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.

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