the most important tale of reconciliation comes from book of the Odyssey.
For this subject we'll go through several poems that exhibit what it means to have a foot in both worlds we may find that Homer's shadow is looming over each of them.
I latched on to The Iliad and The Odyssey after multiple readings, after skipping child like through all the exciting stories of Achilles and Hector, of the Cave with the Cyclops or the Battle with the Suitors. I didn’t really piece together that it was more than a piece of entertainment until I stuck it out to the end, reading Book 24 in both Epics.
In The Odyssey the ending involves being recognized by the father, the wife, and rejected by the townspeople. Reconciliation is the desire of the returning citizen to have an identity other than Warrior. Odysseus, gone 20 years, is the returning King who wants to lay down his armor who can’t – the connection isn’t there with the villagers who haven’t seen what he has seen.
And this is the bridge that the returning veteran still wants to cross and the war poet wants to play a role in building. There’s a myth that persists of the reticent veteran the one who ‘never talks about it.’
And while they may talk little it often has more to do with the distance between our cultural and our recruiting poster mythologies of hero and what was really experienced, which in between action scenes included failures or maybe moments of boredom, or instances where what happened fell short of their own sense of right and wrong.
I think there's a similarity between the veteran's reticence and the fact that so much of the Odyssey is in our cultural memory – but not the ending. A feeling that we can't live up to the word hero.
It tells me that Homer knew what he was doing to center this story of reconciliation on one of the most flawed characters in literature – A man whose wit played a huge role in winning the war, but whose boastfulness incurred the wrath of Poseidon, whose curiosity endangered his own troops (not to mention the philandering). Still he survived insurmountable obstacles. Homer perhaps knew the danger of a Single Story.
So we begin at the ending. A scene where Odysseus, his father Laertes, his son Telemachus, a small number of servants are staring down a number of villagers storming up the hill with fire, pitchforks, or what ever weapons they can muster. He's already survived the cyclops,the whirlpool,the sea monster, the sirens, circe and calypso- now it's his own countrymen. The warrior returning to his home town and having to face his home town –first the suitors who wanted to marry his wife and assume the throne, and now their families.
We are told in the moments leading up to the final scene that Eupeithes (U-pites), father of the suitor Antinuous, calls Odysseus the ‘deviser of a monstrous deed.’ He goes on to speak of Odysseus losing his men in the Mediterranean , enough truth to have some credibility, but language is changing the narrative. So much time has passed that the warrior identity changes to what fits popular feeling. It’s not a unified group. Another elder of the village Halitherses reminds the group that the suitors may have brought this on themselves. But it’s usually not reason that wins out and the blood lust is already risen to such a level that the people are not having any of this reason.
And the person facing them was Odysseus who conformed to nobody’s rules for how a hero ought to be, standing with a foot in both worlds – still wearing the armor also a peacetime king, still not quite home, and yet standing in his home country, victorious in many battles, responsible for the loss of lives on the way home, feeling gratitude at finally seeing his family again and guilt no one could imagine. Each of these opposites a long way from being reconciled.
(More on that later)
One of the early experiences for soldiers with language comes from the cadence. The cadence has a rhyme and a rhythm that is memorable, keeps the troops in step and sometimes on long runs takes the mind off the sore feet. What many of them also do, we have to admit when looking back, is to have a dehumanizing effect.
Cadences are usually seen as amusing but in some cases they take the form of creating an otherness. From ‘Jody’s got your girl and gone’ which is creating a distrust in the guys staying back, to ‘Went to a place called Vietnam / to kill me some Viet Cong’ which normalizes the killing of an other, and if the mindset is developed that this other is a faceless enemy, the hesitation may go away.
This is a use of language to create a divide rather than a bridge and the rhymes are effective. The poet Czeslaw Milosz wrote it’s often why advertising and propaganda use rhymes – ‘they stick with the listener long after the song has played and engage ideologically correct themes.’ The goal is to make acting without hesitation easier, something that's effective in a theater of war and can be horrifying at home.
But, there is another use of language that questions the the dehumanization, that instead of assigning identities lets the subject speak. Poets have been trying to bridge this gap from the time of Homer using the story of the one.
It's this use of poetry that provides hope for healing.
