Thursday, August 8, 2019

Poetry Book Review: "murmurs at the gate'

Poetry Book Review: "murmurs at the gate" by Suzanne S. Rancourt

Poet Suzanne S. Rancourt is a multi-modal artist who lives and works in the American Northeast. She is a veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps and U.S. Army, with periods of active-duty and reserve service both prior to the first Gulf War and following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Some of her ancestors are Abenaki and Huron. Others are European. In her poetry, she honors both.

Rancourt is a practitioner of Aikido, a martial art that leverages an opponent's momentum against one's foes. She has experiences and certifications in various techniques of healing and recovery. In addition to a Master of Fine Arts in poetry, she holds a graduate degree in educational psychology.

In person, Rancourt is sly and stubborn, independent but quick to offer trust. In stories, she is celebrated for wearing red Chucks under her ceremonial garb. She carries a metaphorical long knife against inauthenticities and inequalities, which she readily draws with a slow grin. She is the embodiment of your favorite, rebellious aunt—the one person you should always seek out at a party, or in times of crisis.

One of her favorite forms of communication is a jab of insight or advice, delivered just under a rumble of conversation elsewhere in the room. Examples, taken from my own acquaintance: “Make sure to talk to him. He is an Elder.” “Never piss off a Lakota woman.” “It is time for you to take over for me as poetry editor.”

Each time, a smile at the surprised reaction she’d provoked.

Rancourt's second collection of poetry, “murmurs at the gate” (Unsolicited Press, 2019), explores themes of survivorship, as well as service to country, family, and community. (Her first collection was 2004's “Billboards in the Clouds,” Curbstone Books.) The 200-page book comprises 136 poems, presented across four untitled sections.

Her favored images are culturally broad, taken from the poet's life experiences and travels, family history and heritage. They include such disparate elements as backbones and bears, trains and tea, Buddhas and Babylon. The “gate” evoked by the collection's title can variously be read as a window to the ancient world, an opening in the veil between life and death, and the threshold to perception. While some of her topics are gritty and plain-spoken—particularly those regarding violence and women—Rancourt keeps focus on learning and healing, and singing songs of resilience.

In short, from her life and travels, Rancourt has successfully woven a rich and accessible mythology. In each poem, she variously shares a hit of wisdom, an insight to Otherness, or a potentially useful parable. As she writes in one poem (“Mish’ala”), “[…] My story is a poppyseed of delicacy, a peppercorn of truth, / an onion flake of— / salt”.

In the beginnings of another, “the final round,” she spits:
i load my gatling mouth with words
i sport ammo belts of documentation, certification
and identification criteria
pyres of brass shells gather ’round my feet
commemorative paraphernalia
strung together as a story wampum […]
Rancourt's military service is ever-present—a few poems even explicitly regard narratives of service, war, and remembrance—but does not center the collection. Instead, her military experience and vocabulary are organic—a seamless part of her larger poetic palette. This is the voice of an artist-veteran who has confidently reengaged with society and her communities, rather than remain aloof and apart from them. Note, for example, how effortlessly she buries "pressure plate" into the rich, sensory descriptions of “Grampa's House”:
We would walk through the once-horse-stall-hog-pen-now-garage
into the tool shop—our shoed feet scuffed tin shavings and sawdust
under wooden work benches soaked with bar oil, pine
and cool dampness. We walked through another door
into the summer kitchen across the Andy Warhol linoleum,
through the scent of mothballs
our weight triggering like pressure plates
the pumpkin pine floorboards that rattled
the stacked tin buckets made
by Great-Great-Grampa Daniel from Scotland
and Grammy’s bottle collection from years of dump digging adventures
Even those poems that more directly relate to military service do so in ways that build bridges. In “The Reticent Veil,” for example, one need not be familiar with tribal practices or terms, in order to appreciate the universal:
[…] they all came back at Ceremony
when me and a Dance brother folded the flag
for the last time on the last day that he handed to me
in a shape that brought it all back to twenty years before
standing on the hillside, looking over Wilson Lake
dress blues, rifles, and Corfam dress shoes cracked
the unusually frigid December where a flag was folded
and handed to me in a shape
that equaled the grief of the world
which came and went as concrete and steel crushed as
the bones and dust I wake up chewing
and it all came back
when me and a sister held taught
a Grande Parade of a royal blue silk veil
maintaining reticent tension—
lovers and wives of warriors, sisters of warriors,
mothers of sons who are warriors—
we folded sharp-angled silence with the precision of lock and load
we creased with steady cadence our losses and recognized each other
not letting go
of the fabric the wind claims for a moment
and my words fluttered
“This is not a flag we are folding.”
One of Rancourt's most-notable forms, at least to this reviewer, seems her own take on haibun—a narrative or image that ends with a related haiku. Quoted here in abbreviated form, the poem "How much guilt?" provides an example:
Gold highlights in her hair beckon like the heart of Buddha.
A star—ancestral—pierced with suffering bled into a living tree
our only hope to ascend—go home—enter into, onto, a path of service. […]

Why do we continue
to search
the hearts
to bring home
our kind?

