Prose from Poetry Magazine

Poems, Bombs, and the Road to Baghdad

by Matthew Doherty
The man I am talking with speaks pretty good English. He can read English, too. "Look," he says, running his hand across the soccer jerseys he has on offer: "Manchester United. Chelsea." He also sells DVDs, cigarettes, watches, old Iraqi coins and "money-new"—the new Iraqi currency, whose certain ascendancy to its pre-Gulf War value is an article of faith among the bulk of the American expatriate workforce.

The same merchandise is on offer at any of the twenty or so stalls that comprise the market outside camp Scania, about ninety miles south of Baghdad. I don't expect to find what I want, but I'm trying to lay some groundwork.

"I'm looking for books," I say. "Iraqi poetry."

He's not sure what I mean.

"Poems," I say. "Poems. You know?" And I ask him if he knows any poets—anyone local who writes poems, or reads them, who could talk to me about them.

He makes a noncommittal gesture, something between a nod and a shake of the head. "Yes, I do know," he says. "There are some people, not too far."

"You think they'd come down here? I could talk with them?"

"We could arrange it. But here's no good," he says. He looks around.

"Too much problem. The soldiers, they would come and ask what are we talking about."

Soldiers keep watch from the camp's back gate and from guard towers perched above the perimeter wall, a lazy stone's throw away. More soldiers browse the booths, looking for something they need or souvenirs for people back home.

"Nobody's going to care," I say. "But I could explain to the soldiers."

"It's not good here," the man says. "You could go to the road, talk through the fence."

The road is Highway 1, bracketed by Army checkpoints and serpentine barriers to the north and south of the main camp, separated by a fence from the fields and houses beyond. Civilian truck convoys jam the shoulders, waiting for military escorts that will lead them out of Scania, back to Kuwait or north to Coalition bases. These drivers are mostly Third-Country Nationals—non-Iraqi, non-American. Drivers pass the time lolling on carpets or cardboard set down perilously close to the traveled lanes; some sling hammocks under their trailers to try to find refuge from the heat. Locals trade with the drivers through the fence. A chicken can be bought for about three dollars. It's a strange sort of care that attends the conveyance of a chicken, through the loopy strands of razor wire, into the hands of the man who will now kill and eat it.

It would be no problem to meet at the fence. But the man's caginess makes me wonder if we're on the same page.

"You know what I'm talking about, right? People who write poems, or read poems, or know about them . . ."

"Yes," he says. "There are some people."

"So you think they will come?"

He says he will talk to them. Not today, but he will see them. Probably they will come. He tells me they will want some money. Not unreasonable, I think—it would cost them time and some expense to get here.

"No problem. I could give them money," I say. "But, you know, I'm just going to talk with these people. Conversation."

"Yes," the man says, leaning forward and speaking a shade more quietly. "You want to talk"—he wraps his hands together then splits them apart—"about the bombs."

* * *

I drive a truck in a civilian convoy. We haul the universal fuel. It's called JP-8, and the military uses it in everything, from Humvees to tanks, helicopters to F-14s. We haul it up from Kuwait to bases in Iraq. The Army escorts us. We have rooms in Kuwait, but when we are on the road (and we usually are) we sleep in our trucks—Mercedes cabovers with skinny sleeper berths and a "doghouse" between the front seats, over the engine. A short trip takes two days. A trip to Baghdad can be done in a five-day turn.

I got here in March. I brought Walden with me. My project here is Thoreauvian, in its way, even though Thoreau, with his well-wrought disgust for war, would probably kill me for saying so. But surely he would concede that it's an end run around the snares of convention, and that life's essential facts are rather easily fronted here. Thoreau traveled around the world in his cabin, in books and notebooks and imagination; I took the easy way and got on a plane, and used books to transport me back home or to help illuminate the world that I have put in front of me. There's work to do here, and it has its demands, its drawbacks. But even Thoreau had to work odd jobs to get the money for his cabin. My truck cost me nothing. Now this is my odd job, and my cabin at the same time.