I had the honor to help with a Veteran’s workshop in Oklahoma for a nonprofit called Military Experience in the Arts (MEA) We used poetry and the structure of poetry to provide tools for making sense of a wide range of experiences.
Some in our workshops would plan to write only for themselves – to bridge a gap between what they remembered and what they understood. Others planned to write as a legacy for their family, to bridge a gap between their kids and grandkids and the older veteran who perhaps ‘didn’t talk about it.’ And a few planned to write for a much larger audience.
There’s a Toni Morrison quote, and I’m slightly paraphrasing ‘If there’s a story or poem you want to read but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.’ The participants latched on to this quote.
For some it had to do with unprecedented experiences, stories that often began with ‘You’re not going to believe this.’ For others it addressed the dissatisfaction with what was being written, ideas that didn’t fit what they knew – too action packed, too heroic, too good, too bad.
What we do share is the idea that no one has one simple definition.
So we begin by listing opposites on either side of the chasm, then-now, Vietnam(Iraq)/America, memory-present, or even an object and what’s going on internally. We realize that mentally we are both and a poem that is all on one side of the chasm or the other may not be the most honest.
We use an idea that the poet Michael Theune teaches using hisown book and website, called Structure and Surprise. What Theune does is to use the Volta as the major element in understanding poems and crafting them.
The Volta (most of you know) is the turn in direction or thought of a poem that originated with the Petrarchan sonnet. The turn moves the poem away from its comfortable territory to a different place without disrupting the unity of the poem.
In the old sonnets the turn might change the poem from a description of natural forces to a description of love. In a more contemporary piece by someone we're going to talk about, Yusef Komunyakaa, a poem may turn from a memory of Vietnam to the names on a wall. The turn may reach across time, geography or ideas. In this way the volta becomes not just a turn but a meeting point between the opposites.
For our workshop we took a wide list of options and tried to tailor it to structures that appeal to our population. Past and Present was one. Another called the Emblem structure connected a physical description to a meditation on its meaning (for example ‘a set of id tags’ with thoughts on their ‘owner’).
What this means by looking at a turn as a connection rather than a simple change – is that we can move backwards as well as forwards. It is already being done.
As we began to try these structures in workshop participants began to let go of some of their hurt by recognizing those imperfections in other accounts that we read. It seemed understanding the past fights the false narratives or maybe eases a person’s moral injury. It became a way out of the standoff on the hill in Ithaca.
I'm going to mention a few more recent poets who take a page from homer in connecting these worlds. The first is Yusef Komunyakaa. A Vietnam vet one of his greatest contributions has been Dien Cai Dau (‘The Crazies’), written about 20 years after the fact. I often choose the poem ‘Roll Call’ because it combines home and Vietnam – each place altering the other:
The poem opens vividly in Vietnam, in the aftermath of a military funeral with an almost casual acceptance of being seen over the enemy’s aiming sights.
‘Through rifle sights
We must’ve looked like crows
perched on a fire-eaten branch,
lined up for reveille, ready
to roll-call each M-16
between a pair of jungle boots,
a helmet on its barrel
as if it were a man.
The perfect row aligned
with the chaplain’s cross
while a metallic-gray squadron
of sea gulls circled. Only
a few lovers have blurred
the edges of this picture.
Sometimes I can hear them
marching through the house,
closing the distance. All
the lonely beds take me back
to where we saluted those
five pairs of boots
as the sun rose against our faces.’
We sometimes walk through this poem line by line. Other times participants pick out the volta. For me it comes immediately after the description when the poet is back in the states, when he says ‘Only a few lovers have blurred the edges of this picture.”
Normally we might think that a picture of the past, on the edges, would blur what we see of the present. But this reversal gives the past primacy, as if the battlefield cross, the rifle propped between the boots, the formation and the seagulls -- were more real than the person in front of his eyes. Mental reality becomes more important than literal reality.
In this respect, Komunyakaa, like so many trying to relate the journey home, becomes the child of Homer – his speaker wanting to remove the armor but unable to.
This desire to write war is a task we have often given to our warriors, like Komunyakaa. But it’s not strictly their domain. Read a war poem long enough and you start to realize it's not about war but about change in the speaker. Some powerful war poems come from the citizen being confronted with an unforgettable image.
