Monday, October 7, 2019

Poet is Finalist in Darron L. Wright Awards

Randy Brown, author of the 2015 collection "Welcome to FOB Haiku: War Poems from Inside the Wire," was recently named a poetry finalist in the 4th Annual Col. Darron L. Wright awards, for a new work that involves the Buddhist concept of desire in a war-writing context.

"I'm not a Buddhist, but I like to think I've been exposed to some of the basics, via the lives and examples of some of my fellow military veterans," says Brown. "I use this poem to remind me to be mindful and humble, to practice my craft daily and to not want too much. Basically, to take joy in small things—including our shared, flawed humanity."

Administered by the Chicago-based on-line literary journal "Line of Advance," and underwritten by the Blake and Bailey Foundation, the awards commemorate a U.S. Army leader who was killed in a September 2013 parachute training accident.

Brown's poem, "Robert Olen Butler wants nachos" explores the Buddhist concept of desire, through a light-hearted anecdote from the War, Literature & the Arts conference in September 2018. The event took place at the U.S. Air Force Academy, Colorado Springs, Colo. The poem invokes the name of Vietnam War veteran Robert Olen Butler, who is author of 12 novels and six short-story collections, and was one of the event's keynote speakers.

You can read the poem in its entirety here.

In the announcement, editors at "Line of Advance" wrote: "[All of this year's submissions exhibited] care and effort and honesty. We received many prose submissions. Some were from regular contributors and some from new voices. The same goes for the poetry submissions."

In addition to Brown's third-place poem, other poetry recognized included:
Prose recognitions—a combined category comprising fiction, non-fiction, and hybrid forms—included:
Now in its fourth year, the writing contest is named after U.S. Army Col. Darron L. Wright. The contest is regarded by many as one of three proven, top-quality recurring competitions involving writing by military service members, veterans, families and others. In addition to other assignments, Wright served as battalion operations officer for 1st Battalion, 8th Infantry Regiment, 3rd Brigade, 4th Infantry Division, Fort Carson, Colo., with whom he deployed to Iraq from 2003 to 2004.

Wright was next assigned as brigade executive officer with 4th Brigade, 4th Inf. Div., Fort Hood, Texas, with whom he deployed to Iraq from 2005 to 2006. He commanded the 1st Battalion, 509th Parachute Inf. Reg. at the Joint Readiness Training Center, Fort Polk, La. in 2007. From 2009 to 2013, Wright was assigned as deputy brigade commander for the 4th Stryker Brigade, 2nd Inf. Div., with whom he deployed to Iraq from 2009 to 2010.

A graduate of the U.S. Naval War College, Wright authored "Iraq Full Circle: From Shock and Awe to the Last Combat Patrol in Baghdad and Beyond." in 2012.

Wright's full biography appears here.

"Darron L. Wright was a larger than life Soldier’s Soldier. He was a physically imposing, direct, and skilled warrior," the Line of Advance editors wrote when the award was first launched.
He was also witty, hilarious, generous, kind, and wholly consumed with love for his family. He will certainly be missed but he will never be forgotten. His intellectual curiosity, boundless optimism, and untiring work ethic, allowed him to reach heights he could only dream of as a young boy growing up in Mesquite, Texas. It is in this spirit that the Darron L. Wright Award was created, to inspire fellow military writers and poets to aspire to become better and more accomplished at their craft and at telling their story.

Friday, September 6, 2019

Poetry Book Review: 'Hail and Farewell'

Poetry Book Review: "Hail and Farewell" by Abby E. Murray

If poet Abby E. Murray were to describe in social media terms her relationship with the U.S. Army, it would probably be "it's complicated." She might love the Army, but only because her husband loves it. She doesn't always feel welcomed by it. And she definitely doesn't trust it.

Because, ultimately, the Army's job is to break things and hurt people. And who wants that?

Murray's first book, the recently published and prize-winning "Hail and Farewell," is a collection of quirky, sometimes snarky, but always genuine explorations of Murray's relations to the Army and its cultural traditions, and with her active-duty soldier husband. It also notably interrogates struggles with pregnancy and parenthood. Some of the latter take place in the context of military family life, but one need not limit oneself to war to talk about conflict.