I don't get anything like a complete picture of Iraq. I'm not sure that such a picture is obtainable anyway. This job requires aversion more than immersion, and when everything goes right we cling to our familiar routes, the bulky algorithm of convoy travel. But my mind is often free to roam, and one of the subjects of these explorations is poetry—Iraqi poetry; my own; how poetry informs my reading of Iraq, and how Iraq affects my conceptions of what poetry can do.

* * *

We wound up once, by accident and necessity, at a base called Camp Cuervo in southeast Baghdad. We spent a few days there. We started calling it "Gilligan's Island."

It used to be an Iraqi base and military school, and although the American and British forces have made themselves at home there, it hasn't been totally de-Iraqified. The side of one building is taken up by a series of paintings of an Iraqi soldier shooting a pistol from a variety of positions. He shoots in the same direction in each frame—so he appears, almost invariably, to be shooting himself in the back.

I took a few pictures of the wall. But I really went through a lot of film when I walked back to our convoy and some of our Third-Country National drivers wanted photos of themselves. They aren't allowed to carry cameras, but if I took the pictures I could give them the prints, and they could mail them home from Kuwait. It was tough to get a candid shot: most wanted to pose for the camera, adopting expressions that evinced fortitude, resolve.

When I got the prints made I was reminded of another name for Camp Cuervo, or for one section of it. In the background of one photo, beyond the three Egyptian drivers drinking tea in the shade under their tanker, the words "Redcatcher Army Airfield" were sprawled across a hangar. It seemed to me a strange name in the midst of this post-Cold War engagement. And on the edge of Sadr City, with its roil of tension and violence, the old Soviet threat took on a nostalgic tint.

The Egyptians had wanted their pictures taken with their trucks. One of them, whom we called the Kid, practically made an action figure of himself: here he is behind the wheel; now climbing out of the cab; now he is on top of the tanker.

But there was a driver from Turkey who, when he saw my camera, led me away from our line of trucks. I thought he might want a photo of himself next to an Army tank, or to wait for a helicopter to put itself down in the background. But he stopped next to a hibiscus bush with bright red blooms in front of the hangar. In the photo our trucks are lined up behind him, and his expression does indeed suggest fortitude and resolve. But his left hand is clutched around a stalk. He pulls a red flower to his heart.

I didn't make the connection until months later. Redcatcher? It's this guy. It was him all along.

His was an accidental exemplification, but it was as if he were saying, "The world strives for order, routine, conventions of naming. But what things mean: that is always for us."

When a poem is a good poem, it often does what the Turkish truck driver did. He found beauty in a world of brute utility, for one thing. But that's not the important part. He was on to something. He didn't explain, but he enacted; he went somewhere, with great purpose, and made it seem like meandering. He held something up, just enough to raise it from its plain-sight hiding place, and in that enactment he changed the world he'd lifted it out of.

In Jack Gilbert's poem "The Box," the speaker describes the difficult but uncomplicated work of carrying a heavy box. He tinkers with different ways of carrying it, switching arms, supporting it on his head, trying to manage the fatigue of the task. Eventually he finds a way that he can "go on forever without putting it down." In the context of the other poems, which grapple with the poet's recent loss of his wife, the box is no simple box, and the work is no simple work.

We got out of Camp Cuervo and eventually made our way back south. We crossed the border into Kuwait. We got through the Kuwaiti customs inspection. A few hundred yards further south, we approached the American-run inspection for another check of our IDs and maybe our trucks. Air Force soldiers sat by the rows of jersey barriers. We always use lane two; they always hold up two fingers—like peace signs—and you know you're not in Iraq anymore.

When we went north the next trip, most of our crew had been parceled out onto different convoys. I saw the Kid a few weeks later, in the staging yard at the Kuwait/Iraq border. I gave him the million pictures of himself. I showed him the picture of the Turkish driver and asked if he knew where he was. He raised one arm, whistled, and jiggled his hand a few times: the guy had gone back to Turkey.

* * *

I look at the sky a lot. The nights are very dark almost everywhere we go, and there hasn't been a cloud in months. The stars are bright even at Camp Anaconda, which has some population centers nearby and is only an hour or so north of Baghdad. The camp doesn't put out much light. Nothing does. Helicopters and planes fly with their lights out, adding their shade to the sky's, like the trees at night in Ginsberg's "A Supermarket in California."