In her poem 'Minus One, Minus One' More Patricia Smith relives the experience of seeing the images on the screen,. Smith finds her turn in the transition from SitComs and Cartoons to the evening news. A child of a busy, working parent whose place, propped in front of the television brings these contradictory worlds together.
'Minus One, Minus One More Carol Burnett tugs an ear, waves toodly-doo to the camera eye. It’s ten o’clock, and a white mechanized man asked if I, a child, know where my children are. No, but it’s time for the news, time for the insisting war, and the preposterous Philco—half monster TV screen, half bulky, functional phonograph—blares jungle, its flat glass face filled with streaked pans of crushed foliage, the whir of blades, dust-dreary GIs heaving through quick-slamming throats. Lurching toward the ledges of copters, they screech commands, instructions, prayers, struggle to cram blooded lumps back into their uniforms--dead there, there, let’s see, almost dead over there— a hand dangling by tendrils, a left eye imploded, black-and-white red etches slow roadways into the back of a dimming hand. Beneath the lack of hue, a white buzz, a lazy scroll of dates and numbers: This is how many gone today, how many last week, last month, this year. Big Daddy Cronkite’s eyes glaze, consider closing, refocus. Think of all the children plopped in front of this unscripted boom to pass the time. Think of Tom turning Jerry’s head into spectacular dust, then this, our first official war smashing into the family room, blurring into cinema, into lesson. It’s how we learned to subtract.'
Where Komunyakaa’s poetry connected different times through object that symbolized loss – we have his body of work. So we have a glimpse of the unspeakable that hovers over his poems.
Patricia Smith, who was still a teenager for much of the Vietnam War, changes the tone in line three with a single emphatic NO, a statement that ends the pleasantness of Carol Burnett, and the good natured man who probably doesn’t know he’s broadcasting to a child.
It reveals the two worlds a poet has to occupy, touching the base of our sympathetic selves while revealing at the same time the unsympathetic nature of the world. Where Komunyakaa substitute symbols for gore, Smith immerses us. It is the reality that is facing off against the representation.
It is the traces of a world that still feels as if children should somehow be protected from the harshness, the implication of the television that they should be in bed – which runs up against the reality of an absent parent, perhaps working, and a child from sheer force of economics babysat by the television which makes no distinction between the cartoon violence and the real thing.
I'm going add in a third poet from this period. While we’re talking about the turn that connects reality and representation we’ll shift to the poetry of another Vietnam vet, Bruce Weigl (Wye-gul) who wrote of a flashback in Song of Napalm, a poem that begins innocently enough in a farmhouse looking at horses as it starts to rain. He's standing with his wife who has learned that the two of them don't see exactly the same thing and yet they continue – he trying to lie to himself and she trying to translate. In a strange way a love poem as much as a war poem.
I’ll read an excerpt.
Song of Napalm
BY BRUCE WEIGL
for my wife
After the storm, after the rain stopped pounding,
We stood in the doorway watching horses
Walk off lazily across the pasture’s hill.
We stared through the black screen,
Our vision altered by the distance
So I thought I saw a mist
Kicked up around their hooves when they faded
Like cut-out horses
Away from us.
The grass was never more blue in that light, more
Scarlet; beyond the pasture
Trees scraped their voices into the wind, branches
Crisscrossed the sky like barbed wire
But you said they were only branches.
Okay. The storm stopped pounding.
I am trying to say this straight: for once
I was sane enough to pause and breathe
Outside my wild plans and after the hard rain
I turned my back on the old curses. I believed
They swung finally away from me ...
But still the branches are wire
And thunder is the pounding mortar,
Still I close my eyes and see the girl
Running from her village, napalm
Stuck to her dress like jelly,
Her hands reaching for the no one
Who waits in waves of heat before her.
So I can keep on living,
So I can stay here beside you,
I try to imagine she runs down the road and wings
Beat inside her until she rises
Above the stinking jungle and her pain
Eases, and your pain, and mine.
But the lie swings back again.
