26 April 2017

Book Review: Kamesan's Haiku Anthology on War

Book Review: "Kamesan's World Haiku Anthology on War, Violence and Human Rights violation" compiled by Dimitar Anakiev
haiku about war?
collected bits of shrapnel—
wish I'd thought of that
One of the reasons I like using haiku to share military perspectives and experiences is that it's such a recognizable and friendly form of communication. It's an easy recipe, for those who wish to follow it: Five syllables plus seven syllables plus another five. Put a little nature in there, a quick shift in focus or action, and stir. Season to taste.

My kids first learned to read and write haiku in second grade, which is about the same age as I did. Haiku is basic, and complex, and as addictive as eating potato chips. Even people who say they don't like poetry will stop to read a short poem, particularly if you pepper it with a little snark.

That's why many of the poems in my 2015 collection "Welcome to FOB Haiku"—indeed, as the title of the book itself suggests—are haiku.

There's little new under the poetry sun, of course, and I was hardly the first to marry modern warfare and short-format poetry. Still, imagine my delight in discovering a published collection of approximately 900 haiku poems by 435 poets collected and translated from 35 global languages, all on the subject of war.

Originally underwritten by a 2012 crowd-funding campaign, and compiled by Slovenian poet and filmmaker Dimitar Anakiev (a.k.a. "Kamesan"), the 396-page ""World Haiku Anthology on War, Violence and Human Rights violation" includes a few 15th century examples from haiku masters, as well as poems dating from World War I. Most of the poems are later 20th century and 21st century works, however, and are rooted in many different geographies of conflict and suffering, including Kosovo, Iraq, Afghanistan, Korea, even Columbine, Colo. These poems are shards of regret, sadness, and loss, but the overall mood seems reflective and contemplative, without being funerary.

Adding some visual wit, the book is punctuated and illuminated by occasional drawings by Kuniharu Shimizu. Shimizu also designed the book's cover.

Here's a quick sampling of some of my favorite poems in the collection. I have taken the liberty of including the place number of each, so that interested readers might locate the poems in the book itself.
After the war
a man with one leg
is he a hero?

—Karunush Kumar Agrawal, India


some new weaponry
now eco-friendly
kills with green bullets

—Winona Baker, Canada


wolf moon
another battalion
ships out

—Francine Banwarth, United States


having picnic by
the old command headquarters—
forgotten battles

—Rick Black, United States


only pale moonlight
Baghdad is powerless
on a winter night

—Anne Connolly, Ireland


war crimes
he puts a gun to his head
and kills them all

—Garry Eaton, Canada
A far more expert and informed analysis of some of the haiku in this collection can be found at Chen-ou Liu's NeverEnding Story blog here. Indeed, it is Chen-ou Liu's analysis that first called to my attention the existence of this monumental collection. This is a must-read for any haiku enthusiast or practitioner—particularly those who may have once worn a uniform.

19 April 2017

Book Review: 'Private Perry and Mister Poe'

Book Review: 'Private Perry and Mister Poe: The West Point Poems, 1831' by William F. Hecker

Nineteenth century poet and short-story author Edgar Allan Poe is one of those Dead White Guys that keeps a dead-hand grip on the American scholastic canon. Even with increasingly diverse reading options in high school, it's unlikely that even the least Goth teenager won't encounter Poe's big 1845 hit, "The Raven," at least once or twice in English classes.

Beyond black birds squawking "Nevermore," however, few are privy to some surprising facts about Poe's early literary life:
  • In 1825, at the age of 16, Poe served as a junior militiaman in a ceremonial escort for a touring French Gen. Lafayette. In 1827, Poe enlisted in the U.S. Army as an artillery soldier, under the assumed name of "Perry."
  • Poe quickly promoted first to company clerk, then to the double-pay technical position of "artificer," a manufacturer of bombs and shells.
Poe was at West Point from 1830 to 1831, at which time he decided to return to civilian life in order to focus on his literary career. Even today at West Point, campus myths and legends surrounding Poe's short career often regard drunkenness and other infractions. In reality, he excelled in his studies, particularly mathematics and French. When he decided to leave and his estranged foster-father's permission to leave was not forthcoming, Poe systematically engineered through absences and derelictions a court martial that required his expulsion. On his way out of Army life, he crowd-funded from his fellow cadets money to publish his second book of poetry.

Some historians speculate that his buddies likely expected a volume of satirical light verse, similar to that which he'd entertained them in barracks. What they got was far more serious: A collection of 12 new and revised poems.

Along with the facsimile reproduction of that 1831 poetry collection, a 2005 book by fellow West Pointer William F. Hecker opens the crypt for new insights into Poe's life, work, and motivations. The 248-page book includes an extensive introduction, offering Hecker's insights and analysis of Poe's military career, as well as a afterward by West Point faculty Gerard A. McGowan.

