Poetry, Wartime, and Unwieldy Metaphors

Jorie Graham, Yusef Komunyakaa, and Gary Snyder participate in a panel.

by Cliff Doerksen
Fairly or not, combat vets enjoy an enormous advantage of authority in the domain of war poetry. I was therefore initially inclined to sympathize with poet Jorie Graham, who felt obliged to apologize for her nonexistent service record at a recent panel entitled “Poems of Peace and War,” held under the aegis of the Chicago Humanities Festival (sponsored in part by the Poetry Foundation) in the auditorium of the Chicago History Museum. Graham was, after all, sharing the bill with two poets whose war poems are viscerally informed by firsthand experience: Yusef Komunyakaa, a decorated Vietnam vet, and Brian Turner, who served as a U.S. infantryman in both Iraq and Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Sympathy flew out the window, however, as Graham proceeded to read a long vers libre conflating the unthinkable human wastage of the D-Day invasion with the suffering of an AIDS-infected cat that she rescued from among the hedgerows near her home on the coast of Normandy, where that epic human sacrifice took place. Graham invested particular emotion in the image of the cognitively impaired animal scratching at her wooden floors in a futile attempt to bury a phantom turd. It was a performance well past parody but—mercifully—also an anomalous one in a set of readings that were generally interesting and often deeply affecting.

Turner, who was first to speak after moderator Philip Metres’s brief introductory remarks, electrified the hall with a harrowing but unforced reading of “2000 Pounds,” an austere cinematic breakdown of a suicide bomber’s detonation of an improvised explosive device in a public square in the city of Mosul. Each stanza of the poem is a freeze-frame of a different death, including that of a middle-aged taxi driver vaporized in midthought about a lost love, an American soldier who just has time to marvel at the disappearance of his hands before bleeding out, and a small boy lying limp in the arms of his heartsick grandmother. An ensuing, rather more ornate poem, “Last Night’s Dream,” which represented the Iraq war as a sexual encounter between the poet and the war goddess Ishtar, was harder to decipher on first bounce but contained some undeniably arresting imagery, including medevac helicopters that “fly in the deep cavern of our lungs,” turning the lovers’ excited breathing into “a deep rotorwash of pain and bandages.”

Next came the wry and self-effacing Dunya Mikhail, who was finished reading almost before she started. The Iraqi poet, who was forced to flee her homeland in the 1990s when authorities there became too interested in her satirical verses, read (in translation) a terse, mordant work called “The War Works Hard,” which personified war in order to sing its unacknowledged merits (e.g., “It produces the most questions / in the minds of children,” “achieves equality between killer and killed,” and “awards medals to generals / and themes to poets”).

Komunyakaa, whose sonorous voice arguably merited a little handicapping, began his moving recitation with a poem that tried to capture (or maybe exorcise) the sight of a girl’s death by napalm with a succession of similes (“She burns like a shot glass of vodka / She burns like a field of poppies”). An ensuing work, “Thanks,” vividly addressed the contingency of life and death under battle conditions with a litany of the fortuitous accidents that saved him from death by sniper, grenade, and booby trap. His final offering, “Facing It,” described a visit to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial; its quietly devastating final lines (“In the black mirror / a woman’s trying to erase names / No, she’s brushing a boy’s hair”) hung in the air for several solemn seconds before provoking a deluge of applause.

Beat poet Gary Snyder, the bearded eminence grise of the panel and the last participant to speak, gave a droll, almost impossibly discursive speech that touched on Buddhist eschatology, samurai ethics, Gandhian nonviolence, the history of the silk trade, the foreign policy of the Roman Empire, the influence of philosopher Leo Strauss on the Bush cabinet, the intellectual shortcomings of Christopher Hitchens, and the demolition of the ancient stone Buddhas at Bamiyan by the Taliban, whom Snyder mildly deprecated as “idolators of the Book.” It all seemed to add up to something at the time, and whatever it meant, it was definitely entertaining. Ce n’etait pas la guerre, mais c’etait magnifique.
Originally Published: January 10, 2007


On January 26, 2007 at 12:42am Russ Golata wrote:
Where does it state you have to be a war veteran to write war poetry. As a citizen of the planet I have the right to abhor the brutal act of war.
Did not Whitman charge, all poets of the future to be the voice of our conscience? As a poetic community, we look for a magic pill, to re-energize the machinery of poetry. Poetry that is alive and has meaning the people can believe in, is the answer.

On January 27, 2007 at 1:01pm Justin Dobbs wrote:
By stating that you "sympathize" with Jorie Graham for being a poet, but not a veteran, it does not dilute your unsupported claim that someone who did serve in a war has an advantage over those who did not. What value does a particular life experience have in forming poetry when horrible diseases, dismemberments and other terrible maladies are the rule in life and not the exception?

I don't think that we, as poets, should brutalize the reader with emotionalizing data, but on the contrary should allegorize reality in a way that makes it comprehensible, for example, a cat dying of AIDS and scratching stupidly at the floor is a *coded* call for help.

On January 29, 2007 at 9:39am Philip Metres wrote:
Regarding the particular likes and dislikes of Mr. Doerksen’s so bitingly expressed here, I’ll resort to the Latin: “de gustibus non est disputandum.? However, I do wish to point out that the review, in its neglect of the title, format, and background of the event, courts the kind of reflexive dismissal and belittlement that so characterizes dominant discourse about war, war resistance and what I’ll call “the beyond of war?—peace.

First, this event was called “Poems of Peace and War,? not “War Poetry.? The review seems to suggest that this event was about war poetry alone. Most of the panelists worked to complicate that notion, telling stories, made statements and read works that navigated from war to peace; Dunya Mikhail, for instance, read not only “The War Works Hard,? a blisteringly ironic poem that personifies war, but also a love poem that cleverly marries the language of geometry with the tropes of love.

