22 October 2014

Comic's First Issue Tells of World War I Code-Talkers

The comic book "Tales of the Mighty Code Talkers," recently released by the Indigenous Narratives Collective, Austin, Texas, helps introduce readers to a rich history of Native American soldiers on 20th century battlefields.

The comic is written and illustrated by Arigon Starr. A series and/or collected volume of comics is planned.

The practice of using speakers of Native American languages to encrypt military radio transmissions is well-known and celebrated in some circles. It even served as the inspiration of a 2002 feature film "Windtalkers." (Admittedly, that film had shortcomings, including the fact that it focused on a non-Native American protagonist.)

However, few realize that the practice originated not with the use of Navajo speakers in the Pacific Theater during World War II, but with Cherokee and Choctaw speakers in World War I France.

During that war, Cherokee men assigned to the U.S. 30th Infantry Division used their language during to pass communication between headquarters and front lines.

Some 14 Choctaw men similarly served in the U.S. 36th Infantry Division. The first issue of "Tales of the Mighty Code Talkers" comic tells the story of Cpl. Solomon Louis and other Choctaw soldiers. According to the Choctaw Code Talkers Association website:
Code Talker Solomon Bond Louis, 142nd Infantry, was from Bryan County. He is credited with being the leader of the original Choctaw Code Talkers during the war. Seeing his buddies at Armstrong Academy enlist in the armed services, Louis who was underage, pretended to be 18 so that he too could join. He received his basic training at Ft. Sill, Oklahoma. 
He was sent to Ft. Worth, Texas where he joined an all-Indian Company which was part of the 36th Division. In France, Louis was stationed at Division Headquarters with James Edwards on the other end of the telephone line out in the field at the front line. Edwards informed Louis in Choctaw what the Germans were up to.
In World War II, 27 members of Iowa's Meskwaki (Sac and Fox) people used their language skills in the North African Theater. They were assigned to Iowa's 168th Infantry Regiment, 34th Infantry "Red Bull" Division.

A Facebook page for the Indigenous Narratives Collective is here. The $5 "Tales of the Mighty Code Talkers" No. 1 issue may be ordered here. Use the code GAKAC2014 to receive 10 percent off, and a second issue will be donated to a Native American student of history.

A $15 limited-edition poster, illustrated by Kristina Bad Hand, features the cover design for the first trade paperback collection of the comic series. It is available for sale online here.

20 October 2014

Mil-Poetry Review: Mena's 'The Shape of Our Faces ...'

"The Shape of Our Faces No Longer Matters" by Gerardo Mena

Iraq War veteran and former Marine medic Gerardo "Tony" Mena's 2014 collection of poetry, "The Shape of Our Faces No Longer Matters" delivers poetic reports from both downrange and home.

Among other awards, Mena is a past winner of a national veterans writing contest conducted annually by the Missouri Humanities Council, Warriors Arts Alliance, and the Southeast Missouri State University Press.

His work has previously appeared in the related annual anthology series "Proud to Be: Writing by American Warriors" published each November, and his poetry collection is the first of a "Military-Service Literature" series, which is also published by the press.

The 80-page book comprises 58 poems, divided into three nearly equal sections. The first section, "How to Build a War Machine," presents anecdotes and impressions of war. The Second, "I Painted Myself (Burning)," eulogizes times and men. The last, "Welcome Home, or the Sound of Your Blood Humming," deals with aspects of returning to peaceful society.

Among his free verse, Mena tosses into the footlocker a few familiar types of poetry, such as haiku, while also experimenting with new-found forms. There is, for example, one poem written as screenplay. Another, titled "Survivor's Guilt," mimics the official administrative routing slip attached to Mena's Navy Achievement Medal with "V" Device.

At times, Mena is wonderfully descriptive and reportorial. His poems are generally short, less than one page. He grounds many of his more-powerful works with facts and introductions. "We had a conversation full of sarcasm, just like old times," he writes in introducing a poem titled "The Marriage of Hand and Spear." (He had called a buddy who was recovering in hospital from burns to 45 percent of his body.) "But then he became silent, and ended our conversation with, 'Doc, I still have these dreams. Every night I watch myself burning. Every night I re-live the burn, and every night it is you that throws the match and laughs.'"

Powerful stuff—and practically a poem in itself.

At other times, Mena becomes more ethereal, more surreal. As a recovering journalist and as a reader, I tend to gravitate toward his grittier, more concrete work, but I still appreciate his dreamy searches for new metaphors—the plum blossoms and powder-white sands, the wars painted blue, the stars in our mouths. I do not always understand what he means, but I enjoy going along for the ride.

In either mode, Mena's work is accessible and plain-spoken. He accurately captures the dark humor and magical thinking of troops in contact. In "Hero's Prayer," for example, the narrator ends an impassioned psalm with this fragment:
[...] Let my last breath be whispers of curses
and sworn vengeance.

As the rigor washes
over me, turn my smile
to marble, for I have though
well. Do not let me die
from an incoming mortar round
as I jerk off in the porta-shitter.
Another example: In relating the story of lucky buddy who was merely ejected from his vehicle gun-turret position by an incoming mortar round, Mena uses the first-person perspective:
I dreamed that I opened my mouth and slowly
swallowed an entire rocket.
When I awoke,
I was a rocket.

I had rocket guts and rocket blood.

My rocket feet were plastic fins [...]
In one of his signature poems, "So I Was a Coffin," Mena successfully marries the real and the surreal, stitched together with strings of melancholy:
They said you are a spear. So I was a spear.
I walked around Iraq upright and tall, but the wind began to blow and I began
to lean. I leaned into a man, who leaned into a child, who leaned
onto a city. I walked back to them and neatly presented a city of bodies
packaged in rows. They said no. You are a bad spear. [...]
The poem won first-place in a 2010 winningwriters.com "war poetry" contest, and the poet can be heard to read "So I Was a Coffin" in a multimedia video posted to YouTube here.

In the poem, Mena was first a spear, then a flag, a bandage, and a coffin. Now, he is a book.

He is a good book.

You should read him.

17 October 2014

Traveling 'Meditation on War' to Tour Minnesota

PHOTO: Minnesota Humanities Council Veterans' Voices
A traveling exhibit that pairs Pulitzer Prize-winning photographs with literary meditations on war will tour multiple sites in 2014-2015 as part of the Minnesota Humanities Council's Veterans Voices program. "Always Lost: A Meditation on War" opened Mon., Oct. 13 at Carleton College, Northfield, Minn. through Oct. 24. According to the council, the exhibit "brings home the personal and collective costs of war and honors those who made the ultimate sacrifice in Iraq and Afghanistan."

In a related event, Iraq War veteran and poet Brian Turner, author of the recently published memoir "My Life as a Foreign Country," will read his poetry and prose at Carleton College's Weitz Center for Creativity Tues., Oct. 21st, from 7:30 to 8:30 p.m. The event is open to the public. For details, click here.

Additional of installations of the "Always Lost" exhibit include:

  • November 3 to November 17: Southwest Veterans Association, Marshall