Poe's poetic imagery is never more detailed than an occasional reference to battle, writes Hecker. Poe is also given to evoking martial tradition through the selective use of names, such as "Helen" "Tamerlane". As such, many write off Poe's short time in uniform as little more than an historical hiccup. For Hecker, however, Poe's Army career indicates a desire for validation and glory, and for connection to his grandfather's uniformed service during the American Revolution:
Just as an artificer's failure to construct a bomb properly always results in the failure of the round to achieve its effects and potentially results in injury to the artificer himself, failure to construct a poem well renders its effects impotent and damages the reputation of the poet. The attention to details, the appreciate for minute nuances of sound, and the modulation of rhythm that Poe built into his verse to achieve his aesthetic of beauty were reinforced by the artistic craftsmanship require to build a functional artillery bomb.
For those who celebrate oft-overlooked poetic traditions with the U.S. military, Poe's career was brief but notable. One wonders what soldierly poetry could have been brought to life, had Poe become an officer and gentleman. His favored themes of loss and death and lives cut short, after all, are constant companions to those who serve.

Sadly, William Hecker, the insightful editor of "Private Perry and Mister Poe," was killed in Iraq in 2006. Having met him only through his first and only book, I feel the loss deeply. I have no doubt he had many more words to share with the world.

13 April 2017

Review: 'Tumult & Tears,' Poetry from Women in WWI

Book review: 'Tumult & Tears: An Anthology of Women's First World War Poetry' by Vivien Newman

With the confluence of National Poetry Month and the centennial of the America's entry into World War I, readers are more likely to encounter "Great War" narratives beyond the usual touchstone horrors of trench warfare, gas attacks, and lost generations.

In the popular mind, World War I is particularly likely to also be associated with poetry. The works and names of such poets as Robert Graves, Wilfred Owen, and Siegfried Sassoon are still regularly studied and celebrated. Some of the poems speak of glory, nostalgia, and patriotism, but more are likely to contrast such sentiments with images of shocking battlefield realities.

For many, their consumption and appreciateion of war poetry ends there, in the trenches. Indeed, novice writers and reviewers too often fall back into rhetorical ditches such as "war poetry died after World War I," and "it's too bad that war poetry isn't as popular as it was during World War I." In my opinion, such themes should be retired along with other journalistic story-crutches and English 101 clich├ęs, such as "why no one reads poetry," "why poetry is going extinct," and "poetry is dead."

(For the record, war poetry isn't dead. It isn't even wounded. See this Red Bull Rising link for a list of 21st century war poets, or this new Time Now blog link for a great round-up of individual poems available to read on-line.)

In "Tumult & Tears," social historian Vivien Newman estimates that, out of 2,000 British war poets whose work was published during World War I, nearly a quarter were women. She expands and enriches our understanding of that war, and its resulting poetic tradition, by surveying the words and experiences of those ignored by the usual canonical field pieces.

The 224-page trade paperback presents a far-flung and accessible selection of poetry, organized by themes of women's changing roles in war, religion, uniformed service, nature, and grief. Where possible, Newman includes biographical sketches of each poet cited, providing personal context in addition to the social and political.

Newman's scholarship often delivers cascades of insight and epiphany. Take, for example, the concept of woman as mourner: That wives, girlfriends, and mothers might grieve for lost soldiers is no surprise. Newman introduces examples of others, however, just as valid in their experiences of grief. Consider the unrequited lover, the mistress, the nurse, the nanny. These are complicated, complicating voices. Not all are polished, but each is worthy of note. Each is a potential revelation to readers. As Newman writes in her introduction:
From the outset, my guiding principle was what the piece might tell us about the reality of the War for the poet—and by extension other the women, rather than the intrinsic literary 'value' of the poem. Another, equally important aim was to give readers a sense of the sweep of the poetry, both in subject matter and also poetic 'skill'. Some of the poems included are undeniably little more than ditties—albeit heartfelt ones; a few are amongst the finest in the English language.
In considering the many ways in which women engaged themselves in war, Newman explores topics such as knitting socks for the troops, rationing foodstuffs for the family, and manufacturing munitions. Women who served in uniformed included Red Cross workers, volunteer nurses, cooks, scullery and ward maids. They included Women's Land Army, ambulance drivers, and Women's Auxiliary Army Corps ("WAAC") members. All are quoted and represented here.

Regular readers of the Red Bull Rising blog will not be surprised that the poems I found most resonant were those that offered both insight and humor. There is plenty of parody in these pages, particularly those evoking Rudyard Kipling's "If". In her poem "Some WAAC," for example, E.M. Murray writes:
If you can drive from nine o'clock till seven
     Every day of the long week and still live on;
If you can keep you temper until even,
     You deseve a putty medal nobly won!
If you can put up with each hardship,
     The weather, the passenger, you car,
And still keep bright—well all that I can say is:
     'You're a topper absolutely, nothing bar.'