Matthew Borczon: “In 2010”

 

 

In 2010

Afghanistan
embedded
the war
in my
chest like
a pacemaker

I still
feel the
cold metal
every time
I salute
the flag

 

About the Author: Matthew Borczon is a writer and a Navy sailor from Erie, Pa. He has published widely in the small press and written 12 books of poetry; the most recent the PTSD Blues was released through Rust Belt Press in 2019. He works hard as a nurse for developmentally disabled adults and works even harder at forgetting the war he served in in 2010.

 

Image Credit: Carol M. Highsmith: “A colorful rendition of the American flag, painted on the side of a large utility shed in the town of Carbon in Eastland County, Texas” (2014) The Library of Congress

Lynn Houston: “At the Harbor Lights Motel After You Return”

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At the Harbor Lights Motel After You Return

By Lynn Houston

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In August 2016, while at a writing residency, I met a man who was already supposed to have deployed with his National Guard unit. We were given the gift of three weeks before he left, time we used to get to know each other, as we helped out on a friend’s farm, had long conversations on a porch swing, and rode his motorcycle up into the mountains. The night before he left the country, as he was driving to the base, we talked on the phone for over three hours. For six months while he was gone, I sent him near-daily poems in the mail. When he returned, after an initial successful reunion, it became clear that he was plagued with anger issues and other problems associated with a difficult re-entry into his civilian life. He began seeing someone else, and we broke up. In my grief, I revised the poems I’d sent him and began submitting them to poetry contests. Unguarded won the inaugural chapbook contest of the Heartland Review Press and is due to be released in December 2017, with a series of readings and book signings in the Elizabethtown, KY, area scheduled for early 2018.

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At the Harbor Lights Motel After You Return

The fish aren’t biting on Key Largo
the morning we spend together
after you return. You nap all day,
sheets spiraled like a carapace
around your torso and legs.

Next to you in bed, I touch your head,
stroke the hair you’ve grown long,
and ask what it was like over there.
But you pull the blankets higher
and turn away to face the wall.

Hours later, I call to you from the doorway
to show you a snapper on my line. You dress,
find me on the dock where we drink beer
as the sun slumps behind the palms.

You sleep through the night, and in the morning,
before you leave for a dive on a coral reef,
you tell me that turtles sleep like humans do—
you’ve seen them at night tucked into the nooks
of wrecks, heads withdrawn into shells;
you’ve seen their eyes blink open in the beam
of your dive light; you’ve even seen one wake
and swim away when a fish fin came too close.
They have nerve endings there, you tell me.
They can feel when something touches their shell.

When you return from the reef, I ask you
again how it was over there, and this time
you begin to tell me what you can.

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Editor’s Note: This poem is the third of a series. The first poem, “On the Farm, Before You Leave for Afghanistan,” and the second poem, “You Leave and I Can’t Sleep” were published in late 2017.

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About the Author: Lynn Marie Houston holds a PhD from Arizona State University and an MFA from Southern Connecticut State University. Her poetry appears in numerous literary journals–such as O-Dark-ThirtyGravelPainted Bride QuarterlyOcean State ReviewHeavy Feather Review–and in her three collections: The Clever Dream of Man (Aldrich Press), Chatterbox (Word Poetry Books), and Unguarded (Heartland Review Press). For more information, visit lynnmhouston.com

 

Image Credit: Loggerhead Sea Turtle (digital art based on a photo from NOAA.org)

Lynn Houston: “You Leave and I Can’t Sleep”

 

You Leave and I Can’t Sleep

By Lynn Houston

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In August 2016, while at a writing residency, I met a man who was already supposed to have deployed with his National Guard unit. We were given the gift of three weeks before he left, time we used to get to know each other, as we helped out on a friend’s farm, had long conversations on a porch swing, and rode his motorcycle up into the mountains. The night before he left the country, as he was driving to the base, we talked on the phone for over three hours. For six months while he was gone, I sent him near-daily poems in the mail. When he returned, after an initial successful reunion, it became clear that he was plagued with anger issues and other problems associated with a difficult re-entry into his civilian life. He began seeing someone else, and we broke up. In my grief, I revised the poems I’d sent him and began submitting them to poetry contests. Unguarded won the inaugural chapbook contest of the Heartland Review Press and is due to be released in December 2017, with a series of readings and book signings in the Elizabethtown, KY, area scheduled for early 2018.

