22 June 2017

Poetry Book Review: 'The Ghosts of Babylon'

Book review: "The Ghosts of Babylon" by Jonathan Baxter

In his 2016 collection "The Ghosts of Babylon" (Blackside Publishing), former U.S. Army Airborne Ranger and private military contractor Jonathan Baxter has produced a sublimely profane work of war poetry, one that is full of soldierly humor and gritty experience. The 142-page book has a punchy, pulpy sensibility, aided in part by integral black-and-white illustrations by Mark Reeve. In addition to dramatic splash pages, some of Reeve's artwork is incorporated behind or placed into specific poems, illuminating particular stanzas as if they were comic-book panels.

It is heady, grabby stuff: Real "Biff-Pow" Poetry.

More generally, Baxter's verse glides in and out of rhymed couplets and quatrains, blended with less-structured streams of consciousness. It sometimes feels like one of those loopy foxhole conversations with an incessantly nattering battle buddy—that one guy in the platoon who won't shut up, who reads a lot of books. That guy you begin to wonder about, after a while. The guy who seems on the cusp of either losing his sh--, or figuring out the punchline to the universe.

Baxter's smorgasbord of literary references include the Bible, the Epic of Gilgamesh, Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness," and Shakespeare's "Hamlet"—nothing too foreign to scare off the grunting, guard tower crowd, but, at the same time, exotic enough for ivory tower tastes. It is a heady and surreal buffet, full of jester skulls, ecstatic latrine episodes, and the occasional giant robot. As he writes in "The Thieves of Baghdad": "I'm getting my myths all mixed up now / so busy writing my own down."

Throughout this chaos, Baxter captures scenes, moments, and aspects of 21st century soldier life that I've not seen addressed in any other poetry. Don't get distracted by Baxter's fireworks—he's out to illuminate some particular truths. There are moments of wisdom and insight that ignite like tracer rounds, spaced throughout Baxter's threads of feverish, belt-driven deliveries of language and image. It is either mad genius, or inspired madness. It's a roller coaster, but worth the ride. Just hold on.

In the "Ghosts of the Khyber," for example, he relates a haunting series of stories, and connects Rudyard Kipling's "Young British Soldier" to the fighting men of Alexander the Great, Soviet-era Spetsnatz, as well as 21st century fighters. In "When That Was Your War," he similarly compares and contracts his own fate to that of soldiers in World War I:
[…] You tripped on the bodies of your brothers
As you walked through the smoke and the fire
And lay down before the God of War
Like offerings at a funeral pyre […]

[…] And I sit, relaxed and serene
On a secure forward operating base
In my climate-controlled KBR unit
It is a most comfortable place […]

[…] Tonight I'll go to the gym and work out
Go to the chow hall and grab a plate
And later in my climate-controlled bathroom
I'll leisurely masturbate [...]
In "The Assaulters," Baxter explores the experience of serving on a Quick Reaction Force (Q.R.F.), unpacking the universally magical moment before something explodes, reality intrudes, and the mission starts:
the assaulters lounge
sprawled languidly in the oppressive heat
like so many hunting dogs

on the Stryker's ramp
relaxed, our heads back against the door frame
muscles charged with latent energy

leaning back in our kits
we sit, helmets off, radio traffic
idly crackles in the background

waiting on THE WORD […]
It is in this pre-contact purgatory that Baxter identifies a camaraderie that will be lost to veterans in peacetime:
[…] some of us try to settle
into the REAL WORLD, where we try to speak
a new language unstained by tobacco

or dead baby jokes
where civilians measure your cock by your
salary, car, or social status

and not by your competence
or by how well you shoot or by the
weights you can throw around in the gym

or that certain assurance
in your voice as you cross that last threshold
in that yawning and hungry darkness

lit only by your taclights […]
In "//NOTHING FOLLOWS," he leverages the end-line found on the DD-214—the form that summarizes a soldier's active-duty time upon separation from service—as something of a recurring refrain:
[…] The six deployments fit into one box
a jumble of numbers, lines and dots
I sift through the dates
each recounting a different place in my life

That one was my first
That one there was the worst
We lost Ricky there
That one was my first to Afghanistan
the land where time began
That one was my favorite and
But some things do follow, of course. We continue to carry the things we carried. In a wonderfully concrete addition to his barbaric yawping, Baxter's publisher devotes a number of back-pages to sharing some on-line, non-profit, and other resources, prompted by questions such as:
  • Are you contemplating suicide or experiencing a psychological health crisis?
  • Do you demons stir and murmur deep?
  • Are you struggling to find a purpose and a mission?
  • Do the deep wounds of war possess your mind?
  • Is the bottom of the bottle numbing your inner war?
Ideally, poetry inspires empathy, questions, and conversations. Baxter has seen fit not only to prompt such moments, but to offer his fellow veterans some potential solutions as well.

Baxter's "The Ghosts of Babylon" is available in trade paperback here.

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