29 September 2014

Poetry Sets the Pace for 5th Iowa Remembrance Run

A giant U.S. flag suspended between two MidAmerican Energy utility trucks marked the finish line to Sunday's 5th Iowa Remembrance Run. PHOTO: www.redbullrising.com.
More than 1,000 registered runners, families, and volunteers participated in the 5th Annual Iowa Remembrance 5k Run/Walk Sunday morning, Sept. 28, at Raccoon River Park, West Des Moines.

The annual event raises funds for Iowa Remembers, Inc., a Central Iowa non-profit that, in turn, underwrites an annual retreat for survivors of Iowa's fallen service members. The event is traditionally held on Gold Star Mothers Day. The pre-race ceremonies include a reading of more than 100 names of Iowans who have, since 2003, died while in service to their country.

In its fifth year, the event encourages creativity and celebration, as well as thoughtful reverence. Keynote speaker Megan Schoning, for example, memorialized her cousin, Spc. Joshua Knowles, through a narrative poem—one that cursed terrorists and ended with a call for the crowd to sing "Happy Birthday." She and her family members even wore sparkly party tiaras. (With Schoning's permission, her words are presented below in this blog post, in their entirety.)

The final stretch of the race is lined with flags, along with pictures
and names of Iowans who have died in service since 2003. PHOTO:
Knowles was killed in Iraq Feb. 5, 2004, when killed by an enemy mortar round in the vicinity of Baghdad International Airport. Knowles was a member of the Iowa Army National Guard's 1133rd Transportation Company, headquartered in Mason City, Iowa.

Race times are posted here. Candid photos of the event are available on the organization's Facebook page here.

Other pre-race highlights included:

In other pre-race remarks, Vietnam War-era veteran and retired U.S. Air Force Sgt. Jerry Simmermaker helped remember those Iowans killed or missing from that war. A display commemorating of Iowa's Vietnam-era fallen was placed near the finish line.

KJJY-FM's Eddie Hatfield and Iowa Remembers, Inc. Executive
Director Heather Johnston give pre-race instructions from the bed of a
pickup truck. PHOTO: www.redbullrising.com
The U.S. National Anthem was sung by Maria Doud, an Iowa State University junior majoring in Child, Adult, and Family Services. She'll be opening for David Nail at the university's College of Agricultural and Life Sciences "CALSweek" this Thursday, Oct. 2. The event takes place at Hansen Agriculture Student Learning Center, Ames, Iowa.

Before giving race instructions, KJJY 92.5 celebrity race-starter Eddie Hatfield took a selfie with 1,000 race participants.

Here are Megan Schoning's keynote remarks, written in verse, regarding her cousin Joshua Knowles:
I remember the day Josh said he needed to make an important call,
We were in my parents' living room,
Watching the Twin Towers fall.

It wasn't long after that he was deployed away,
He was so proud he could serve his country,
He wouldn't have it any other way.

We stood at the goodbye ceremony,
The sergeant gave his commands.
We gave our hugs and kisses,
A strong family united, holding hands.

He walked up to my daughter,
He grabbed her and held her tight.
He looked into my eyes and reassured me,
Everything was going to be all right.

He said if something did happen,
I needed to be strong.
He said I needed to look after his little sisters,
I told him to prove me wrong.

Days then weeks and months passed by,
He seemed farther away.
He missed so many important things,
I just wanted him to stay.

A few months before he was to arrive home,
We got a phone call in the middle of the night.
I knew Josh wasn't coming home,
He didn't win the fight.
As the 1133rd Transportation Company was waiting to check in on the map,
A mortar went through the cab of his truck,
It landed in his lap.

Josh laid where he had fallen,
The enemy took him down,
He knew his life was ending,
He had lost all sight and sound.

He had a beautiful hometown service,
Hundreds lined the road to pray.
It couldn't have been more special,
for it was Valentine's Day.

A few months after his burial, we found ourselves back at a ceremony where this journey had began.
Except we were welcoming the soldiers home,
They could resume their lives as planned.