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You Leave and I Can’t Sleep

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If I’m writing this, it means I can’t sleep and that
the rain outside my window drops blindly in the dark.

The crops need it, the cashier told me earlier, ringing
me up for a pint of milk, making small talk, making change.

And now the tipped carton has marred the pages
on my too-small desk. I’m trying not to make too much of it—

this mess, the disasters my life and pages gather.
I’m trying to be kinder to myself, more forgiving.

Outside, a leopard moth lands on the screen, shudders
to dry its wings. One touch from my finger would strip

the powdered coating that allows it to fly in rain.
I wish it might have been so easy to keep you

from boarding the plane that took you to war.
In the predawn, my neighbors still asleep, I am the only one

to hear the garbage truck grind to a stop,
its brakes the sound of an animal braying.

The rain has stopped, too. I look over the smudged papers
on my desk. Nothing important has been lost.

When you come home safely to me in six months,
we will be able to say, nothing important has been lost.

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Editor’s Note: This poem is the second of a series. The first poem, “On the Farm, Before You Leave for Afghanistan,” was published two weeks ago.

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About the Author: Lynn Marie Houston holds a PhD from Arizona State University and an MFA from Southern Connecticut State University. Her poetry appears in numerous literary journals–such as O-Dark-ThirtyGravelPainted Bride QuarterlyOcean State ReviewHeavy Feather Review–and in her three collections: The Clever Dream of Man (Aldrich Press), Chatterbox (Word Poetry Books), and Unguarded (Heartland Review Press). For more information, visit lynnmhouston.com

Image Credit: John Coates Browne “View from parlor window, Presqu’ile” (The Getty’s Open Content Program)

 

“On the Farm, Before You Leave for Afghanistan” By Lynn Houston

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In August 2016, while at a writing residency, I met a man who was already supposed to have deployed with his National Guard unit. We were given the gift of three weeks before he left, time we used to get to know each other, as we helped out on a friend’s farm, had long conversations on a porch swing, and rode his motorcycle up into the mountains. The night before he left the country, as he was driving to the base, we talked on the phone for over three hours. For six months while he was gone, I sent him near-daily poems in the mail. When he returned, after an initial successful reunion, it became clear that he was plagued with anger issues and other problems associated with a difficult re-entry into his civilian life. He began seeing someone else, and we broke up. In my grief, I revised the poems I’d sent him and began submitting them to poetry contests. Unguarded won the inaugural chapbook contest of the Heartland Review Press and is due to be released in December 2017, with a series of readings and book signings in the Elizabethtown, KY, area scheduled for early 2018.

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On the Farm, Before You Leave for Afghanistan

Henry was the first to know I was your woman.
Henry, the goat. The one who hates you.

Since then I’ve been surprised by how often
clouds take the shape of curled horns
and remind me of that Tennessee morning

we left a shared bed to feed the herd
and took the smell of love-making with us.

Like any hard-headed man, when Henry knew
I was yours, he wanted me for a goat wife,
butted my thigh and bit my boot top,

rubbed his face against its orange leather.
Aware of Henry’s macho display and the force

of his horns, you turned your back on me
and walked toward the house, knowing that
to keep me safe you had to leave.

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About the Author:Lynn Marie Houston holds a PhD from Arizona State University and an MFA from Southern Connecticut State University. Her poetry appears in numerous literary journals–such as O-Dark-ThirtyGravelPainted Bride QuarterlyOcean State ReviewHeavy Feather Review–and in her three collections: The Clever Dream of Man (Aldrich Press), Chatterbox (Word Poetry Books), and Unguarded (Heartland Review Press). For more information, visit lynnmhouston.com

 

Image Credit: Jack Delano: “Rural Scene, Near Andover, Maine” courtesy of the Getty’s Open Content Program.

A Review of Seth Brady Tucker’s Mormon Boy

Seth Brady Tucker Mormon Boy Cover

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A Review of Seth Brady Tucker’s Mormon Boy

By Karen Craigo

 

I’ve always felt drawn to work of poets from the Great War. Writers like Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon brought home to their readers the terrors of war, and while it is difficult to take their words in, it is essential to consider their powerful poems of witness.

