26 April 2017

Book Review: Kamesan's Haiku Anthology on War

Book Review: "Kamesan's World Haiku Anthology on War, Violence and Human Rights violation" compiled by Dimitar Anakiev
haiku about war?
collected bits of shrapnel—
wish I'd thought of that
One of the reasons I like using haiku to share military perspectives and experiences is that it's such a recognizable and friendly form of communication. It's an easy recipe, for those who wish to follow it: Five syllables plus seven syllables plus another five. Put a little nature in there, a quick shift in focus or action, and stir. Season to taste.

My kids first learned to read and write haiku in second grade, which is about the same age as I did. Haiku is basic, and complex, and as addictive as eating potato chips. Even people who say they don't like poetry will stop to read a short poem, particularly if you pepper it with a little snark.

That's why many of the poems in my 2015 collection "Welcome to FOB Haiku"—indeed, as the title of the book itself suggests—are haiku.

There's little new under the poetry sun, of course, and I was hardly the first to marry modern warfare and short-format poetry. Still, imagine my delight in discovering a published collection of approximately 900 haiku poems by 435 poets collected and translated from 35 global languages, all on the subject of war.

Originally underwritten by a 2012 crowd-funding campaign, and compiled by Slovenian poet and filmmaker Dimitar Anakiev (a.k.a. "Kamesan"), the 396-page ""World Haiku Anthology on War, Violence and Human Rights violation" includes a few 15th century examples from haiku masters, as well as poems dating from World War I. Most of the poems are later 20th century and 21st century works, however, and are rooted in many different geographies of conflict and suffering, including Kosovo, Iraq, Afghanistan, Korea, even Columbine, Colo. These poems are shards of regret, sadness, and loss, but the overall mood seems reflective and contemplative, without being funerary.

Adding some visual wit, the book is punctuated and illuminated by occasional drawings by Kuniharu Shimizu. Shimizu also designed the book's cover.

Here's a quick sampling of some of my favorite poems in the collection. I have taken the liberty of including the place number of each, so that interested readers might locate the poems in the book itself.
After the war
a man with one leg
is he a hero?

—Karunush Kumar Agrawal, India


some new weaponry
now eco-friendly
kills with green bullets

—Winona Baker, Canada


wolf moon
another battalion
ships out

—Francine Banwarth, United States


having picnic by
the old command headquarters—
forgotten battles

—Rick Black, United States


only pale moonlight
Baghdad is powerless
on a winter night

—Anne Connolly, Ireland


war crimes
he puts a gun to his head
and kills them all

—Garry Eaton, Canada
A far more expert and informed analysis of some of the haiku in this collection can be found at Chen-ou Liu's NeverEnding Story blog here. Indeed, it is Chen-ou Liu's analysis that first called to my attention the existence of this monumental collection. This is a must-read for any haiku enthusiast or practitioner—particularly those who may have once worn a uniform.

19 April 2017

Book Review: 'Private Perry and Mister Poe'

Book Review: 'Private Perry and Mister Poe: The West Point Poems, 1831' by William F. Hecker

Nineteenth century poet and short-story author Edgar Allan Poe is one of those Dead White Guys that keeps a dead-hand grip on the American scholastic canon. Even with increasingly diverse reading options in high school, it's unlikely that even the least Goth teenager won't encounter Poe's big 1845 hit, "The Raven," at least once or twice in English classes.

Beyond black birds squawking "Nevermore," however, few are privy to some surprising facts about Poe's early literary life:
  • In 1825, at the age of 16, Poe served as a junior militiaman in a ceremonial escort for a touring French Gen. Lafayette. In 1827, Poe enlisted in the U.S. Army as an artillery soldier, under the assumed name of "Perry."
  • Poe quickly promoted first to company clerk, then to the double-pay technical position of "artificer," a manufacturer of bombs and shells.
Poe was at West Point from 1830 to 1831, at which time he decided to return to civilian life in order to focus on his literary career. Even today at West Point, campus myths and legends surrounding Poe's short career often regard drunkenness and other infractions. In reality, he excelled in his studies, particularly mathematics and French. When he decided to leave and his estranged foster-father's permission to leave was not forthcoming, Poe systematically engineered through absences and derelictions a court martial that required his expulsion. On his way out of Army life, he crowd-funded from his fellow cadets money to publish his second book of poetry.