Everyone was anxious,
Emotions were running high,
Families finally reunited with their soldiers,
That didn't have to die.

As my family stood in the crowd,
We realized we were not alone,
We had so many soldiers salute our fallen hero,
Because they were unable to bring him home.
Josh was only 24 when he died,
He had so much to give,
He now looks down on us from above,
We were given the opportunity to live.

Ask anyone that knew him,
They would all agree with me,
He was born to serve his country,
And take care of our family.

As I sat and wrote this poem,
My heart was broken in two,
One side filled with all of our memories,
The other side died with you.

A limb has fallen from our family tree,
It devastates us that you had to go,
But you are finally free.
Sometimes, I still feel guilty,
My sacrifice was so small,
For I will only lose a little time,
But you have lost it all.

You will never be forgotten,
My cousin and my friend,
Though death has parted us for now,
We will meet again.

So, when you see a soldier,
Be sure to shake their hand,
Let them know you are grateful,
For giving us this land.

We are all gathered here today,
In honor of those who died,
We are now united as family,
Filled with nothing but pride.

I do not know you're departed loved ones' names,
Or how they may have died,
I don't know all the pain you have endured,
Or how much your family has cried.

I don't know where your loved ones' rest,
Or how many dreams were broken,
But I know each one of us has a bond because of them,
Even if it is unspoken.

I appreciate everyone listening to my story,
We all have one to tell.
As for the terrorists that took our loved ones,
I hope they go to hell.

Before I go ...
My family is amazing,
We have been through so much,
We support each other daily,
We each others' crutch.

In closing, to my cousin Josh:
I think of you every day,
But that is nothing new,
I am especially grateful to be here,
Because it is your birthday, too.

I thank you all for listening,
One last request before I go ...
Can you all help sing "Happy Birthday" to Josh?
He would appreciate it, I know.

25 September 2014

Book Review: 'My Life as a Foreign Country: A Memoir'

"My Life as a Foreign Country: A Memoir" by Brian Turner

Reading in front of an audience, from behind his fighting-position podium, the poet-turned-veteran surges, then retreats, transitioning back and forth between gritty words and pithy, almost light-hearted insights. Brian Turner, who fought as an infantry NCO in the Iraq War, always seems to have a serious glint of good humor in his eyes. He's aiming for something, peering through his optics, and wants you to see it, too.

With his much-cited war poems, such as "Here, Bullet" (read it here) and "The Hurt Locker," Turner was one of the first writers to take literary point for his generation of 21st century troops. Through words and deeds, Turner has led the way for other veterans to share their own wars, while encouraging civilians to look at conflict with new eyes.

Turner is a force of nature, a learned army of one. Spitting bullets of wisdom, Turner is like the Dalai Lama with a machine gun.

Turner is full of surprises. His memoir is one of them.

Those who have read Turner's poetry collections (2005's "Here, Bullet" and 2010's "Phantom Noise") may hear echoes of familiar stories in his new memoir, the 224-page "My Life as a Foreign Country." There are, for example, downrange suicides, nighttime house raids, and piss bottles chucked at kids. There are also new connections, however, to stories of Turner's family and personal history. These events are woven into a complex and artful narrative, something like a prayer rug, one that invites the appreciation of pattern, as well as parts.

The book's format nearly defies description. Indeed, to label it "memoir" seems almost too workaday, too pedestrian, for the fluid, dream-like quality of it all. This is not some run-at-the-mouth, just-the-alleged-facts war story, the kind that predictably begins "there I was ..." and ends with tall tales of deeds, whether heroic or inhumane.

Field-stripping it down into its component parts is also equally unhelpful: The book is constructed of 135-plus present-tense fragments—some only a few lines in length, others more than a few pages—numbered and grouped into ten chapter-length, untitled sections. Such a description does not make it sound very accessible. Its reality is just the opposite.