Leave no soldier behind

How long
do we search?
As long as it takes.
Rancourt's poetry questions assumptions and authorities, providing wisdom without providing answers. No matter our own life experiences, her latest collection offers gifts on every page. All we need do is to listen. To the stories. To the songs. To the voice under the voices.

For as long as it takes.

Thursday, June 13, 2019

Soldier-Poet Speaks at National Arts Event

The writer of the "Welcome to FOB Haiku" blog will be presenting as part of a panel at the 2019 National Convention for Americans for the Arts, Minneapolis, Minn. "Changing and Honoring the Narrative of Military Experience" will be presented from 1:45 to 3 p.m. Sat., June 15, at the Hilton Minneapolis, 1001 Marquette Ave., Minneapolis.

Randy Brown embedded with his former Iowa Army National Guard unit as a civilian journalist in Afghanistan, May-June 2011. He authored the 2015 poetry collection "Welcome to FOB Haiku: War Poems from Inside the Wire", and edited the 2017 journalism collection "Reporting for Duty: Citizen-Soldier Journalism from the Afghan Surge, 2010-2011."

Brown's essays, journalism, and poetry have appeared widely both on-line and in print. Since 2015, he has served as the poetry editor for the national non-profit Military Experience & the Arts' literary journal "As You Were." As "Charlie Sherpa," he writes about citizen-soldier culture at:; about military writing at:; and about modern war poetry at:

You can follow him on Twitter: @FOB_Haiku

Other panelists participating in the Saturday event include:
The event will be facilitated by Marete Wester, senior director of policy, Americans for the Arts.

According to the description for the "Changing and Honoring the Narrative of Military Experience" discussion:
As the Forever War in Afghanistan continues, communities need to explore ways to help our returning Veterans reintegrate into their communities. The Minnesota Humanities Center empowers Veterans from all conflicts and wars to speak in their own voices through plays, discussions, literature and Veterans’ Voices. Writing Workshops are facilitated by military writers who are Veterans themselves, offering peer mentorship, instruction, and encouragement to those seeking to express the military experience through essays, poetry, and performance.
Learning objectives are:
1. See how storytelling helps in the Veterans’ healing process, reentry and reintegration into their communities.

2. Discuss how writing can help bridge the “civilian-military gap” between the military and the people they serve.

3. Explore how using the humanities can foster dialogue between military and civilian populations.

Friday, April 19, 2019

"FOB Haiku" featured on "Accept Your Gifts" Podcast

In recognition of National Poetry Month, author, speaker, and U.S. Marine Corps veteran Tracy Crow recently featured the work of fellow veterans and other poets on two installments of her 22-minute, twice-weekly podcast on writing and creating, "Accept Your Gifts."

Crow is the author of numerous works of non-fiction, memoir, and fiction, including the how-to text "On Point: A Guide to Writing the Military Story." She is the president of the non-profit MilSpeak Foundation, Inc., and recently announced her services as a literary agent. The podcast is available via Crow's website, as well as the Podbean application.
Featured poets include U.S. Army veteran Randy Brown ("Welcome to FOB Haiku"), Air Force veteran Eric Chandler ("Hugging This Rock"), and Army veteran Michael Lancaster.

In Part 1 of this week's podcast (No. 26 in the series), former F-16 fighter pilot Chandler delivers readings of three poems: "Slipping the Surlies," a parody of John Gillespie Magee Jr.'s "High Flight"; "Maybe I Should've Lied"; and "The Path Through Security."

In Part 2 of the podcast (episode No. 27), Brown reads three poems, "night vision"; "your squad leader writes haiku"; and "Whiskey Tango Foxtrot."

Later, in the same episode, Lancaster reads two poems, "Salt Ponds (Winter)" and "Hush."

Monday, April 1, 2019

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

PHOTO BY: U.S. Army Sgt. Ken Scar
This post, written by the author of "FOB Haiku: War Poems from Inside the Wire," originally appeared on the Red Bull Rising blog 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 bet-ter 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 and military writing at