28 June 2017

Poetry Book Review: 'Operational Terms and Graphics'

Poetry Book Review: 'FM 101-5-1 MCRP 5-2A: Operational Terms and Graphics' by Paul David Adkins

This recently published book closely follows Adkins' cheekily gothic war-poetry collection "Flying Over Baghdad with Sylvia Plath," also published by Lit Riot Press. Where the former explores modern wartime experience armed with Addams Family quirkiness and clever literary references, this recent entry leans into the foxhole walls of military vernacular and symbology.

Stick with me, soldier. It's funnier ... and "funner" ... than it sounds.

Rather than as a list of titles, the Table of Contents is presented as series of map overlays, each over an abstracted Baghdad. On these pages, each of the book's 43 poems is associated with a particular rune-like symbol. Those symbols mark kidnappings, convoys, Improvised Explosive Devices (I.E.D.), and other battlefield occurrences, per the current military reference. (In military fashion, the runes are explained in the poetry book's appendix.)

For various assumed reasons, Adkins does not explicitly address his many years of uniformed service. His opening poem, however, points to experiences as an analyst of patterns and terrain—a worker or manager in intelligence, located in a Tactical Operations Center ("TOC"). In "Military Intelligence," he memorably demonstrates that one does not have to be a front-line soldier to feel and act like a sheepdog. I'll not reveal the punchline—it is thrilling and artful and tragically, heroically true—but here's the set-up:
I did not see bodies,
blood nor burning trucks.
I did not brush aside
shrieking women in the flaming market
nor ignore their sobbing children.

I stayed on the FOB.

But I knew.

I did not see
but knew the way
I knew what happened
in the room next door
in college […]
A Red Bull Rising review of Adkins' first book is here. In that review, I lamented that examples of Adkins' more absurdist humor, such as the joyous "Helicopter Ride with a Cadaver Dog" and the true-life latrine humor of "Iraqi Army Unit on Camp Striker, Baghdad Iraq"—were AWOL in that collection. I am pleased to report that these favorites, however, as well as new works, are now present and accounted for in "Operational Terms and Graphics."

Each poem is a war story, a slice of Forward Operating Base life, a storyboard about battlefield actions that range from the significant to the mundane. Adkins' touch is light and direct, even when his subjects are dark. His reports and anecdotes include: observations on how male soldiers cover for female counterparts when they need to urinate during convoy missions ("Poncho Liners"); how distributions of "humanitarian supplies" are either received or rejected by Iraqi civilians ("Water Bottle Delivery"); and how IED-aiming markers removed by U.S. troops are soon replaced ("Tree of Woe").

Given my own attempts toward depicting Forward Operating Base ("FOB") life through poetry, I particularly appreciate when Adkins casts his gaze inside the protective wire. There are any number of poems that turn me green with envy. In "Passing the Flags," for example, he accurately and humorously depicts the flowery displays found at every Army shower point:
Throughout the shower trailer,
amid the steam and hiss
and shaving men
hung towels of every color.

The Army issued brown terry.
We buried
those spares in duffel bags
deep as tulip bulbs.

But in the trailer—yellow bath,
lime green beach, purple, chartreuse hand.
Sky blue, orange, even a pink washcloth

— Excuse me — it's salmon. […]
Adkins' humor is never offered without purpose, however. His work provides a necessary and complicating perspective, a counter-narrative designed to cut through the jingoistic fireworks of more mainstream military story-telling. As his narrator says in the persona poem "Iraqi Barber on FOB Barber":
[…] I noticed soldiers rush.

No time, no time

for a shave, an eyebrow trim. […]

[…] I clip and snip.

They tap their fingernails
against the armrests—
on empty guns.
Like the soldiers held briefly in a barbarous hair-cutters chair, Adkins' work should give us all pause.

Savor it. Revel in it.

It is sneaky. It is snarky. It is ... insurgent.

"Operational Terms and Graphics" is available in trade paperback here.

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