Indeed, reassembled as read, the sections link into chains that deliver belt-fed, continuous fire. For example:
There is something in the landscape itself that makes me circle back to it, whether it's jungle or the American West, the woodlands of France, the American South, deserts, rivers, beaches—all perceived, in some ways, as wild spaces, where the architecture of civilization is not at play, the context of human society somehow absent or suspended. A space where the rules are upended. The theater of war, some call it. [...]

To be a man, I would need to walk into the thunder and hail of a world stripped of its reasons, just as others in my family done before me. And, if I were strong enough, and capable enough, and god-damned lucky enough, I might one day returned clothed in an unshakable silence. Back to the world, as they say. [p. 103-104]
Turner's memoir is poetry for people who don't read poetry, non-fiction for people who don't read the news, and "fictional" enough (at least in technique) to fill in the narrative cracks.

This last point is important, given Turner's careful construction, creation, and continued consideration of his own wartime persona. Don't act surprised. All writers do this, filtering narratives and details—even non-fiction ones—to create story and character.

In 2003, Turner deployed to Iraq armed with an MFA and poems already in his pocket. And, in preparation for that deployment, along with the last wills and testaments familiar to all soldiers, he also specified a literary executor. Turner, in short, was not an everyday infantryman. Turner went to war with a mission, primed to observe and report not only on what he saw and experienced, but also on himself, placed in a particular time and terrain.

Now, time and terrain are shifting, and it will be interesting to see what happens next in Turner's poetic life. "Sgt. Turner is dead," he writes toward the end of his memoir. "Some nights he walks the streets and alleys of Mosul, in the company of the dead. Others, he steps in to the homes of the living, perches on the beds of lovers, and considers the world as it continues on." [p. 199]

Even committed to the page, then, a personal history can change, in the telling and re-telling ... or in the re-reading. In this, one is reminded of an anecdote earlier in Turner's memoir, in which a family member is caught on black-and-white film during a beach assault on World War II Guam. Turner writes:
I never considered the cameraman because I have become the camera—its images preserved through the words with which Papa and my parents created the story, the words I've shifted and reshifted, viewing the scene over and over as the years go by. When it comes down to it, we are the camera. [p. 96-97]
As always, Turner is aiming for something, peering through his optics. He wants you to see it, too.

Because you are the camera.

23 September 2014

NYU Medical School Literary Journal to Focus on War

Published by the New York University School of Medicine, the twice-yearly Bellevue Literary Review has announced that its Spring 2015 issue will focus on war-related themes. Deadline for submissions is Feb. 1, 2015.

Under the thematic banner of "Embattled: The Ramifications of War," editors are seeking previously unpublished fiction, non-fiction, and poetry on themes of war and military experience. More generally, the journal focuses on themes of health, healing, illness, the mind, and the body.

The special call for submissions reads, in part:
War is one of the necessary realities of our world. Since the beginning of society, people have pitted against each other, putting their lives on the line for a cause. It pushes the human body and mind to their limits. While war can be seen as an expression of mankind at its worst, it is also war that brings out the most visceral elements of life itself: strength, power, love, death, sacrifice, and the will to survive.

In many ways, experiences of battle capture the most fascinating and inherently powerful paradoxes in our world: the balance of life and death, of soft and hard, of quiet and loud, of fear and bravery. Understanding war is crucial to understanding how we, as humans, live. Literature brings these feelings to life—on the page and in our lives.
Submission guidelines include:
  • Submit via this web-based tool. In special cases, a postal address is available for hardcopy submissions.
  • Word count for prose is 5,000 words.
  • Poetry submissions should include no more than three poems, incorporated into one document.
  • "Previously published" is defined to include works in print or available to the public on the Internet. Exceptions for previous appearances on personal blogs and other on-line venues may be made on a case-by-case basis.
  • Simultaneous submissions are accepted. Editors ask for notification of publication elsewhere.
  • The journal acquires first-time North American rights. After publication, all rights revert to the author.
A Facebook page for the Bellevue Literary Review is here.