Like a cat, Murray chooses carefully when to engage a topic directly. Sometimes, she toys with it. Other times, she swats it off the table. Perhaps for reasons. Perhaps just to see what your reaction might be.

The collection's title evokes the tradition of sending-off soldiers to new assignments and locations with a small, informal ceremony. In many units, this is combined with a welcome of incoming personnel. In any form, such events are bittersweet milestones in the lives of individuals, but also of an organization. People come, people go, but the Army goes marching along.

In Murray's poems, such moments can variously take on the mythic tones of Catullus' "I salute you … now good-bye," to absurdism more in character with Groucho Marx's Captain Spaulding: "Hello, I must be going." For the most part, however, she aims at center-mass: good-humored, but unsentimental.

For example, Murray sets the stage for one ceremony in the collection's titular poem. Note the low-key commentaries present in "plastic tube" and "pub food," and in the commander's use of names, as well as the double-edged brilliance of "as if we are family":
Each time you are issued new orders
your current duty station hosts a Hail and Farewell:
the ceremony during which you receive a plaque
and I am given a rose in a plastic tube.
You make a short speech, your commander calls me
by your last name and rank, then we eat pub food
for the last time with the battalion as if we are family.
Every year, my colleagues ask what this means,
my friends whose jobs hail them by issuing paychecks
and say goodbye by letting them leave. […]
Exposing more bite, she muses on a similar event in the separate poem "Hail and Farewell as a Junkyard Dog":
The colonel and his wife
are being sent to Fort Hood.
At their Hail and Farewell
I sit in the corner, a junkyard dog
on the overstuffed armchair.
The captain's wife asks me
if by going back to school
I will become a real doctor
or just the kind that writes.
Because I am a dog, I growl.
I do unladylike things:
show my teeth when I smile,
answer to my own whistle. […]
Murray elevates this mix of awkwardness and affection to the sublime, when the "junkyard dog" pivots to again consider her husband. She is not there to be contrary, or to knock over punch bowls. She is there for reasons. And those reasons have little to do with the military.
[…] I sit next to my husband
who is not a junkyard dog,
who smiles like he means it.
He places one finger
on the soft spot behind my ear
and I can hear his skin
telling me I've been so good.
Such a blend of mutual love and quiet regard seems worthy of its own ancient Greek nomenclature. Or perhaps there is an untranslatable German word, for something like "clear-eyed romance."

Padding about on cat's paws throughout her collection, Murray similarly navigates a number of hard-fraught cultural practices in today's modern military. How married couples fretfully meet-up halfway around the world, for example, in the middle of a spouse's combat deployment. And the stuff-and-sputter of homecoming ceremonies. And "reintegration" seminars. Marriage-resilience workshops. Formal-dress Army birthday celebrations.

Murray's is a unique and wonderfully nuanced voice, in a growing klatch of unique and wonderfully nuanced voices: poets who happen to be related to war by marriage.

(For this reviewer, those voices include Jehanne Dubrow and Amalie Flynn, who write from their family experiences with the U.S. Navy; Lisa Stice, who writes from family experiences with the U.S. Marine Corps; and Elyse Fenton, who writes from family experiences with the U.S. Army. To this list add Lynn Marie Huston, who has published poetry about a relationship with a deployed soldier; and Charlie Bondhus, who has written about a relationship with a U.S. Marine. For a list of poetry written about 21st century wars involving the United States, visit here.)

Notably, Murray is the editor of Collateral journal, the mission of which is to draw attention to "the impact of violent conflict and military service by exploring experiences that surround the combat zone." She is more than a believer in poetry, she puts words into action. She teaches rhetorical writing techniques to Army officers, and poetry workshops to children held in detention centers.

It is no surprise then, that Murray hopes that her words and example will inspire others to take up pen and action. She dedicates her 99-page collection to other military spouses, "who see what happens during and after war, especially those still searching for their way to speak." In the back of the book, she notes, "My husband's experiences in the military and in combat have influenced my career as a poet and teacher. He operates in a culture that doesn't truly see me, and he has struggled, mostly with success, to question that."