The lie works only as long as it takes to speak
And the girl runs only as far
As the napalm allows
Until her burning tendons and crackling
Muscles draw her up
into that final position
Burning bodies so perfectly assume. Nothing
Can change that; she is burned behind my eyes
And not your good love and not the rain-swept air
And not the jungle green
Pasture unfolding before us can deny it.
Weigl’s poem makes multiple turns from home to the scene in his mind triggered by the sound of thunder and the barbed wire look of tree branches. This is a memory the poet keeps reliving.
And not only does he continue, the family shares it with him, the work is put upon the wife to be the bridge from past to present as she reminds him that it is trees and not wire and the poet lies to himself and thinks he’s turned his back on this history. But it doesn’t work. He has to outlast it.
These were all on my mind years later when I came to terms with my own innocence and illusions. Much of what I knew at first came from the public, cultural images – the bloodless casualties of Pork Chop Hill, the video game imagery of the news coverage of the first gulf war, the target practice on silhouettes and then the shots. The lines progressed from the representation to the reality.
“Old War Movies and the News
As kids we watched actors charge up Pork Chop Hill. Each shot, it sounded
like popcorn and when the soldiers fell, it seemed like play. Behind the sofa
where we leaned toward our tiny screen, a friend blew up a paper bag with air
and popped it with his open hand. No one jumped.
Someone shot a dirty look;
there were fistfuls of kernels that flew like shrapnel. But most would focus
on the scene as minor characters fell like bowling pins, then reset when the screen went dark. That’s how we learned about battle.
A few years later our own war
hit the six o-clock news. We’d eat in silence watching round white dots fall
into geometries we learned were buildings: the small white dots blew shit up --
black squares in video game crosshairs. We’d watch the ordnance drop – bloodless -- reverse its course and rise, only to drop again.
A decade passes and now
we wait in the desert to board the trucks – fresh uniforms feel so damn crisp.
Ironed edges create clean lines. While we’re waiting, three quick bursts
crash through the air.
It will be the last time nobody moves.”
. . . . .
What I want to point out is there is such a transformative power in experience that is missed when reading war poems as somehow a different category than poems, as if the warrior is somehow an essential identity, or a hero.
The standoff in the final scene in Ithaca has created an identity of the returning king as the outsider and it’s forgotten that he’s one of the countrymen. In the more recent examples the speakers of poems are writing of their desire to have a normal relationship, or to grow up and still laugh with America at the sit coms, or have the simple pleasure of watching it rain, or to watch a movie with family. Those events only transform in hindsight, after bringing back an experience possessed by about 19 million.
We often wish to compartmentalize and pack that part of us inside a footlocker, put a lock on it and store it away. But in doing that the transformation doesn’t go away. Veterans talk about a dissatisfaction with the narrative, the images portrayed of distant people, or the lead character of the Hurt Locker going cowboy and dropping his armor in the desert because if he’s going to die he’s going to be comfortable, or Nick in the Deer Hunter losing his sense of reality.
Not that these stories weren’t true for one person but if that's the public's one image of a soldier it comes to represent the whole, unfortunately. We bring back Toni Morrison’s words, “If you don’t see the story you want to read (or the one that tells your truth), you must write it.” That’s the task and many do and they’re rarely the same.
One of the things that complicates the job of building a bridge is that even in an unsatisfactory narrative there’s just enough truth to give it credibility. We go back a few lines earlier in Ithaca – a god by the name of Rumor has gone out and planted seeds.
Rumor spread the news of the suitor who were slain but conveniently not the context. Kinsmen came to bury their dead and the dead were an undeniable fact. It was in this process that the returning warrior transformed into a monster, when accusations came up that he had lost his men who hadn’t returned home with him.
We’ve talked about this scene – but it’s interesting that the Greeks had a god to explain this phenomenon – as if the narrative takes on a life of its own if people with a truth to tell say nothing. The Greeks had a god for this, later we develop talk radio and the 24 hour news cycle.
Jonathan Shay, as a clinical psychiatrist, has spent a lot of his life working with veterans, gave us two of the best resources for understanding moral injury & the mind of the returning warrior: Achilles in Vietnam and Odysseus in America.