Some historians speculate that his buddies likely expected a volume of satirical light verse, similar to that which he'd entertained them in barracks. What they got was far more serious: A collection of 12 new and revised poems.

Along with the facsimile reproduction of that 1831 poetry collection, a 2005 book by fellow West Pointer William F. Hecker opens the crypt for new insights into Poe's life, work, and motivations. The 248-page book includes an extensive introduction, offering Hecker's insights and analysis of Poe's military career, as well as a afterward by West Point faculty Gerard A. McGowan.

Poe's poetic imagery is never more detailed than an occasional reference to battle, writes Hecker. Poe is also given to evoking martial tradition through the selective use of names, such as "Helen" "Tamerlane". As such, many write off Poe's short time in uniform as little more than an historical hiccup. For Hecker, however, Poe's Army career indicates a desire for validation and glory, and for connection to his grandfather's uniformed service during the American Revolution:
Just as an artificer's failure to construct a bomb properly always results in the failure of the round to achieve its effects and potentially results in injury to the artificer himself, failure to construct a poem well renders its effects impotent and damages the reputation of the poet. The attention to details, the appreciate for minute nuances of sound, and the modulation of rhythm that Poe built into his verse to achieve his aesthetic of beauty were reinforced by the artistic craftsmanship require to build a functional artillery bomb.
For those who celebrate oft-overlooked poetic traditions with the U.S. military, Poe's career was brief but notable. One wonders what soldierly poetry could have been brought to life, had Poe become an officer and gentleman. His favored themes of loss and death and lives cut short, after all, are constant companions to those who serve.

Sadly, William Hecker, the insightful editor of "Private Perry and Mister Poe," was killed in Iraq in 2006. Having met him only through his first and only book, I feel the loss deeply. I have no doubt he had many more words to share with the world.

13 April 2017

Review: 'Tumult & Tears,' Poetry from Women in WWI

Book review: 'Tumult & Tears: An Anthology of Women's First World War Poetry' by Vivien Newman

With the confluence of National Poetry Month and the centennial of the America's entry into World War I, readers are more likely to encounter "Great War" narratives beyond the usual touchstone horrors of trench warfare, gas attacks, and lost generations.

In the popular mind, World War I is particularly likely to also be associated with poetry. The works and names of such poets as Robert Graves, Wilfred Owen, and Siegfried Sassoon are still regularly studied and celebrated. Some of the poems speak of glory, nostalgia, and patriotism, but more are likely to contrast such sentiments with images of shocking battlefield realities.

For many, their consumption and appreciateion of war poetry ends there, in the trenches. Indeed, novice writers and reviewers too often fall back into rhetorical ditches such as "war poetry died after World War I," and "it's too bad that war poetry isn't as popular as it was during World War I." In my opinion, such themes should be retired along with other journalistic story-crutches and English 101 clichés, such as "why no one reads poetry," "why poetry is going extinct," and "poetry is dead."

(For the record, war poetry isn't dead. It isn't even wounded. See this Red Bull Rising link for a list of 21st century war poets, or this new Time Now blog link for a great round-up of individual poems available to read on-line.)

In "Tumult & Tears," social historian Vivien Newman estimates that, out of 2,000 British war poets whose work was published during World War I, nearly a quarter were women. She expands and enriches our understanding of that war, and its resulting poetic tradition, by surveying the words and experiences of those ignored by the usual canonical field pieces.

The 224-page trade paperback presents a far-flung and accessible selection of poetry, organized by themes of women's changing roles in war, religion, uniformed service, nature, and grief. Where possible, Newman includes biographical sketches of each poet cited, providing personal context in addition to the social and political.