A military base is a good place to see shooting stars. It can be disconcerting though, the first time or two, to be standing on top of a fuel tanker in the "bag farm" where we download our fuel, and see those bright missiles careening overhead.

I watch the moon. It's reassuring to track its familiar, patient cycle. And the full moon has been pretty much in synch with our paychecks. May 4th the moon was full over Anaconda. I wondered if the camp would get mortared that night. Anaconda gets a lot of mortar and rocket attacks, but I thought that the brightness of our satellite might make for a quiet evening.

In these days of night-vision and drones and infrared, maybe moonlight doesn't matter as a detection tool. Besides, even broad daylight doesn't forbid the mortars and rockets. And sometimes a mortar round is frozen, caked in ice, and placed in a launcher on the sly. The ice makes it too big to fit down the tube, but the ice melts. The mortar slides down and launches with no one around.

But I put some mild faith in the moon anyway. The night was quiet. I sat in my idling truck, leaned out the window and looked up to indulge my satisfaction at having knocked down another month, but now a shadow had begun to cut into the edge of the moon. Soon it would be blanked out. I wondered if anyone knew about this. There is no loneliness quite like that which we feel when we look at that most accessible of sights, the sky. I wondered if any "dead-enders" had circled this day on their lunar charts.

I have no sympathy for the insurgency. With a view toward my own preservation, I wish they would all cut it out. But apart from pure self-interest, I think that every mortar, whether it hits or misses, every burst of gunfire or roadside bomb is a dismal impediment to what can only be called progress. The wisdom and righteousness of our going to war are uncomfortable questions. But the insurgents rest on a justification that only the most ardent relativism could withstand. There's nothing noble about them. They're the Sopranos East.

But as I checked in on the darkening moon, I admit, I had a "bring-it-on" moment. If these people had any poetry in them at all, any appreciation for symbol and compact packages of meaning, they would wait until the darkest minute, when the moon was buried in shadow atop the heavens, and then they would let something fly. They wouldn't have to hit anything—and I hoped to hell they wouldn't. But even one explosion would say: "Look—the earth itself has turned against you. Ibn al-Haitham was unlocking the secrets of light while you were cowering in your Dark Ages."

That would also bring out the illumination flares, which would light up like ideas over the dark fields around the camp. They are the inverse of mortars, these flares that burn brightly through the air, then land, spent and harmless. That relationship plays out elsewhere: insurgents shoot at our convoys, but generally with poor aim; our soldiers aim back expertly, but do not shoot.

With the eclipse nearly full, I waited with extra anticipation for the show to begin. Nothing happened. The shadow began to outstrip the moon. I stayed awake a while longer, keeping a tired vigil. Then I gave up, jumped back in the sleeper for good, and went to sleep. We would leave Anaconda early in the morning. The moon would empty and fill itself again. But I would have to hang on until June to see it.

* * *

Back home, during periodic bouts of truck driving, I used to get a fair number of ideas for poems. Highway signs hand over hundreds of words, names of towns and places. Searchlight, Nevada is a poem all by itself. There's a place in Virginia called Luster's Gate. Coldwater, Michigan made it into a poem, as cold water, churning behind a ferry. The poem has nothing to do with Michigan—except that the speaker's fatigue is something like what I felt when I saw that sign for Coldwater shine up from the darkness, seven hundred miles into the route I used to run, with fifty miles to go.

In Iraq a lot of the highway signs are gone. I suspect they went the way of the guardrails: pulled down and pressed into other uses during the lean years of the sanctions. The signs that remain are generally written in both Arabic and English. But the names don't do much for me: Diwaniyah, Hilla, Afak, Mahmoudiya, Shomali. What am I supposed to do with that? There's not even a sign for Babylon, though we drive close by it.

No signs acknowledge Kuwait for southbound travelers. And "Iraq," as you can imagine, doesn't make it on any highway signs on northbound Highway 80 in Kuwait.

