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.

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