Newman's scholarship often delivers cascades of insight and epiphany. Take, for example, the concept of woman as mourner: That wives, girlfriends, and mothers might grieve for lost soldiers is no surprise. Newman introduces examples of others, however, just as valid in their experiences of grief. Consider the unrequited lover, the mistress, the nurse, the nanny. These are complicated, complicating voices. Not all are polished, but each is worthy of note. Each is a potential revelation to readers. As Newman writes in her introduction:
From the outset, my guiding principle was what the piece might tell us about the reality of the War for the poet—and by extension other the women, rather than the intrinsic literary 'value' of the poem. Another, equally important aim was to give readers a sense of the sweep of the poetry, both in subject matter and also poetic 'skill'. Some of the poems included are undeniably little more than ditties—albeit heartfelt ones; a few are amongst the finest in the English language.
In considering the many ways in which women engaged themselves in war, Newman explores topics such as knitting socks for the troops, rationing foodstuffs for the family, and manufacturing munitions. Women who served in uniformed included Red Cross workers, volunteer nurses, cooks, scullery and ward maids. They included Women's Land Army, ambulance drivers, and Women's Auxiliary Army Corps ("WAAC") members. All are quoted and represented here.

Regular readers of the Red Bull Rising blog will not be surprised that the poems I found most resonant were those that offered both insight and humor. There is plenty of parody in these pages, particularly those evoking Rudyard Kipling's "If". In her poem "Some WAAC," for example, E.M. Murray writes:
If you can drive from nine o'clock till seven
     Every day of the long week and still live on;
If you can keep you temper until even,
     You deseve a putty medal nobly won!
If you can put up with each hardship,
     The weather, the passenger, you car,
And still keep bright—well all that I can say is:
     'You're a topper absolutely, nothing bar.'

03 April 2017

Listen Up, Maggots! It's National Poetry Month!

PHOTO BY: U.S. Army Sgt. Ken Scar
Blog editor's note: The post originally appeared on the Red Bull Rising blog on April 6, 2016.

When packing for one of my first training experiences with the U.S. Army, back in the late 1980s, I knew that free time and footlocker space would be at a premium. I could live without luxuries like my Walkman cassette player for a few months. I also wanted to avoid avoid too much gruff from drill sergeants. So I stuffed a paperback copy of Shakespeare's "Henry V" into my left cargo pocket, wrapped in a plastic sandwich bag, as my sole entertainment.

If nothing else, I thought, I'd work on my memorization skills. ("Oh, for a muse of fire-guard duty …") Little did I realize that so much of my brain would already be filled, starting those summer months at Fort Knox, Ky., with the nursery rhymes of Uncle Sam. Training was full of poetry. Sometimes, it was profane. "This is my rifle, this is my gun!" Sometimes, it was pedagogical. "I will turn the tourniquet / to stop the flow / of the bright red blood." There were even times that it was nearly pathological. "What is the spirit of the bayonet?! / Kill! Kill! Kill!"

These basic phrases connected us new recruits to the yellow footprints of those who had stood here before, marched in our boots, squared the same corners, weathered the same abuses. Every time we moved, we were serenaded by sergeants. Counting cadence, calling cadence, bemoaning that Jody was back home, dating our women, drinking our beer. We learned our lines, our ranks, our patches, our places as much by tribal story-telling than by reading the effing field manual. Even our soldier humor was hand-me-down wisdom, tossed off like singsong hand grenades. Phrases like, "Don't call me 'sir' / I work for a living!" and "You were better off when you left! / You're right!"

Nobody's quite sure why April got the nod as National Poetry Month. I like to think that it's because of that line from T.S. Eliot's "The Wasteland": "April is the cruelest month." Because that sounds like the Army. Besides, in springtime, the thoughts of every warrior-poet lightly turns to baseball; showers that bring flowers ("If it ain't raining / it ain't training!"); and the start of fighting season in Afghanistan.