In Odysseus in America he writes: ““Odysseus' first adventure after he leaves Troy with his squadron is the sack of Ismarus. It's a pirate raid—there's nothing particularly amazing or fairy-tale-like about it. No one-eyed or six-headed monsters show up here, no witches, no gods either. The crews get drunk on captured wine and Odysseus loses control of them. They go wild and run riot in the town. This reflects no credit on the troops—they indulge themselves and put themselves in a weak position. The victims of this raid and their kin counterattack and inflict serious losses on the boat crews before they can escape out to sea.
Hardly what we expected! But here Homer shows us the first way that combat soldiers lose their homecoming, having left the war zone physically—they may simply remain in combat mode, although not necessarily against the original enemy.”
This is the truth that some upon return deal with, the idea that what enabled them to survive hardship – the hypervigilance, the acting without thinking -- become inappropriate in other contexts. And it’s not as easy to just take off the armor as some might think.
This is true of a finite number but should not be taken to mean everyone with the same experience. Fortunately Shay later reminds us that the same person who witnessed this, who slew the suitors, is the same person who cautiously approached his wife upon return, who proved his identity by his knowledge of the bed he built with the giant tree as the immovable post, and only then did he embrace his wife and spend all night talking about his adventures. That's the difficult lesson of reconciling all those people in one.
But these are in the same person. And a tribute to Homer’s genius that he showed how to build a bridge and how NOT to build a bridge in the same work.
A few summers ago, in a conversation at Sewanee with another writer attempting to write a story that accompanied both war, which his parents had experience and his experience as an immigrant he experienced feedback from a professor who, in his words, wanted to correct him on the stories that didn’t conform to his thoughts of how proper war poetry should be written.
Where was the moral confusion of killing? and why was there sex in this narrative? and how could someone who was a teenager at the time be ‘steeped in the effects of combat’? The professor was filtering an experience he hadn't witness through a few media images.
I wondered what the professor would have thought of Komunyakaa’s lines, ‘only a few lovers have blurred the edges of this picture’ or ‘all those lonely beds’, or what he would have thought of the war invading Patricia Smith’s living room as a teenager.
It brought to mind the famous talk by a great author, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie who spoke about the ‘danger of a single story’ remembering a professor who objected to her stories of living in a house in Nigeria, the daughter of professionals a professor and an administrator – his objection that her stories of her life didn’t conform to the images he had seen through the media. It seems there is no end to fighting for the narrative.
What fights through the stereotype is the poem that takes us in the mind of a single speaker encountering history. We will have no end of statistics, generalizations and pundits who provide an answer that claims to represent all soldiers.
This single speaker lacks corroboration in history books but it also is an antidote to stories of war in other places only written from the American point of view and is an antidote to official accounts and press briefings that are written for a specific purpose.
In her Forward to the great Witness Poetry anthology Carolyn Forche refers to a poem by activist Ariel Dorfman and the poem ‘Vocabulary.’ Dorfman writes of the inability to speak without filtering experience – the lines: ‘But how will I tell their story?” he answers “Let them speak for themselves.”
Forche adds that the story belongs to those who have undergone extremity, whether it is the soldier returning from Iraq, the mother fleeing violence of Central America, or an ancient King finally finding himself back in Ithaca.
This strikes me as the bridge that we’re building, the one between the person whose story is not found in the news articles or on the coverage on screen or in the movies.
There are enough articles that cluster people into groups, so that as a viewer we feel that if we know something of the group, then we must know something about the person standing before us, she or he must have a certain identity to be in that group, whether that group is veterans or immigrants or prisoners or any category we can make. That’s the narrative being fought.
Tim O’Brien, in The Things They Carried, which is as much about story telling as it is of war, writes of fighting for this narrative. One of his most famous passages looks back on the events he’s telling to offer explanation
“Forty-three years old, and the war occurred half a lifetime ago, and yet the remembering makes it now. And sometimes remembering will lead to a story, which makes it forever. That’s what stories are for. Stories are for joining the past to the future.
Stories are for those late hours in the night when you can’t remember how you got from where you were to where you are. Stories are for eternity, when memory is erased, when there is nothing to remember except the story.”
The stories are not something that will be more true if verified or less true if they’re unverified. They are the truths that rise up from the gaps where a person who has seen something horrible reads the history and doesn’t see himself – they are the bridge.