But there is one sign that has a bit of poetry to it. It's in Kuwait, near the border, by a turn-off to a British camp. It's just a little safety jingle: "U.K. MPs," it says, "DRIVE TO STAY ALIVE." But I passed by recently and noticed that someone had amended the message. The 'R' is missing from "DRIVE"—an improvement, to be sure, and too practical and true to be merely sardonic.

I do take some comfort, sometimes, in the Scania vendor's remaking of "poems" as "bombs." Imagining that the roadside has been seeded with poems is a benign sort of indulgence. Though it's still best to run the middle of the blacktop.

T. E. Lawrence reinforces the connection in Seven Pillars of Wisdom. His experience of laying mines, blowing up train tracks and bridges, has something in common with the process of setting a poem in place:
No one crossed [the sand bank] but myself, stepping carefully; yet I left unavoidable great prints over its smoothness. . . . It took me nearly two hours to dig and cover the charge. . . . The top sand was crusted and had to be broken through in burying the wires. They were stiff wires, which scarred the wind-rippled surface with long lines like the belly marks of preposterously narrow and heavy snakes. When pressed down in one place they rose into the air in another. At last they had to be weighted down with rocks which, in turn, had to be buried at the cost of great disturbance of the ground. Afterwards it was necessary, with a sand-bag, to stipple the marks into a wavy surface; and, finally, with a bellows and long fanning sweeps of my cloak, to simulate the smooth laying of the wind. The whole job took five hours to finish; but then it was well finished: neither myself nor any of us could see where the charge lay.

They could be lines of pentameter that he's working with, the alteration of one disturbing the lay of another, all wired up to some central idea, or several, rigged for maximum effect, and in the end the author vanishes, as if there had been no process at all, the artifice a seeming lack of the artificial. At other times, Lawrence almost anticipates postmodernism:
To hide these marks was out of the question, so we did the other thing, trampling about for hundreds of yards, even bringing up our camels to help, until it looked as though half an army had crossed the valley, and the mine-place was no better and no worse than the rest.

He calls attention to his role in the project; but that engenders another game within the game, the project inscrutable, the author's place muddier for being acknowledged.

Some of Lawrence's mines were automatic, triggered by the weight of a train. These, like the written word, no longer required his articulation. Others he detonated himself, like a poet reading his own work, engaging the mechanism he has put together. When a mine failed, and the intended audience rolled along unaffected, he dug it back up, and revised it until it worked. And a great poem will explode. It shakes the reader, changes everything for a moment, and never quite stops ringing. As Emily Dickinson said: "If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry." Only it's life that a poem brings, not death.

Like the guy at Scania, I was making my own conflations: how a palm tree in the distance can look like the stalk and bloom of an explosion. They are explosions—distinguished from the harmful kind by their painstaking slowness, which looks like stillness. But in frenetic time-lapse, a tree would seem to erupt from its shallow planting.

I noticed this one day on a ride from Anaconda down to Scania. We had to go an alternate route. We don't go that way often. The road is narrower than the main supply route, and the shoulder is marked in places with box-like gouges where IEDs have gone off. It can change your mindset, a road like that. And a couple of times, the sight of a far-off palm tree made me flash on a gladness that the explosion had not been nearer.

We had to stop on that road for a while: an IED had been found in the median; Army ordinance teams and Iraqi Police were removing it. It was a big bomb—two hundred fifty pounds, according to our convoy commander who'd heard that from one of our military escorts. When we were allowed to roll again, we saw it: a torpedo-looking thing that Iraqi police officers were shoving around in the bed of a pickup truck so they could get the tailgate shut. Our CC had another factoid to report when we all sat down to dinner at Scania: had the bomb gone off, it would've killed everyone within 3,000 meters from the shock wave alone.

Now, that just isn't true. He got some bad information. I tried to convince him of that, tried pi-times-radius-squared, the whole nine yards. But I got nowhere. And that bomb will live on, in all its mythic glory, set loose again and again across a mahogany bar in Washington State between earnest pulls on a bottle of Redhook.

But I kept thinking about it too. I got a line out of it, taken from my argument about its implausible power. I rolled it over on the long, daydream stretches of wide highway in the south, and put another line before it. "The gray plane turned and dropped again / A bomb the size of a million men." That was all I had for a while. But I thought I could make something out of it.

