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


15 October 2014

Writing Contest Seeks Stories of Human-Animal Bonds

As part of its annual "One Heart, Four Paws" Valentine's Day celebration of the connections among humans and animals, Central Iowa non-profit Paws & Effect is conducting its first-ever writing contest for youth, adult, and military writers. Deadline is Jan. 5, 2015.

Established in 2006, the Des Moines, Iowa-based non-profit is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization that raises, trains, and places service dogs with military veterans and children diagnosed with medical needs. The organization also trains therapy animals and hosts dog-agility events.

Editors are seeking previously unpublished flash-fiction, non-fiction, and poetry on the theme of human-animal connections.

Winners selected in each of the following categories:
  • Youth (Ages 6-12)
  • Open—Fiction, Non-fiction, and Poetry
  • Military service member/veteran—Fiction, Non-fiction, and Poetry
Winners in each category/subcategory will receive:
  • Recognition at the Feb. 13, 2015 "One Heart, Four Paws" gala event.
  • A monetary award of $100.
  • Publication of their work(s) in a commemorative broadsheet, chapbook, or other physical object, to be distributed at the event.
All submitted works will also be considered for inclusion in a commemorative anthology, to be published later in 2015.

There is no submission fee for the Youth category. Youth submissions should be made via postal mail, using this downloadable form, or on-line here at Submittable.com. All hardcopy entries become the property of Paws & Effect and will not be returned. Send entries to:
"One Heart, Four Paws" Youth Contest
c/o Middle West Press
P.O. Box 31099
Johnston, Iowa 50131-9428
Guidelines for Open and Military/Veteran categories include:
  • Limit one submission in each category per person.
  • Poetry: up to 3 poems (5 pages maximum).
  • All prose (including fiction, non-fiction, essay, and memoir): 750-word limit.
  • Submissions exceeding the limits will be disqualified.
  • Include a biography of 75 words or less with each submission. Past and present members of all branches, services, and nationalities may submit to the Military/Veteran category.
  • Winners and contributors will be notified by Feb. 1, 2015.
  • This project acquires first North American and anthology rights.
  • Judges' decisions are final. Judges also reserve the rights to make additional awards in each category/subcategory, and to decline making awards within one or more categories/subcategories.