22 June 2017

Poetry Book Review: 'The Ghosts of Babylon'

Book review: "The Ghosts of Babylon" by Jonathan Baxter

In his 2016 collection "The Ghosts of Babylon" (Blackside Publishing), former U.S. Army Airborne Ranger and private military contractor Jonathan Baxter has produced a sublimely profane work of war poetry, one that is full of soldierly humor and gritty experience. The 142-page book has a punchy, pulpy sensibility, aided in part by integral black-and-white illustrations by Mark Reeve. In addition to dramatic splash pages, some of Reeve's artwork is incorporated behind or placed into specific poems, illuminating particular stanzas as if they were comic-book panels.

It is heady, grabby stuff: Real "Biff-Pow" Poetry.

More generally, Baxter's verse glides in and out of rhymed couplets and quatrains, blended with less-structured streams of consciousness. It sometimes feels like one of those loopy foxhole conversations with an incessantly nattering battle buddy—that one guy in the platoon who won't shut up, who reads a lot of books. That guy you begin to wonder about, after a while. The guy who seems on the cusp of either losing his sh--, or figuring out the punchline to the universe.

Baxter's smorgasbord of literary references include the Bible, the Epic of Gilgamesh, Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness," and Shakespeare's "Hamlet"—nothing too foreign to scare off the grunting, guard tower crowd, but, at the same time, exotic enough for ivory tower tastes. It is a heady and surreal buffet, full of jester skulls, ecstatic latrine episodes, and the occasional giant robot. As he writes in "The Thieves of Baghdad": "I'm getting my myths all mixed up now / so busy writing my own down."

Throughout this chaos, Baxter captures scenes, moments, and aspects of 21st century soldier life that I've not seen addressed in any other poetry. Don't get distracted by Baxter's fireworks—he's out to illuminate some particular truths. There are moments of wisdom and insight that ignite like tracer rounds, spaced throughout Baxter's threads of feverish, belt-driven deliveries of language and image. It is either mad genius, or inspired madness. It's a roller coaster, but worth the ride. Just hold on.

In the "Ghosts of the Khyber," for example, he relates a haunting series of stories, and connects Rudyard Kipling's "Young British Soldier" to the fighting men of Alexander the Great, Soviet-era Spetsnatz, as well as 21st century fighters. In "When That Was Your War," he similarly compares and contracts his own fate to that of soldiers in World War I:
[…] You tripped on the bodies of your brothers
As you walked through the smoke and the fire
And lay down before the God of War
Like offerings at a funeral pyre […]

[…] And I sit, relaxed and serene
On a secure forward operating base
In my climate-controlled KBR unit
It is a most comfortable place […]

[…] Tonight I'll go to the gym and work out
Go to the chow hall and grab a plate
And later in my climate-controlled bathroom
I'll leisurely masturbate [...]
In "The Assaulters," Baxter explores the experience of serving on a Quick Reaction Force (Q.R.F.), unpacking the universally magical moment before something explodes, reality intrudes, and the mission starts:
the assaulters lounge
sprawled languidly in the oppressive heat
like so many hunting dogs

on the Stryker's ramp
relaxed, our heads back against the door frame
muscles charged with latent energy

leaning back in our kits
we sit, helmets off, radio traffic
idly crackles in the background

waiting on THE WORD […]
It is in this pre-contact purgatory that Baxter identifies a camaraderie that will be lost to veterans in peacetime:
[…] some of us try to settle
into the REAL WORLD, where we try to speak
a new language unstained by tobacco

or dead baby jokes
where civilians measure your cock by your
salary, car, or social status

and not by your competence
or by how well you shoot or by the
weights you can throw around in the gym

or that certain assurance
in your voice as you cross that last threshold
in that yawning and hungry darkness

lit only by your taclights […]
In "//NOTHING FOLLOWS," he leverages the end-line found on the DD-214—the form that summarizes a soldier's active-duty time upon separation from service—as something of a recurring refrain:
[…] The six deployments fit into one box
a jumble of numbers, lines and dots
I sift through the dates
each recounting a different place in my life

That one was my first
That one there was the worst
We lost Ricky there
That one was my first to Afghanistan
the land where time began
That one was my favorite and
But some things do follow, of course. We continue to carry the things we carried. In a wonderfully concrete addition to his barbaric yawping, Baxter devotes a number of back-pages to sharing some on-line, non-profit, and other resources, prompted by questions such as:

  • Are you contemplating suicide or experiencing a psychological health crisis?
  • Do you demons stir and murmur deep?
  • Are you struggling to find a purpose and a mission?
  • Do the deep wounds of war possess your mind?
  • Is the bottom of the bottle numbing your inner war?

Ideally, poetry inspires empathy, questions, and conversations. Baxter has seen fit not only to prompt such moments, but to offer his fellow veterans some potential solutions as well.

Baxter's "The Ghosts of Babylon" is available in trade paperback here.

14 June 2017

Book Review: "Granola, MN" by Susanne Aspley

Book Review: "Granola, MN: Love and War in a Nutty Little Town" by Susanne Aspley

Set in a fictional rural town in modern-day Minnesota, Suzanne Aspley's "Granola, MN" is a light-hearted romp through some potentially dark territory, including such topics as drug addiction, losing a child, and what it means to come home from war. It's bursting with Middle Western charm, snark, and wisdom.

Aspley's characters are full of character, new regional archetypes who each have their flaws, but who also generally support and believe in each other. The tone is snappy and fresh, so laugh-out-loud and dialogue-driven that it seems ready-made for a small art house film. Think "Northern Exposure" meets "What's Eating Gilbert Grape?" Or "Gilmore Girls" as narrated by the clear-eyed, smart-mouthed title character in "Juno."