Poetry, I recognize, isn't every soldier's three cups of tea. Ever since I entertained my platoon mates with Prince Harry's inspiring St. Crispin's Day speech, however, I've enjoyed sneaking poetry into the conversation. Perhaps more soldiers would appreciate poetry, were they to realize the inherent poetics of military life:

Every time you go to war, you are engaged in a battle for narrative. Every deployment—individually as a soldier, or collectively as an Army or nation—is a story. Every story has a beginning, middle, and end. Every story is subject to vision, and revision. History isn't always written by the victors, but it is re-written by poets. Treat them well. Otherwise, they will cut you.

Every time you eat soup with a knife, you are wielding a metaphor. Every "boots on the ground," every "line in the sand," every Hollywood-style named operation ("Desert Shield"! "Desert Storm"! "Enduring Freedom"!) is a metaphor that shapes our understanding of a war and its objectives. If you don't understand the dangerous end of a metaphor, you shouldn't be issued one.

(There's also a corollary, and a warning: As missions change, so do metaphors. In other words, when a politician trots out a new metaphor for war, better check your six.)

Every poem is a fragment of intelligence, a piece in the puzzle. A poem can slow down time, describe a moment in lush and flushed detail. It can transport the reader to a different time, a different battlefield. Most importantly, a poem can describe the experience of military life and death through someone else's eyes—a spouse, a villager, a soldier, a journalist. Poetry, in short, is a training opportunity for empathy.

Soldiers like to say that the enemy gets a vote, so it's worth noting that the enemy writes poetry, too. Like reading doctrine and monitoring propaganda, reading an enemy's verse reveals motivations and values. Sun Tzu writes:
If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.
Every time you quote a master, from Sun Tzu to Schwarzkopf, you are delivering aphorism. I liken the aphorism—a quotable-quote or maxim—to be akin to concise forms of poetry, such as haiku. In fact, in my expansive view, I think aphorisms should count as poetry. In the world of word craft, it can take as much effort to hone an effective aphorism than it does to write a 1,000-word essay. Aphorisms are laser-guided missiles, rather than carpet bombs. We should all spend our words more wisely.

Reading a few lines connects us to the thin red line of soldiers past, present, and future. Poetry puts us in the boots of those who have served before, hooks our chutes to a larger history and experience of war. The likes of Shakespeare's "band of brothers" speech, John McRae's "In Flanders Fields," and Rudyard Kipling's poem "Tommy" continue to speak to the experiences and sentiments of modern soldiers.

I am happy to report that more-contemporary war poets have continued the march.

Here's a quick list to probe the front lines of modern war poetry: From World War II, seek out Henry Reed's "The Naming of Parts." For a jolt of Vietnam Era parody, read Alan Farrell's "The Blaming of Parts." From the Iraq War, Brian Turner's "Here, Bullet." In this tight shot group, modern soldiers will no doubt recognize themselves, their tools, and their times. Here is industrial-grade boredom, an assembly line of war, punctuated with humor and grit, gunpowder and lead.

Want more? Check out print and on-line literary offerings from Veterans Writing Project's "O-Dark-Thirty" quarterly literary journal; Military Experience & the Arts' twice-annual "As You Were"; the "Line of Advance" journal; and Southeast Missouri State University's "Proud to Be: Writing by American Warriors" annual anthology series.

Finally, you can buy an pocket anthology of poetry, such as the Everyman's Library Pocket Poets edition of "War Poems" from Knopf, or Ebury's "Heroes: 100 Poems from the New Generation of War Poets." Stuff it in your left cargo pocket. Read a page a day as a secular devotional, a meditation on war. Or, pick a favorite poem, print it out, and post it on the wall of your fighting position or office cube. Read the same poem, over and over again, during the course of a few weeks. See how it changes. See how it changes in you.

Remember: It's National Poetry Month. And every time you read a war poem, an angel gets its Airborne wings.


Randy Brown embedded with his former Iowa Army National Guard unit as a civilian journalist in Afghanistan, May-June 2011. He authored the poetry collection Welcome to FOB Haiku: War Poems from Inside the Wire (Middle West Press, 2015). He is the current poetry editor of Military Experience and the Arts' "As You Were" literary journal, and a member of the Military Writers Guild. As "Charlie Sherpa," he blogs about military culture at: www.redbullrising.com.