25 January 2017

Poetry Review: 'Flying Over Baghdad with Sylvia Plath'

Poetry Book Review: "Flying Over Baghdad with Sylvia Plath" by Paul David Adkins

Having served in Afghanistan and Iraq, U.S. Army veteran and poet Paul David Adkins has created a little black book of Gothic kiss-and-tell. The objects of his passions are not necessarily the living, but poets and their ghosts. Each poetic entry—26 in all—seems like a letter, crafted in the off-duty sanctity and seclusion of Adkins' Containerized Housing Unit ("CHU") downrange, and explicitly addressed to a given poem, a poet, or book.

His titles are dense with information, over-stuffed and dripping with names and other references. Rather than driven by a desire to impress readers with his poetic literacy, however, Adkins' purpose may only be to point out opportunities for further reading. After all, in some on-line military circles, it is popular to post "shelfies"—photographs of one's personal professional library. The object is not to show off how widely one has read, but to illuminate possibilities for fellow travelers.

Admins introduces his book with a note of manifesto:
All the poets introduced here have literally plucked me from flames. I had to make sense of Afghanistan, Iraq, The Surge, our Senate's approval of The Surge, my family's struggles in my absence, and the moral decrepitude of the undertakings of conflicts, these ones, and all the ones before. […]
Recognizing that poetry cannot stop war, he continues:
[T]hese [poets] have denied war the ability to traverse their land, in the time-honored guerilla fashion of refusing an enemy sustenance […] While I served in President Bush's wars, their work became a series of safe houses, places I could find sympathy and support. So now, having departed these conflicts, reviewing my experiences, I pin these tiny medals on the poets who did a hero's work […]
The tome's black cover image is oil-slick cryptic, an abstract casket, a boilermaker's vault. Inside its 108 pages, the book's eerie images often include insects, birds, and skeletons, more than the expected military equipment and settings. Recently published by Lit Riot Press, the work has a lengthy formal title: "Flying Over Baghdad with Sylvia Plath: Experiences, Through Poetry, with Poets and Poems in Iraq and Afghanistan." Given that wall of text alone, some readers might be scared off. Pushing through that veil, however, soon reveals some light-hearted potential cracks in the coffin.

Consider, for example, the inherent insurgency underlaying such titles as "Circumventing the Army's Pornography Ban with Anne-Marie Levine's 'Bus Ride to a Blue Movie'" and "The Day I Lost Lisa Olstein's 'Lost Alphabet' in my CHU." The author has obviously not surrendered his sardonic, soldierly humor to the void. If Adkins' approach is truly morbid, then, it is a Gothicism that smacks of Charles Addams or Edward Gorey. It is smart. Occasionally cartoonish. Dark, but fun.

(For other examples of Adkins' works, more lightly and less abstractly titled than those presented in this collection, check out the joyous "Helicopter Ride with a Cadaver Dog" and the true-life latrine humor of "Iraqi Army Unit on Camp Striker, Baghdad Iraq".)

In "The Commanding Presence of Karen Fish's 'The Cedar Canoe,'" Adkins reads the poet Karen Fish like a book. Note how he effectively laser-designates the original material through his use of italics, and blends the scene with military metaphor:
[…] There's not one soft edge
even when she's as open
as a map.

When she observes
     the water isn't keep
and points out danger zones
     The dirt road that runs down the hill
          --her dust jacket gleams like polished boots.
Her pages are creased sharp
as the starched sleeves of First Sergeant.
Adkins' arsenal of images includes bees, bugs, and even dead birds. There are also scalpels, bayonets, and boxcutter tongues. Again, however, even cutting tongues are set in stony cheeks. For example, in "Kathleen Graber's 'Correspondence' Gives Me a Paper Cut After a Hard Day in Iraq," he mixes blood and oil, poetry and history:
[…] She knows that men are dying
My cut merits
not even half caesura
in the war's least readable history

It doesn't stop here--
Blood for oil, she laughs […]
In "Explaining Why I Bought But Couldn't Open Weldon Kee's 'Collected Poems,'" originally published here in the literary journal Scintilla, Adkins writes:
[…] I recognized the apocalypse he wrote of
on the squalid streets of Baghdad,
trash-flags flapping on the razor wire,
and the young men
gunning for us
nightly with their eyes
and AK-47s.

Kees’ poems were as keen
as Kukri blades,
sharp as a set of ginsu
thrust in a maple block.

