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Essay

Poetry, Wartime, and Unwieldy Metaphors

Jorie Graham, Yusef Komunyakaa, and Gary Snyder participate in a panel.
Introduction
Do you have to have lived through war in order to write poems about it? At a panel discussion in Chicago—featuring Brian Turner, Dunya Mikhail, Jorie Graham, Gary Snyder, Yusef Komunyakaa, and Philip Metres—Cliff Doerksen finds out.

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.

  • 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...

Essay

Poetry, Wartime, and Unwieldy Metaphors

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

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