A fragment from Sassoon’s “Aftermath” demonstrates how poetry can be a deterrent to war:

Do you remember the rats; and the stench
Of corpses rotting in front of the front-line
trench—
And dawn coming, dirty-white, and chill with a hopeless rain?
Do you ever stop and ask, “Is it all going to happen again?”

Nearly all of Sassoon’s poems capture a glimpse of the hell we call war, and for me, they hold more of the feeling of armed conflict than any history book could attempt to depict.

For years, I have been looking for the Wilfred Owen of our wars in Iraq or Afghanistan, and I have come up empty. I have found something far superior, though, in the poetry of combat veteran Seth Brady Tucker—superior because he is not a copy of those war poets who have come before him, but instead is an utterly unique and powerful voice in his own right, and a bold and unflinching witness to the wars we own today.

Mormon Boy, Brady’s debut poetry collection, covers a lot of ground—love, coming of age, even the perfection of his wife’s hiney in soccer shorts—but for me, war eclipses everything else in the book, and this is exactly as it should be.

Tucker’s first section, “Falling in Love During Wartime,” introduces the topic of his service, and the placement of these poems—coming before some poems that deal with Tucker’s pre-service life, so that the book is not chronologically ordered—has a profound effect on the way a reader receives the other work in the book. I actually suspect that I will read all of Tucker’s subsequent releases with the tinge of his military service shading my understanding of them. It’s unavoidable. War, after all, changes a person.

Tucker’s poetry is informed by plenty of sensory imagery—more, I think, than I see in the work of the Great War poets I mentioned. Tucker’s poem “Whirligig,” for instance, talks frankly about the mingling smells of his friend Erik’s blood and his own overheated weapon. It also presents a grisly picture of Erik’s severed foot, which “existed still tied / into its boot—how it felt to pick up that foot and place it in a pile of other things that /were Erik’s.” The understatement makes the idea of that pile all the more ghastly.

This section of “Whirligig” about Erik introduces the idea of getting past the war, and it concludes, “[S]omehow, one night, he will know five minutes / of peace—just five minutes of life, as it should have been.” But the title of the second section, “Those Stains Will Never Come Out,” seems tragically to reveal the futility of such thinking.

Still, it is intriguing to imagine other parts of Tucker’s life that are even more rarified than combat service. We have about 1.3 million active-duty troops in all branches of the military, but Tucker’s home state of Wyoming has only half a million souls. One of my favorite poems in his collection was “Where to Find Work in Natrona, Wyoming,” which the poem announces has a population of five. “This / should say it all,” Tucker writes. He continues:

Natrona mocks you,

with a population exactly
one thousandth its elevation.
Here, dust floats like a fog
over everything, but ultimately
obscures only the fact that there

is nothing to see but horizon.

The poem concludes with the incredibly bored speaker studying a veterinary guide and imagining he can probably handle some of the procedures described inside. That boredom is probably as far from your boredom as the Earth is from the sun.

One is thankful that Tucker the soldier went to Afghanistan armed not only with a rifle but also with some of the distracting memories from a time before his service that this book recalls. I think the poem “Making Out in Cars with Bucket Seats and Other Tales of Woe” resonates with every small-town person (although my own Gallipolis, Ohio may as well have been Beijing in comparison to Natrona). Imagine being approached while parking (in the sexy sense of the term) by an “incredible blue dick of a cop,” who asks probing questions about last night’s escapades while you are attempting to enjoy your night with a whole different date, whom Tucker identifies as “Red”:

Red, being no dope,
opens my car door and starts sprinting away into the night, her silhouette

flashing purple and black in the swirl of ruby and sapphire lights, long hair swinging like a middle finger, and then I am running too, my dark
silhouette
a bull’s-eye, a giant target, a free pass for a cop busting his first-kill cherry
[…].

The poem ends with Tucker berating himself for not buying American and lamenting bucket seats instead of the “wide / bench seats of a Nova.”

Tucker’s collection covers a lot of ground, the way it seems first collections used to do before everyone entered programs and started writing books instead of poems. I like the variety in theme and form, and I found Mormon Boy to be a promising introduction to a talented poet.