So I buried them in a foot locker.

they would chant of nothing
but a furthering
of the violence.
Rather than end in burial and repression, however, Adkins pulls off an ascendent flourish in the final two poems in the book—otherwise unrelated flutterings of doves, and movements of wings and blades. In "I Consider Similarities Between Baghdad's Al-Furat Mosque and the Dresdner Frauekirche After Reading Cynthia Marie Hoffman's 'Sightseer,' he writes a drive-by scene that includes a mosque "sculpted the shape and color / of a Vidalia onion." He writes:
[…] In a second
we pass
its burr of doves which lift as one
disintegrating sheet
before a pair of passing choppers,

the sound of their rotors
slapping against the mosque
like a panicked woman
finding the doors
locked, and bolted, and chained.
In a lovely echo of that avian imagery, in a similar tragically tinged scene of travel, the collection ends on "The Books I Brought to Read While Flying Home":
[…] I watched my books
flap and catch and rise
on the rotor wash,
then explode in twin turbine back blast--

flushed doves wheeling
before their white feathers
burst on the wind.
The book isn't all darkness and gallows, then. Or dense, name-dropping observations and cheeky, cutting remarks. There is an upliftedness of spirit to be encountered here, even in the melancholy of war, and in saying good-bye to it all.

18 January 2017

Poetry Book Review: 'Warcries' by Nicole Goodwin

Poetry Book Review: "Warcries" by Nicole S. Goodwin

Packed in plain-spoken language wet down with break-free, poet and Iraq War veteran Nicole S. Goodwin's 2016 collection "Warcries" is equal parts earthy, insightful, dark, and dense. The 82-page book contains more than 50 poems, which range from sniper-shot aphorisms offering pithy wisdom, to multi-sectioned, multi-page paeans to her fellow humans. There are plenty of fireworks along the way, too—including an unsent letter to Chelsea Manning.

The book is broken into three sections, an arc Goodwin has described in interviews as an awakening or coming-of-age narrative in poetry. In the first section, she illuminates her experiences as a logistics soldier in Iraq. In the second, she explores her relationships to New York City, before, during, and after her deployment. The final section illuminates various the various existences she now inhabits, in past and present: war veteran, mother, multidisciplinary artist, advocate for the homeless, citizen.

The poet says her central purpose was to paint war as "a beautiful hell."

Over the course of the collection, Goodwin's poems grow and branch to consider complex messages involving skin color, urbanity, sexual assault, consensual sex, nationality, homelessness, a parent's separation from her child, and imprisonment. First, however, she grounds the reader in some familiar, soldierly basics. Troops of every stripe and color, for example, will recognize themselves and their days in poems such as "Boots":
My feet ache from
the long, long march.

The vengeful desert sun
hangs high in the virgin sky. […]

Reborn into Atlas, I bear
heavy rusted chains.

Dead weights that fester in their
own stew!

Their aromatic horrors
lingering indefinitely.
The great equalizer of guard duty presents a recurring setting for Goodwin. In "Lightweight, Heavyweight," she relates the story of watching over a captured High-Value Target—"Number 86 on Bush II's list"—in punchy jabs and fragments. Again, the soldierly gruff is unmistakeable:
Guard duty again.

As if my name was the only one,
written in the hat. […]

If he gives a problem.
Would have to shoot.
Never took a life before.

Knew how to avoid catastrophes
In New York.

Not New York though.
Another ghetto battlefield.

Hands feel bloodied already.
Later in the book, in "Unsaid (Confession)," Goodwin compares and contrasts her guarded calm to that of some fellow female soldiers: "Boy, how those white girls would powertrip. […]"
Was like waiting for a grenade to blow.

Screeching at the inmates.

[…] I and the other black girls.
Never did that.
Never lost cool.
Not on my watch.
Not once.

Maybe 'cause we knew.
We saw.
How they looked.

The resembled us.
Family distanced by time.
This war separated us by nation.
But shade united us.
Akin. […]
In the book's final poem, "Iraq," Goodwin revisits her experience of the country as a human terrain. In my ear, her voice takes on the tone of a Biblical psalm. As they so often do, Goodwin's words beg to be read aloud, spoken in the wilderness, offered to the desert wind.
[…] Inheritors of the new ghetto.
I have something to tell you.
It shall be harsh, because it is truth.

Your playgrounds are now our landfills.
Our dumpsters, your mattresses.
All too well I know the sight of desolation.

Underneath the dust covered tracks.
Where you and I buried—your one, solitary tear.
When flickering lights were our altar posts.

We shared the same skin.
The same face.
Our shadows young-elderly, and forgotten.

Crossed and have never unlinked.
Under this sky you will die—mistaken.

My, theirs, our visits were false ones.
I collapsed in sadism, erasing.