The exurban setting of Granola, Minn. (pop. 2,000) is rich with details that ring true, such as old-school hardware stores that serve free popcorn to customers, and sounds-about-right business names such as Git-n-Split, Liquor Pig, Taco Gong, and Chub Grocery.

Aspley's narrator-protagonist is the quietly ambitious Allison Couch (like the thing you sit on), who dreams of one day buying the town's hardware store, in order to save it from the clutches of the local real-estate hustler. Her friend and mentor, Mr. Whitehead, owns the "last Alamo of Granola's original downtown stores." The county building inspector, who also happens to own the adjacent strip mall, covets Whitehead's land for its potential as a parking lot. Plot-wise, that tension is far from the only thing going on, but it serves as an effective zipline through the book's smaller adventures.

Content with the day-to-day rhythms of Granola, Allison's worldview gets a little bigger when she meets Toby, a military veteran who was awarded the Silver Star for actions in Afghanistan. Toby has recently moved in with his mom, the principal of the area high school. The townspeople want to celebrate Toby with a float in the Fourth of July parade. Toby's relationship to the war, however, is complicated.

"People think I'm some kind of hero," he tells Allison. "But I don't feel like one. There's a clown jury, a box of bozos in my head that keeps telling me I'm guilty because I'm alive. And the jury don't stop replaying the evidence. […] I wish I could have save them all, or none of them. Or kill all the Taliban, or none of them. I don't like the feeling of playing God, like it was up to who I should save, or kill, or not."

Says the well-grounded Allison, a little earlier: "I think it's normal to be different after a war. You'd be crazy if it didn't affect you, but you gotta manage it a little better. And you can't do that alone, or by not letting people help you."

In short, "Granola, MN" is a delight. Nothing too deep, unless you think about it a little more. Or read it more than once. And, given how packed it is with wisecracks and jokes and plainspoken pearls of wisdom, you'll want to do both.

Author Susanne Aspley is a retired 20-year veteran of the U.S. Army Reserve. During her 20-year military career as a photojournalist, she deployed to places such as Bosnia, Cuba, Kuwait, and Panama. She is also a former drill sergeant, and served in Thailand as a member of the Peace Corps in 1989-1991. She has written two novels, and multiple children's foreign-language books.

"Granola, MN" is available in trade paperback and Kindle format.

07 June 2017

Book Review: 'The Warbird' by Tara Copp

Book Review: "The Warbird: Three Heroes, Two Wars, One Story" by Tara Copp

In a fast-reading 240-page book, journalist Tara Copp weaves together her own war narratives with those of her World War II fly-boy grandfather, who flew B-24 "Liberator" bombers out of England and Italy, and her Band of Brothers paratrooper great-uncle, who was among the first to parachute into France on D-day.

Along the way, readers are introduced to the U.S. Air Force security team with whom she shared as a newspaper reporter her first battlefield experiences in Iraq, and to the behind-the-scenes reality of the Rose Will Monroe, a civilian industrial worker who was one of the inspirations for the iconographic Rosie the Riveter.

Conceptually, the whole thing seems so heavily laden with editorial ordnance, you might wonder at it's ability to take flight. In Copp's sure hands, however, the book quickly achieves both speed and altitude, and cruises on to deliver bombshell after bombshell. It's an entertaining, insightful read. There are punchy anecdotes about student-pilots falling out of planes, for example, and bombing missions gone wrong. ("We Bombed Switzerland"?!) There's even a little infidelity tossed around. Nothing salacious. Just the facts. And more true to the military experience than other war stories currently on bookstore shelves.

Copp is a memoirist's memoirist. While still sentimental enough to address her grandfather's ghost directly in her ongoing internal monologue, she also casts an unblinking, realistic eye toward both familial faults and her own actions. The tone is conversational—at times, confessional. There's sex and bombs and divorce and death, but it's straightforwardly reported, rather than sensationalized.

During the initial U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, Copp was a Washington, D.C.-based reporter for Scripps Howard News Service newspapers in Texas. In 2011, she returned to Iraq as a Government Accountability Office employee. (She's now returned to journalism, a Pentagon correspondent for Stars and Stripes.) From these bookend experiences, she derives both a personal and philosophical response to war:
The allure of war took an early, fast grip upon me in 2003. It was though wiser eyes that I watched that same spell be cast […] eight years later at U.S. Embassy-Baghdad. The embassy was fortress America, a pressurized pit of high policy stakes with thoughts of men and women, so far from home. The excitement of war enveloped them too. The trysts that launched that fall, as they had every year before, became the tight-lipped fodder of friendships to last forever, because the people who went through this assumed no one back home would understand.

I finally understood it, and I didn't want to begrudge them the experience. But I still didn't want to go to dinner on those nights of steak and lobster, under festive bunting and enormous American flags. I wanted to honor war and the men and women who fought it for what it was, not how we wanted it to look. I knew that 2011 was no different than 2003 was not different than 1944. There was still cheating and drama, deaths and injury, greed and heroism. […]
On the ground, the B-24 Liberator is an ungainly, swollen-looking craft. In the air, however, and in the right hands, it delivers its payload, right on target. Tara Copp's "Warbird" is a great potential summer read, a fine Father's Day gift, or a unique find for the World War II aviation enthusiast who thinks they've already read it all.

Available in trade paperback, hardcover, Kindle, iBooks, and other formats.