So we come back to our main story.
Our cultural memory often includes the action scenes or the scenes that are useful. In the Odyssey, Book 24 is the story of reconciliation and sometimes in re-reading it jolts me to remember the tales don’t end with the Slaying of the Suitors or the reuniting with Penelope.
In the Odyssey it’s the reconciliation with home which is more problematic because we learn the humans don’t figure it out on their own. Which is the lesson we need. Which is the reason we still trying to build this bridge 2800 years later.
It would be nice in the ending if Odysseus and the townspeople realize that if they keep fighting they will never see the end of fighting. But we know that it’s the goddess of wisdom Athena, the one who's been on the side of the Greeks and advocating for Odysseus all along, reveals her self and orders both sides to lay down their arms.
We can interpret this two ways. Homer, like many writers, was at the end of the story and wracking his brain trying to figure – how do I get out of this story – or he was saying something about the idea that reconciliation hasn’t been figured out – it is out of our grasp and needs divine intervention. Left to our own devices we’re still standing on the hill having the staredown between the representations and the reality.
Which isn’t to say that no answers are given. We have to jump back halfway through the book to the underworld (Book 11) and the blind prophet Tiresias who meets Odysseus before his return.
He is explaining when Odysseus will finally achieve reconciliation and he says that he will have one last journey, to strap an oar to his back and journey inland until he meets a people who don’t recognize it or thing that it is a winnowing fan.
There he will make a sacrifice to Poseidon. The idea of an instrument necessary for sailing, for going to fight, as a tool to separate grain from chaffe is full of symbolism, maybe the predecessor for turning swords into ploughshares.
It’s burial in the middle of the epic though is telling. We never come back to the fulfilling of the prophecy. We could write it off as a mistake by Homer. After all he didn’t have the benefit of history books and graduate programs (?). But I think the more important thing is to think of this as a directive, and the open ending as work still to be done, a bridge in need of building.
I wanted to close with a poem that is about as open ended about reconciliation as what we’ve been talking about.
Redness invades a soldier’s face
after the vise of crossed arms closes
against the cracked proving ground.
Still, it surprises me. We practice
the chokes, the pressure points, the things
I hope we will never use. My hands grip
his collar from the inside
in that textbook way so my arms
can cross, scissor-like, cutting air.
“Switch places!” booms the instructor’s voice
and my head rests now, near a black
fire ant mound. It is only a matter of time
before the invaded army swarms.
My partner grabs, pulls, crosses
and while I’m staring upward ,
the white sky blinds until air vanishes
and the world turns black again.
On another country’s unforgiving earth
one hand learns to rest on the trigger well.
The other hand rehearses: grab, pull, cross.
Oil black eyes follow me, never quite
meeting mine. Children stare from open doors
at my neck. School has been closed six years
and I have become their text.
These days they have only time: watch, study, wait.
Even the ground, where beneath doorways
a camel spider drags the larger lizard
in its jaw, strives to take a man’s breath away.
The house that welcomes me
feels foreign, as if ceramic tile
dares to crack beneath my soles
which still carry grains of sand.
Outside the screen door, a moth
breaks its body against the porch light.
Interlocking my fingers -- the only way
I know not to catch it mid-frustrated-flight
and rub its body between fingertips.
In our bedroom you stretch
half-naked across our mattress.
“Why do you never sleep here?”
I can only shrug while looking at your neck
knowing where each vein and artery rest.
I wander off, another night drawn
to the glow of blue television light,
hands under my folded arms. I know
these hands wait for a more useful task.
In writing this it hit me that I haven’t really been talking about war poetry or war or overseas. I think back to the cadences, many of which changed in my life in the military, and the othering that they do – the fact that what makes a person efficient in one specific realm takes on an unintended life of its own.
We have only to look at social media or our 24 hour news cycle to see what happens when language reduces people to a single story or stereotype. What makes person efficient in that war zone is playing with fire at home.
Misused this language separates the returning person from the village.
Perhaps our winnowed fan is in our language and instead of diminishing and dehumanizing, it can be showing a world that is possible. The flawed warrior returning and taking off the armor, but also the village who doesn't attach the term hero, and doesn't respond hatefully when he fails to live up it. Poetry resists the easy answer and stereotype allowing both worlds to be in the same space. It can be used by witnesses to combine a hard earned knowledge of harshness with our own empathetic selves the two worlds we attempt to occupy.