Seth Brady Tucker, Mormon Boy, Elixir Press, 2012: $17.

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Karen Craigo teaches English to international students at Drury University in Springfield, Missouri. Her chapbook, Someone Could Build Something Here, was just published by Winged City Chapbook Press, and her previous chapbook, Stone for an Eye, is part of the Wick Poetry Series. Her work has appeared in the journals Atticus Review, Poetry, Indiana Review, Prairie Schooner, Puerto del Sol, The MacGuffin, and others.

Read her poem “Death by Water,” included in our Saturday Poetry Series, here.

WHEN JOHNNY COMES LIMPING HOME

wounded-soldierIraq

Wounded American soldier being evacuated from a combat zone in Iraq.

WHEN JOHNNY COMES LIMPING HOME

Just as our Vietnam Vets reach retirement age, our nation is creating a whole new generation of ravaged war veterans

by Horatio Guernica

“If we had the Internet back in the ’60s, the Vietnam War would have been over in a matter of weeks,” a grey-haired peace activist once exuberantly told me as we marched through San Francisco in the early dot-com era of 1991, protesting another President Bush and another war on Iraq.

At that moment, I believed him. But here we are, 18 years later, firmly entrenched in the Internet era, and six years into another senseless and fraudulent war in Iraq (and nearly eight years in Afghanistan) with no end in sight, online or elsewhere.

July 2009 was the deadliest month for U.S. soldiers in the history of America’s war in Afghanistan, reported NPR last week. (But the “best month” in Iraq, according to the Pentagon – only seven dead – surely an empty ‘victory’ when the total U.S. death toll for Iraq is over 4,000.)

Forty-three American soldiers died in Afghanistan last month. This brings the total to 749 in “Operation Enduring Freedom” (Afghanistan) and 4316 dead U.S. soldiers in  “Operation Iraqi Freedom” (Iraq), according to the Washington Post’s “Faces of the Fallen”, for a total of 5,065 U.S. soldiers killed in both wars as of July 31, 2009.

(The number of dead Iraqi and Afghanistan civilians, however, is another matter — over 100,000.)

None of these numbers include the war wounded. Thousands more American soldiers are coming home maimed or scarred, some with brain injuries from which they will never recover.

So here we are with a new president, from another political party, and both wars are still flailing on, under the radar it would now seem, from our A.D.D media and equally distracted viewers. Late-night satirist Stephen Colbert recently took his show to Iraq to make this very point. He shaved his head in solidarity with the troops (and for a laugh, no doubt). All gimmickry aside, Colbert’s point was well-taken: We as a nation seem to have all but forgotten that we are at war.

Equally troubling and under-accounted for is the fact that even when the soldiers come home, the wars will not be over for them – or us.

As Nobel-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz and Linda Blimes reported in their 2008 book, “The Three Trillion Dollar War: The True Costs of the Iraq Conflict,” an enormous cost of the Iraq war alone lays before us—financial, emotional and physical. “…war is about men and women brutally killing and maiming other men and women. The costs live on long after the last shot has been fired.”

In the Toronto Star in March 2008, Stiglitz highlighted the health care costs of the thousands of injured soldiers:

“The administration has tried to keep the war’s costs from the American public. Veterans groups have used the Freedom of Information Act to discover the total number of injured – 15 times the number of fatalities.

Already, 52,000 returning veterans have been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. The U.S. government will need to provide disability compensation to an estimated 40 per cent of the 1.65 million troops that have already been deployed.

And, of course, the bleeding will continue as long as the war continues, with the health-care and disability bill amounting to more than $600 billion (in present-value terms).”

It’s agonizingly ironic that just as our nation’s Vietnam Vets are reaching retirement age, we are creating a whole new generation of war vets in this country, many with eyes ablaze or glazed, unable to ever connect with normalcy again.

These veterans are bringing home with them broken bodies and broken psyches from having been forced to serve multiple tours of duty in poorly justified and often very bloody battles. Some may have survived brain-rattling explosions thanks to the modern wonders of protective armor, but will suffer pain or brain damage for the rest of their lives.

And some are coming home and turning their nightmares into other people’s nightmares.