Empathetic to both sides in the civil-military conversation, Murray keeps her observational barbs sharp, but cheery—she's like a Mary Poppins in combat boots. More often than not, her poems suggest a collaborative or confidential tone, rather than one of confrontation. For example, as she breezily starts her poem "International Women's Day":
The world observes my sex
on the same day America
celebrates the pancake,
and who doesn't love a good pancake?
And this, from "How to Comfort a Small Child," a list of found and received advice on how best to act as a military parent:
[...] Make friends with women
who understand, women
with children and spouses
who haven't called in days.
When your daughter
flushes her plastic fox
down the toilet
and says he went to Afghanistan,
don't read into it.
Call a plumber.
Where Murray stands out, above, and apart, however—where she "exceeds the standard," if you will—is in the way she tempers comparatively overt critiques of military culture and militarism, without tamping down her senses of humor, patriotism, or Storge (... und Drang?). In her longer poem "Happy Birthday, Army," she writes, for example:
[…] a woman's voice whispers
from beneath the howitzer,
the rented microphone
on fire with song:
Happy birrrthday, dear arrrmy
a la Marilyn Monroe,
and we are all a bunch of JFKs,
in our lace and heels
and cummerbunds and cords.
We watch a five-tiered cake
piped in black and gold buttercream
being pulled between our tables
by a silver robot
and shrug into the silk of knowing
we could end all this
with the flick of a finger
if we wanted.
Murray's depictions and images are intimate, her stories memorable, and her emotions immediate and accessible. With a feline grace, Murray reveals herself in glimpses, until you are comfortable with her work, and it is comfortable with you.

When you achieve a certain level of mutual regard, it may curl up with you and purr. Other times, it may still scratch.

Because it is complicated.

Friday, August 30, 2019

Poetry Book Review: 'Battle Dress'

Book Review: "Battle Dress" by Karen Skolfield

War poet Karen Skolfield is a U.S. Army veteran, an instructor of writing at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst; and, among other recognitions and prizes, a past runner-up in The Iowa Review's Jeff Sharlet Memorial Award for Veterans.

Skolfield's first poetry collection, 2013's "Frost in the Low Areas," contains precious few mentions of life in uniform. Notable samples from that work are the plain-spoken perspective of "Backblast Area Clear" and the hilarious "Army SMART Book: On Getting Lost." In her recently published second collection "Battle Dress," however, Skolfield fires-for-effect regarding her experiences with the military, fully and explicitly delivering on the rounds she first registered in "Frost in the Low Areas." The effort pays off for readers of both military and civilian backgrounds, accessibly and creatively exploring what it means to be soldier, and to be a woman at war.

Like the enlisted public affairs troop she once was, Skolfield takes aim at war with a photographer's eye for detail, a wicked sense of wordplay, and a soldierly love of others—even our younger selves—that can only be found in having shared the same foxhole. Her voice ranges from the mythic to the pastoral, from uncoded plain-text to battle-buddy confidential.

The 82-page book comprises 46 poems, presented across four untitled sections. Those who closely watch the "veterans-lit" space should recognize her byline: Skolfield has published widely; 41 of the poems have first appeared in literary journals.

The cover is a dusky, charcoal-and-buff vignette of clouds and dunes, which elegantly evokes one of Skolfield's longer works within, a dreamy mini-collection titled "Soldier Rendered as All Five Types of Sand Dunes." Rather than dwell long in such ethereal terrain, however, Skolfield is at her most sublime when she gets down and dirty.

In "Grenade: Origin, OFr. pomme-grenate," for example, Skolfield builds toward an epic momentum and a distinctively female view of the battlefield. As such, in this reviewer's opinion, it more than deserves to be read alongside Brian Turner's seminal 21st century war poem, "Here, Bullet."
Not as counterpoint, but as companion. One can imagine generating whole workshops from comparing and contrasting the two.