Teaching creative writing in a prison offers so many rewards along with many uncertainties. The reward is often hearing a story that reaches a depth or a power not often heard in a writing class. Or sometimes seeing something click with a student when you share a favorite poem that fits the theme for the week.
The uncertainty is wondering if the poems you pick will fall flat or if you will run out of approaches in helping the class understand it. I can't assume the students took a prerequisite class or assign them to go 'look it up.' Whatever we're going to understand we're going to understand right there right then.
So it's exciting watching students eyes light up as they take over the journey, hook after hook, of Plath's walk from an Edenic road surrounded by blackberries toward an unreachable sea, and notice the disintegration as the landscape shifts. So many have their interpretations of poems filtered by what they think they know, in this case the poet's depression, abuse and suicide - which are important subjects but should never obscure the fact that Plath was one hell of a poet. Seeing that realization in students that are not bound by what they think they already know is a powerful experience.
BY SYLVIA PLATH
Nobody in the lane, and nothing, nothing but blackberries,
Blackberries on either side, though on the right mainly,
A blackberry alley, going down in hooks, and a sea
Somewhere at the end of it, heaving. Blackberries
Big as the ball of my thumb, and dumb as eyes
Ebon in the hedges, fat
With blue-red juices. These they squander on my fingers.
I had not asked for such a blood sisterhood; they must love me.
They accommodate themselves to my milkbottle, flattening their sides.
Overhead go the choughs in black, cacophonous flocks--
Bits of burnt paper wheeling in a blown sky.
Theirs is the only voice, protesting, protesting.
I do not think the sea will appear at all.
The high, green meadows are glowing, as if lit from within.
I come to one bush of berries so ripe it is a bush of flies,
Hanging their bluegreen bellies and their wing panes in a Chinese screen.
The honey-feast of the berries has stunned them; they believe in heaven.
One more hook, and the berries and bushes end.
The only thing to come now is the sea.
From between two hills a sudden wind funnels at me,
Slapping its phantom laundry in my face.
These hills are too green and sweet to have tasted salt.
I follow the sheep path between them. A last hook brings me
To the hills’ northern face, and the face is orange rock
That looks out on nothing, nothing but a great space
Of white and pewter lights, and a din like silversmiths
Beating and beating at an intractable metal."
" So they were busied with their meal in the halls; but meanwhile Rumor, the messenger, went swiftly throughout all the city, telling of the terrible death and fate of the wooers. And the people heard it all at once, and gathered from every side with moanings and wailings" (The Odyssey.XXIV.412-415)
The image I can't get out of my head comes from Book 24 of the Odyssey, with Odysseus, his son Telemachus, and his father Laertes standing on the hill as the angry villagers storm up looking for payback.
We often overlook this, like we overlook the whole act of reconciliation when it comes to war. If Hollywood script writers wrote the Odyssey I'm convinced it would end just after Odysseus slaughters the suitors, Penelope would magically forgive the staff for their disloyalty, and hero and wife would have a kiss that made up for 20 years & embrace in a sanitized banquet hall just before the camera shot fades.
But the story doesn't end that way which makes me wonder how foundational it is to the rest of Western Literature. Maybe our desire to read rugged individualism into our heroes and for happy, resolved endings, keeps us from understanding what the hell we are reading.
Odysseus doesn't come home and take care of business. He comes home and realizes the culture of fear and the rumor mill that connects the townspeople have ensured that he can't just lay down his sword. The humans have no ability to stop the cycle of violence, and the hero no ability to turn off the switch that put him in warrior mode. The goddess Athena has to descend from Olympus and put everyone in their place.
I don't doubt that some teachers follow all the way through to the end, but of the scenes embedded in our cultural memory - reconciliation is nowhere in it. The 'hero' has to not only reintroduce himself to the family but also to the community.
As we're welcoming soldiers home (still) from the Forever War, or as we're processing the news of another flash point in the world or violence in our own neighborhoods we don't have the luxury of filtering what we see through a set of prejudices that we grip tightly with both hands. We wind up believing in our own agency and that we are still conquering rather than learning how to build communities.