Second, the introduction also worked to widen the field. I’ll spare you a full version, but some of it bears repeating, since I set up why we need to have a discussion about war and peace that does not accept the boundaries regarding who has the right to speak about what. Having recently completed *Behind the Lines*, a study of war resistance poetry, I proposed an event where both “war? poems and “peace? poems would be represented, poems written by both veterans and civilians. This desire comes out of my argument against the critical doxa that war poetry by soldiers is the only successful poetry about war, and that antiwar poetry almost always fails. There is may be some general truth to such a statement, since the autobiographical lyric mode of poetry has favored attempts to represent war from immediate experience. Vietnam-veteran Yusef Komunyakaa and Iraq War-veteran Brian Turner, have stunning examples of such poetry—though their poetry is not limited to the eyewitness mode, nor to poetry about war, for that matter. Yet in poems such as “You and I Are Disappearing,? or “2000 lbs.,? Komunyakaa and Turner reach beyond immediate experience, and become along with us witnesses to the almost-unspeakable encounter with the violence of war.

At the same time, in an age in which we live at the center of empire, and in which, to paraphrase William James, "the real war is the endless preparation for war," both veterans and civilians have a part to play in representing war and its iterations. In a sense, the distinction between soldier and civilian experiences is blurred by such figures as Iraqi poet Dunya Mikhail, who lived through wars in the 1980s and 1990s, and whose poems such as “The War Works Hard? give voice to civilian experiences of the depradations of war. Jorie Graham, the daughter of a war correspondent, whose recent book dramatizes Operation Overlord during the Second World, collaging the voices of troops from both sides of the conflict, as she attempts to grapple with the massiveness of mass violence. Finally, poet Gary Snyder has confronted the ways in which war permeates our physical, psychic, and creative existences—for war is not just man against man, but man against the planet. Finally, each of these poets in their own way has also worked to imagine peace.

Thus, the entire framing of the event was an attempt to problematize our way of thinking about peace and war—not just representing war, dramatizing war, writing war (hard enough to chew over in the short time allowed).

My fear is that Mr. Doerksen leaves the impression (intentional or not) that: 1) American civilians have nothing to say about war, since they have no first hand experience of it; 2) military veterans have the only important things to say about war, and 3) there is no point in thinking about what is the beyond of war, the relationship between peace and war. By beginning with his excoriation of Graham’s reading, and ending with his belittling of Snyder’s comments, it frames the event as incoherent and probably not meaning much, despite its being “generally interesting and often deeply affecting.?

For this admittedly partisan and interested listener, I found Snyder’s talk to be enormously tonic, as he reframed and braided earlier ideas and words into a longer view; as the event continued, it (and we with it) moved both temporally and geographically, almost archeologically—from the Iraq War (Turner and Mikhail), to the Vietnam War (Komunyakaa), to the Second World War (Graham), and finally, to the sedimentary layers where war and peace, violence and non-violence, are all in play (Snyder).

In the end, maybe Mr. Doerksen is correct; it’s difficult to see what is gained by another poetry reading, in the grand scheme of clashing states. Certainly, if it were just about selling books, poets should simply pull the plug. Yet I hold out for the notion that this writing is not meant as an end in itself. It is, or can be, part of a process of unwriting what’s already been decided, already been written (the war), as well as a process of making something else come into being (the peace). It requires not only of the poets, but of us, some attempt to go beyond the page, to enter into the possibilities articulated as language, but made real by embodied selves, citizens who witness, speak out, and refuse.

On February 8, 2007 at 10:17pm Alison Croggon wrote:
A quote from Muriel Rukeyser's wonderful book The Life of Poetry seems apposite here:

"All of our nature must be used. It is fatal now to hold back from it. The war that has been over the world was a war made in our imaginations; we saw it coming, and said so; and our imaginations must be strong enough to make a peace. First, to create an idea of peace, and then to bring it about.

"Always we need the audacity to speak for more freedom, more imagination, more poetry with all its meanings. As we go deeper into conflict, we shall find ourselves more constrained, the repressive codes will turn to iron. More and more we shall need to be free in our beliefs..."

On May 5, 2007 at 6:43pm Charles Kesler wrote:
As a Vietnam combat veteran with at least 4 and more traumatic events to deal with nearly every day in unkillable memory I give authority to anyone who has ever been traumatized by anything anytime in their life. Trauma is trauma, and I weep with the young girl raped, the survivor of a school shooting, the survivor of a major accident, the soldier who has only one traumatic event from war and wonders in guilt why he can't get his life together. I welcome the powers of imaginative writers who can get pretty damn close to describing how we feel and never actually got close to any of it. I say let all the poets and writers write what they want to write and let the readers decide the validity of it. I say if the readers cannot give their validation to the writings then let them weep for the poet or writer's attempt at it. The older I get the more I begin to hurt for all the hurts of this world. I do not want to be known as just another Vietnam War writer. I want to transcend that and have a style that is unrecognizably distant from that one aspect of my life. My first small book, THE BOOK OF WILLIE, is a comedy and though I lament the fact that I didn't get my "serious" stuff published first I realize that comedy saved my butt. So poets and writers, don't just write what you "know," but write out of your hurting imaginative heart. There will be those who will bless you and not really care if you were not "over there."

On April 13, 2009 at 7:47pm ali kazzaz wrote:
I need explanation to some poems of Komunyakaa

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Cliff Doerksen is a film critic for Time Out Chicago magazine, has a Ph.D in history from Princeton University, and is the author of American Babel: Rogue Radio Broadcasters of the Jazz Age, a cultural history of the origins of commercial broadcasting in the United States. He lives in Chicago with his wife and daughter.

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