In a two-part article in the Colorado Springs Gazette this past week (July 26 and 28, 2009), reporter Dave Phillips recounts the costs of war to one unit of soldiers who have committed a disproportionate number of violent crimes once they returned home. Writes Phillips in “Casualties of War; part I: The hell of war comes home:”

“Soldiers from other units at Fort Carson have committed crimes after deployments — military bookings at the El Paso County jail have tripled since the start of the Iraq war — but no other unit has a record as deadly as the soldiers of the 4th Brigade. The vast majority of the brigade’s soldiers have not committed crimes, but the number who have is far above the population at large. In a one-year period from the fall of 2007 to the fall of 2008, the murder rate for the 500 Lethal Warriors was 114 times the rate for Colorado Springs.

The battalion is overwhelmingly made up of young men, who, demographically, have the highest murder rate in the United States, but the brigade still has a murder rate 20 times that of young males as a whole.

The killings are only the headline-grabbing tip of a much broader pyramid of crime. Since 2005, the brigade’s returning soldiers have been involved in brawls, beatings, rapes, DUIs, drug deals, domestic violence, shootings, stabbings, kidnapping and suicides.”

Phillips goes on to cite author Eric T. Dean, who makes a number of insightful—and disturbing—observations about the toll and consequences of war on surviving soldiers:

“Eric Dean, an author in Connecticut who specializes in war’s psychological toll, reviewed records from the Civil War for his 1997 book, “Shook Over Hell,” and found the same surge of crime and suicide that Fort Carson has seen.

“They have been in every war,” he said. “They never readjusted. They ended up living alone, drinking too much.”

They were “the lost generation” of World War I. They are the veterans of Vietnam who disproportionately populate homeless shelters and prisons today.

The psychological casualties may be particularly heavy in Iraq, he said.

“In the Civil War, if you experienced really traumatic fighting, chances are you didn’t make it,” he said. “Today, you can be blown up multiple times and go right back into the fight.”

In Vietnam, most draftees did one yearlong tour. Since the start of the Iraq war, some soldiers have been deployed three times for 12 to 15 months each.

When a soldier faces constant threat of attack, studies suggest, the brain is flooded with adrenaline, dopamine and other performance-enhancing chemicals that the body naturally produces in a fight-or-flight response. Over time, the brain can crave these stimulants, like a junkie for his fix.

When the stimulant of combat is taken away, soldiers often have trouble sleeping, said Sister Kateri Koverman, a social worker who has counseled people in war zones for almost 40 years. They can feel irritable, numb and paranoid, she said. They can sink into depression.

And they can search for another substance to replace the rush of war.”

For peace activists of my generation, one big difference in our approach has been our attitude toward the soldiers. From the beginning, the millions of us who took to the streets to protest George Bush, Jr.’s  invasion—some as early as September 2002 before the ‘preemptive’ war began—did not criticize the soldiers. That was one lesson we learned from Vietnam. The soldiers may be shooting the guns and taking the hits, but they are not calling the shots. So to every war supporter who accused us dissenters of disloyalty to the troops, we replied with signs that said: “Support our troops–bring them home!”

We have been supporting the troops since before they were even sent to war. It was the Bush/Cheney administration and the hapless Democratic leaders who have kept them there.

Since reclaiming Congress in the fall of 2006, the Democrats have capitulated time and again, approving never-ending funding, removing provisions that mandated a timeline for troop withdrawal, all despite the declarations in 2006 that they would end the Iraq war, with Nancy Pelosi at the speaker’s gavel. But impeachment—the only real way to hold the Bush administration accountable for this travesty—was “off the table,” declared Pelosi. Even though the vast majority of Americans had long turned against the war, Congress let Bush and Cheney exit out the back door of the White House with no penalty for their actions.

Inexplicably too afraid to impeach a criminal president with a 28 percent approval rating when they had the chance, the Democrats must now finally show real leadership with one of their own in the White House.

But it remains unclear if the Obama administration will ever seek accountability for its predecessor’s actions.

It’s also uncertain when our latest government will finally bring the troops home. But when it does, for these beleaguered soldiers and for our society as a whole as it attempts to reabsorb them, the war in many ways will have just begun.

Horatio Guernica is the pen name of a West Coast Writer.

Further Reading:

Heckuva Job, Arne by Horatio Guernica, 7/22/09