The need to set down the prejudices that we're filtering all this information through, and read the words from beginning until the last letter, has never been greater. I don't think Athena's going to come down from Olympus and break it down for us.
'One of our biggest battles within our own borders these days is that some argue that there's only one way to be patriotic, one way to behave as a citizen. Soldiers who've seen all manner of reactions to stress, and to each other, know that’s not really the case. The biggest gap I’ve noticed is not the knowledge of fighting wars—there’s plenty of facts on the news—but in the way that the military places people of different beliefs into a cohesive team, while our civil society seems to be pulling apart, with people refusing to find common ground. Hopefully, describing that process can help build connections.'
I think this is the largest part of the divide. A public with little experience of fighting our wars but filled with a sense of national pride does not quite grasp the elements of cohesive team building that goes into the units that are serving overseas. Xenophobia and treating half the population as an elusive 'enemy' are concepts unimaginable to a veteran that embraced their training and the values of their Corps. 'Taking our country back' has never been a rallying cry among those in uniform because it has NEVER been lost, a source of pride for those who serve. Until those issues are wrestled with the divide will remain.
This was not meant to be a recruiting poster though. But there are things the war poet has to offer the public, from the time of Homer who crafted Epic Similes to bridge a similar divide, to now. The war poet can simultaneously express criticism and question both authority and experience, while loving the place he or she criticizes. That should be the tack of all conscientious citizens.
In 1995 I moved to a new home in Maryland, my fourth place in four years – which was not unusual for a junior Noncommissioned Officer. There were around forty soldiers moving into the same place, a new unit and the first of its kind. What that meant was each of us assumed a new duty that our experience and training had not prepared us for.
It was most challenging for the headquarters, where a group of mechanics, commo and security folks took over the administrative jobs of setting up a company. Job descriptions were developed based on what needed doing rather than any established SOP.
During that time a young Food Service Specialist knocked on my door and asked where she’d be working. I told her we didn’t have a mess hall and the closest was civilian run. For now, we’d both be doing whatever needed to be done.
She said ‘what you got?’ and I handed her a crate of pubs and said find a system and get these off the floor and onto shelves. Which she did quickly and then came back for the next job, and the next. Until we went to the field (which meant she finally had work in her specialty) she took care of much of the writing that her bosses didn’t have time to do, and became what some call the ‘glue guy,’ the person who does the unsung jobs that enables everyone else to focus on theirs.
While she was doing this she was raising two small kids, taking college courses and studying for her citizenship test. She’d flown to Florida from Haiti as an eight-year-old and enlisted to serve her new country at the earliest possible time.
She’d had bosses who hadn’t given her the time to complete her citizenship requirements yet managed to maintain the most professional of attitudes. Now in a new place, she had to go through the process of finding the office, taking the test. I’d like to say we helped and we did but minimally. She did most of the legwork often with a small child under each arm and while doing a full load of work as a US Soldier. And was sworn in as a US citizen by the end of the year.
Any work we might have done was worth it as she became a decorated soldier and a worker often requested by name when the commander needed a competent professional for whatever the project.
My soldier who got off a plane from Haiti at eight years old, grew up and became the professional leader who excelled at each job thrown her way, managed to do more for her country, this country, than the malingering bone spur that’s taking up space in the White House.
This started on another page and was directed to a politician. I'm sure you know the reference well by now. However, it's not the bigot at the top of the pyramid that concerns me. It's the citizen who has treated this level of hatred with a shrug of the shoulder, who has accepted the mischaracterization of people who came from various corners of the world to build this country and defend it - and not everyone by choice. It's the citizen too tied to political sides that they don't look at the people around them and see people. Without that, there's nothing that the removal of a hateful politician can accomplish other than leaving space for the next hateful replacement. Change has to happen internally, then in discussions around the dinner table and then by a knock on our neighbor's door. Time to stop being scared of difference.
My soldier is one person out of millions who've fulfilled the promise of Democracy by showing nobility is a character potentially present at all social levels, and not just a matter of inheritance. This is the truth those intent on destroying Democracy are trying to destroy.