30 July 2014

Mil-Poetry Review: 'Bangalore' by Kerry James Evans

'Bangalore' by Kerry James Evans

In addition to writing some military-themed poetry of my own (here and there), I've recently begun buying and borrowing whole collections of the stuff. The practice is similar, I suppose, to my purchase of comic books. Comics are short, fun to read, but often wrestle provocatively with matters of mythologies, both personal and political.

Consuming poetry is similarly easy and quick, but it sticks to your ribs.

Poetry is also forgiving. I'm not an expert reader, and you don't have to be, either. To borrow part of a quote from Justice Learned Hand, poetry is kind of like obscenity—I know it when I see it. I like poetry that is accessible, insightful, sometimes humorous in tone. I like to learn something from a poem: new ways of looking at things or nature or people, and new words and images to describe them all.

I discovered Kerry James Evans' 2013 collection of poetry, "Bangalore," via David Abrams' blog "The Quivering Pen." Abrams is an Army veteran himself, and author of the 2012 satirical novel "Fobbit."

Evans' writing is full of junkyards, abusive parents, and poverty. In addition to his academic credentials, Evans was a National Guard soldier for six years, during which he trained as a combat engineer and deployed stateside during Operation Noble Eagle. That he was a citizen-soldier who did not "go to war" overseas, while friends and family did, makes for a rich and rocky emotional landscape for Evans to explore. It also gives him a boot in both camps, as both citizen and soldier.

A bangalore torpedo—from which the collection takes its title—is an explosive device designed to quickly clear a footpath through barbed wire, land mines, and other battlefield obstacles. Notably, it is in a poem titled "Operation Noble Eagle" in which Evans mentions such a weapon. In it, he nods toward war stories of a different sort:
[...] Do not think I have not buried my fair share
of Hummers up to the doors in mud.

I bulldozed mountains to mounds
stuffed C-4 in a picket, secured

makeshift bangalore with duct tape;
do not think that in training I did not blow

a Missouri forest to an Afghanistan cave.
More often than not, I miss basic training,

a private with Tourette's blaspheming
drill sergeants [...]
I recognize myself in that passage, and many of my buddies as well.

Of the 30-something poems here, more than a third seem to involve or evoke military terms or experiences. Sometimes, that's evident in the title of a work: The poem "Blanket Party" is one such example, a slang term involving violent acts of peer pressure conducted in military barracks. "Volcano" is another—a name for a type of artillery-delivered munition. In the latter poem, Evans probes his own experiences to interrogate the realities of a war on television:
[...] I've seem the different phases of training—crawl,
walk, run—and I've see the failure of battalions

at each phase. I've cleared a path, myself,
and marked, with flags, the safe zone;

and I've walked through such a minefield.
I've witnessed the Volcano, a machine, scatter

960 antitank mines
over one kilometer of sand, but never have I

seen the battle, or the desert, or those mines, or TOC
calling a precision-bombing air strike across the line.

I've dismantled many mines, winnowed Russian mines
from French mines, but I've never seen the mines

on television; I've known soldiers who have seen
those mines; soldiers caught under fire, blasting cap

clenched in the mouth, jaw gone missing;
and that must be what it means to see the desert; [...]
It is the poem "For the Popped Collar" that I found most resonant, however. In it, Evans connects the cavalry sport of polo to preppy fashion, while probing the minefields of class war and authenticity as a veteran:
[...] I'm wearing at this VFW hall on a Friday
night, a polo with a popped color, stiff
with starch, a tuxedo-folded tip, with me
failing to mention the use of a popping a collar.

It keeps the sun off my neck, I tell my beer.
But now I'm explaining fashion/style?
to the bartender, who is the son of a veteran.
We explore the structures of class [...]
The poem ends as Evans' conversation with the bartender is interrupted, or, at least, put on pause. Evans' deployed father is attempting to connect a phone call from an overseas hilltop:
[...] Then I see
my father, camouflaged collar weighed down
by a maple leaf. He's trying to call from Kosovo.
He's found the highest mountain. He's looking

down at the village. He sounds out the words
for village—Ovo sehlo—but this is a language
he keeps failing to pronounce. My cell phone
is ringing in his ear, and he's standing

in the Balkans, waiting for me to pick up.
He's leaving my name to the wind.
There are, obviously, a lot of moving parts to such a poem. To Evans' credit, he successfully wires everything together just right, before he lights the fuze. Just like the Army taught him.

For a Q&A style interview with Kerry James Evans, check out this New York Times arts blog post.

More of his poetry can be read at Narrative magazine here (free log-in may be required).

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.