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.