My origin.
Once, I was born of it too.
Goodwin's work is an essential addition to 21st century war poetry: unique in voice and perspective, unflinching in calling attention to how different our experiences of conflict can be, while hauntingly reminding us of the humanity we share.

12 January 2017

'Soldier Stories' Opera at Camp Dodge, Iowa Jan. 27-29

The Des Moines (Iowa) Metro Opera opens its 45th anniversary season with a regional premiere of David T. Little's rock-infused "Soldier Songs," a one-act, multi-media production about "the loss of innocence and the difficulty of expressing the truth of war," Jan. 27-29, 2017 at the Iowa National Guard's Freedom Center armory, Camp Dodge, Iowa. Camp Dodge is located in the Des Moines suburb of Johnston.

The performance is part of the arts organization's "2nd Stages" series—community collaborations to create events in non-traditional performance spaces for opera.

According to press materials:
The opera centers on the abstract Soldier and follows his path through three different stages of his life: as a boy playing with his plastic soldiers and guns, heavily influenced by media images of heroes and war; as a young adult soldier, both thrilled and terrified by the grim reality of modern combat; and finally, as the older veteran returned home, struggling to confront his memories and consumed by grief when two marines come to tell him that his son has been killed in combat. 
The opera asks us to examine the real human costs of warfare and the part we all play as audience and media consumers in creating the culture of war and the emotionally-devastating cult of the real American hero.
"We greatly appreciate the Des Moines Metro Opera exploring the deeply personal experiences of American servicemembers and bringing forward the unique emotional, physical, mental and spiritual issues engendered by combat operations," said Col. Greg Hapgood, public affairs officer for the Iowa National Guard.

Baritone Michael Mayes will star in the performance, and composer Little will be attending the opening night. Des Moines Metro Opera Music Director and Principal Conductor David Neely will conduct the performance, which features an amplified seven-person orchestra. Audience members are cautioned that the production features strong language, simulated gunshots, explosions, and other potentially triggering sounds and visual effects.

Directed by Kristine McIntyre, and designed by Adam Crinson, the "Soldier Songs" production will also feature real military vehicles supplied by the Iowa National Guard.

Tickets are $40 and can be purchased online here, or by phone: 515.961.6221. Seating is limited. A photo identification is required for admittance to the military post.

Performances are:
  • Fri., Jan. 27 at 7:30 p.m.
  • Sat., Jan. 28 at 7:30 p.m.
  • Sun., Jan. 29 at 2 p.m.
Each performance will be followed by a facilitated "talk back" session with audience.

A FREE preview performance for veterans will be conducted during the final dress rehearsal Thurs., Jan. 26.

A promotional video appears at link here, and below:

04 January 2017

MWSA Gold Medal Awarded to 'FOB Haiku' Book!

Book reviewers at Military Writers Society of America (M.W.S.A.) recently announced that "Welcome to FOB Haiku: War Poetry from Inside the Wire" (Middle West Press, LLC) has been awarded a 2016 Gold Medal in Poetry.

The award takes place after a 2015 MWSA rules revision. Under a new system, panels of three judges considered approximately 80 military-themed or -authored fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and other literature.

According to the association: "The already stringent requirements were toughened further. Three judges read every book submitted and scored them based on content, visual, style, and technical criteria. The three scores were then averaged. To receive a medal, a book had to reflect MWSA's exacting technical standards as well as a high total score."

In a companion review to the award, author and Gold Star mother Betsy Beard described "Welcome to FOB Haiku" as "fresh, profound, illuminating." She continues:
[T]his is a must-read poetry book. It logs the humor and joy as well as the pathos and tragedy that comes as a result of serving in the American military.

The poetry is divided into several sections titled Basic Issue, Getting Embed, FOB Haiku, Lessons Learned, and Homecoming. A final section titled Notes contains valuable definitions as well as pronunciations for the ever-present military acronyms. Information in this section is critical to the understanding of how the poetry is to be read, since many of us do not know how to pronounce DFAC or TOC. My advice is to read the notes for each section before you read the poetry in that section. I think it will deepen the experience as well as allow you to get the meter that the poet intended.

One poem in particular changed the way I think of my son's service in Iraq, where he was killed in action. "Hamlet in Afghanistan" enabled me to realize more than I had allowed myself to think that "nothing we can ever do will change that day in the village." Heartrending, but true.

Not everyone in America understands the military culture. But for those who lived it, this book will bring remembrance and affirmation. For those who are families and friends of service members, this book will help you gain new understanding of your loved ones. For those without experience in this field, you may end up with a fresh look at what it’s all about.
"Welcome to FOB Haiku" can be purchased via on-line booksellers such as Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and more. For more information, visit: www.fobhaiku.com