I didn't make anything out of it. And I realized, after some time, why not. It wasn't my experience. Bombs continue to fall on Iraq, but the only ones I've seen raining down were MOABs on the back of the twenty-five cent tokens they give out as change at the PX. Poetic license might allow me to make that bomb into something else. But what I was doing wasn't so much a making as a receiving of other visions of the dangerous places war makes. I was doing something like what my convoy commander was doing.

For a few weeks my notebook filled up with more practical things—distances between points, landmarks, the time it took from gate to gate. But I found that, when a trip was over, especially after a night mission when we were inside the wire, staged-up and parked, I would feel like writing poetry. It wasn't English. It was rhythm and sounds. I thought I might write it down as it sounded to me but I couldn't, even in those private pages, allow myself to write in proto-language.

There were images, too, I might have used: a bunch of kids jumping into newly-dug post holes just north of Scania, nearly getting themselves stuck and then scampering out as if from a grave; neon light shining off the clean glass of a roadside kiosk, a man watching TV inside, all serenity, while a few miles down the road mortars were kicking out their orange concussions; the moon reflected in a canal I looked down into from the awkward perch of a jerry-rigged bridge, how the moonlight showed the striations of current and the water became real water, in a way that very little is real when you drive past it at night.

But I couldn't do anything with these things. I could not make anything "well finished" out of them. They were all new. I couldn't move them from their places. That moonlit water couldn't be churning behind a ferry; it had to stay where it was (or go where it was going). And a poem about the exact circumstances of the poem's material would be impossible, or at least boring. Something would have to change in the process, and it seemed to me that to poeticize this actual world would be a reckless thing to do while I'm still here. Poems transform, they control the world in a way, give the poet dominion over everything. I think that part of Rilke's advice—to love the world's terrors (if the world has any) because they are our terrors—is the implication that they are ours, poets' especially, to transform and use. To invoke that privilege now, in this place, is to risk hearing Iraq say, in any of a million ways, "Transform this, motherfucker."

But I found a way to set down those sounds and rhythms, those almost-poems that roll forward when the truck stops, without giving them the whole poem treatment. It came out of my being surrounded by so much non-English—the Arabic and Urdu and Hindi and Pashto that are spoken up and down our convoys. I can't use those languages, even as pure sound; I don't know enough to have actual sounds to draw from. But this is where all those Iraqi town names come in. They stand in for the sounds I hear, the syllables, the untranslatable rhythms that gather when I drive through this place. They relieve me of the burden, which I wouldn't accept anyway, of cogency, meaning, narrative, or logic. I mix in some English too in these catalogues, but only as it suits the sound. Maybe someday these will become "poems." Maybe Taji and Salman Pak and Um Qasr and the rest are just stand-ins for the "real" words to be written later. But I sort of like them as they are.

* * *

We used to only run during daylight. At the end of June, though, we started making night missions. At Scania, the last stop before the push to Baghdad, a new ritual developed: the extinguishing of marker lights and tail-lights on our trucks and tankers. Some drivers used duct tape to cover them over, but it's a time-consuming process, and duct tape can be hard to come by. Time can be hard to come by, too, so some guys took to cutting the wires with pocket knives. A little bit of brake lights was necessary, and some tail-lights too. So those were left intact and taped over carefully, to let just a little sliver of light through.

The benefits of this are pretty modest. The truck doesn't become invisible. But it makes us a slightly harder target, by a little bit, and a little bit can make a difference. Besides, there's some comfort in the task—like getting a house ready for a storm. My truck is my house, and while I was taping marker lights and cutting wires I was thinking of what Gaston Bachelard wrote in The Poetics of Space: "the house shelters daydreaming, the house protects the dreamer, the house allows one to dream in peace." Those words kept bouncing around in my mind, like a prayer, or as if they were a contract, as if my house were legally obliged to do these things for me.