Turner's celebrated poem, after all, is full of the expected viscera and violence of combat, expertly placed in the body and mind of a soldier. The brutality is penetrative. Skolfield's poem likewise carves for readers a resonant space within which to experience a soldier's body and mind. Where Turner starts with a bullet, Skolfield throws a grenade. The results are no less explosive, or devastating.
[…] In mythology, every seed a month
of hell for the mother, the daughter,
her daughter's daughters
along the generations. In every war,
the same recognizable hunger.
Fruit of the dead, from living to not living,
also fruit of fertility, from one to many,
the names of the dead ripening.
How the arm extends, the palm opens,
the red pulp within, the perfect arc.
What is sown cannot be called back.
We say bearing fruit and it is borne.
Skolfield's "Grenade" is further enriched by an adjacent poem "The Throwing Gap". Winner of a 2016 Jeffrey E. Smith Editors' Prize from The Missouri Review, the poem illuminates Basic Training gender politics in a more journalistic mode. Skolfield writes:
/ […] We willed
our arms to be boys, our shoulders
brutal and male, we thought of torsos
and hands that had beaten or punched
or strangled or slapped or headlocked
women that were us or looked
like us and we wanted that strength.[…]

[…] Let us throw these grenades so far
that the drill sergeant says
God, seeing hand grenades thrown
like that gives me a hard-on

and we who are now male will laugh
at the rightness of it and we will say Me too.
Skolfield unpacks words like a rucksack, extra-large, one each. One of her techniques is to title poems after dictionary entries, or to reveal words as etymological sub-munitions within poems; "grenade," "enlist", "war," and "discharge" are a few examples. Another is the practice of quoting the Army SMART Book—a predecessor to the U.S. Army's Soldier's Manual of Common Tasks. In the latter, the prompts read as fragments from a religious text, or aphorisms from some tactically proficient spiritual guru. Some favorites? "Army SMART Book: Small-arms fire may sound like mosquitos" and "Army SMART book: This Page Left Blank Intentionally."

Skolfield occasionally also engages in controlled bursts of word-creation and -association, resulting in rapid-fire images and language. These moments not only serve as opportunities for her to contextualize military experience and jargon, but to help readers understand and inhabit those concepts emotionally. In "Private, PV2, Private First Class," for example, Skolfield begins …
From the Latin privare: to deprive,
fullsleep and showers, homethoughts,
other gender except that one dance
stomping in bivvie and combat boots
most of us decked Birth Control Glasses
woooo those things worked.

[…]

Camo paint gumming up our pores,
jungle palette: vineknot, humus, treetangle.
Pvt. Morales painting cheekbones
like Escher drawings.
If viewed one way were were women;
in another darkbirds winging into light. […]
Note how effortlessly Skolfield blends military nomenclature and slang, with punchy references to pop art and cosmetics. Seemingly just as easily, she often generates poems prompted by the day's minor headlines. Instead of focusing on above-the-fold items, she teases the timeless out of smaller stories—the one that veterans would talk about. Examples include the poems "Soldiers 'Fun' Photo with Flag-Draped Coffin Sparks Outrage"; "CNN Report: Rise in Sexual Assaults, Reprisals in the Military (2016)"; and "CNN Report: Symptoms of PTSD Mimic Lyme Disease." From the latter:
/ […] Stop moping, get out more,

all in your head, you're home now,
you're safe, family to consider;
the meds, the weight gain,

the loss, the breathless, the rasp of it.
No magic bullet: tell me about it.
Sometimes a rash like a target
so loved by marksmen.
Despite everything, breath goes out
and is pulled back in.
How easy and wonderful and terrifying is Skofield's medical safety brief! In the field, soldiers are trained to watch out for ticks, which can carry disease, and to report and document any bites. Less understood and appreciated is Post-Traumatic Stress. Both Lyme disease and PTSD can be silent killers, years after the inciting exposure. Lesser hands would let the facts fall flat. Skolfield's inspired act is to not only report the connection, but to re-create it as metaphor, and to make the metaphor available to help educate others: Lyme Disease is like PTSD; PTSD is like Lyme Disease.

Remember to check your buddies.

Ideally, Skolfield's presence on the literary battlefield will help illuminate for editors, publishers, and other veterans the potential for more diverse collections of 21st century war poetry. In the meantime, her must-read "Battle Dress" delivers a keenly observed, hard-fought, and accessible perspective on military service, and making peace with oneself in a time of war. Most importantly, it provides useful images and tools with which to promote discussions between both "military" and "civilian" audiences.

Share it far and wide. Then wait for the fireworks. Because what is sown cannot be called back.