A convoy is an elaborate version of a house. Humvees close off the front and back, like doors. Shooters keep their weapons pointed out, away from the center, making a potential wall around protected space. Air support can cover us if necessary. My truck resides inside this space, and I inside the truck, inside the small room of a flak vest, under the small roof of a helmet.

Of course, we're not really protected from the world. Our vulnerabilities were made clear rather comically one day when we were driving through Samawah, a small city beside the Euphrates River. On one side of the road, sheep were coming up out of the ground as if they had just been born and were springing, fully formed, from the earth. This would have confused me forever had I not seen a shepherd on the other side of the road sending the rest of his flock into the storm drain that crossed underneath us. It's as if the sheep were there to say, "How safe do you feel, inside that arc of firepower, when you can't control the ground beneath your feet?"

Some drivers seemed pleased, though, with their doctored lights. But as I got through with my truck, something bothered me about the whole thing. If we were cutting our lights to blend in, to be harder to distinguish in the night in Iraq, then we were giving up our otherness, our inside-ness. We would be as outside as the dark, part of it, and not at home in any way.

Later in The Poetics of Space, Bachelard quotes Rilke from his prose work The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge: "And there is almost no space here; and you feel almost calm at the thought that it is impossible for anything very large to hold in this narrowness." My truck sometimes feels like that sort of closed-off place, a shelter, to which I hold the only key. Rilke's next sentence makes a U-turn: "But outside, everything is immeasurable. And when the level rises outside, it also rises in you." That is the feeling of driving in Iraq at night. The line between inside and outside disappears.

This blurring of the inner and outer helps Bachelard make a point about poetry. He gives part of a letter of Rilke's earlier on: "Works of art always spring from those who have faced the danger, gone to the very end of an experience. . . . The further one dares to go, the more decent, the more personal, the more unique a life becomes." Bachelard sees in this a privileging of external danger, and asks, "But is it necessary to go and look for 'danger' other than the danger of writing, of expressing oneself? Doesn't the poet put language in danger? Doesn't he utter words that are dangerous?"

I was reading this in my truck. It was night, and we were on a base, no problems, I would go to sleep soon, and the air-conditioner was demolishing the heat, and the engine idle was pleasant noise in the background. I was inside, in a place where arguments like Bachelard's have space to exist. Outside, who cares about stuff like this? It doesn't matter.

There have been times, doing this job, in my truck, when none of the things that make me unique were of any value at all. And so I'm glad to see Rilke—of all people—suggest that such experiences replenish uniqueness and all the rest.

And I can't go with Bachelard when he tries to put the danger of writing alongside other dangers. He's right that poetry, the poetic image, touches into the "inner disturbance" of being. There is risk inherent in writing. There's the risk of writing badly, for one thing. To succeed is often to stumble onto one of life's difficult truths, to be taken aback by its expression in that form. And you take a gamble when you open a book of poetry and start reading. You never know what might be in there.

But a poem, or any work of art, should also hold out some consolation, no matter how painful its truth. A rocket-propelled grenade offers nothing. Not to the targets, anyway. Any peril engendered by words seems trivial, and vanishes when external danger arrives.

I imagine that Bachelard might counter that by saying something like this: what we fear from an external danger—pain, loss, mortality—is, essentially, its effect on our inner being. But even if writing and violence draw their danger from the same source, who wouldn't prefer the danger of writing? Who wouldn't choose the restless energy of a poem instead of bursts of machine-gun fire?

Maybe this is what Rilke was getting at, about works of art springing from danger—that the risks of writing lose some of their power to disable. I hope he's right, about the decency that experience can generate. And I hope one doesn't need to go "to the very end of an experience" to get some of it. We don't go all that far in our trucks. And I've gone about as far as I care to go.
Originally Published: October 30, 2005


On August 22, 2015 at 10:03pm Dia wrote:
Great writing. I never really considered the
side of our American civilians on the road.
This was an amazing read.

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This prose originally appeared in the December 2004 issue of Poetry magazine

December 2004


Matthew Doherty's poetry and nonfiction appear in Glimmer Train, the Atlantic Monthly, and Poetry. He attended Holy Cross College and the University of Alabama, and was a Stegner Fellow at Stanford. He no longer works in Iraq.

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