Tuesday, November 10, 2015

The Garden of Voices: Poems About Veterans

Tomorrow, Veterans Day, is a holiday that began as a memorial to the millions who fought and sacrificed in World War I, called The Great War in its day, and then "The War to End All Wars," though of course it did not. The chosen date was Armistice Day, Nov. 11, because that was the date in 1918 when the armistice ending World War I was signed by the warring countries. 
          Since then we've had many more military veterans to recognize, and many more sacrifices, to acknowledge in the century that has followed that first Armistice Day. 
            We continue to recognize and honor veterans, as we should, even as we hope for no more wars. That's the note sounded by Firestone Feingold, the editor of the online literary journal Verse-Virtual, in his comment sent to the journal's contributors today

           "Well tomorrow is Veterans Day. Thank you to all who made it especially meaningful to me by contributing such dynamic and powerful poetry to this month's issue of Verse-Virtual. I wish everyone a good Veterans Day full of thanks to and remembrance of those who gave and yet give themselves to fight for us. May their kind of service no longer be needed by the peoples of the world — soon and forever." 

            Poems related to veterans is the optional theme for the journal's November issue (http://www.verse-virtual.com/). I picked out a few poems to mention here that I found especially effective. 

             Joseph Mills' poem "At the Veterans Hospital" blew me away. Responding to the idea that the world itself is only "virtual," a patient starts to cry. "...and when he places a hand on her new leg, she pushes it off, saying, This is not real. Her tone is hard to read, and he doesn’t know if she means the limb, the crying, the empathy, the room, the world."
             This veteran's ambiguity, and one we have probably all felt, is beautifully expressed. The issue raised is beyond words, but this poem gives us some words to put the question. And I'm not sure what the answer is.

            Mills's other poem "Service" is a slice of life report on a night "at the Legion." The poem concludes with an unassailable truth, both moving and blunt: 

"We sit, surrounded by hungry veterans who served in Europe, the Pacific, Korea, Vietnam, the Gulf. This is their reward for living when they did, going where they were told, and still being around. Cheap beer, piles of legs and breasts and wings, and family sitting across a table as wide as a battlefield."

            Diana Rosen's poem "Father in his Swim Ensemble, Even Though He Doesn’t Swim" is full of rich detail, ironic as life. The poem tells us that the WWII veteran's gift for languages,

"(Yiddish segued to German) and a high school typing class kept him off the battlefield and inside the Captain’s office typing, filing, swallowing the bile that arose listening to 'those Jews, those Commies,' careless remarks made by the officer, oblivious to why they were both in the U.S. Army in Germany in 1943."

             Rosen's poem "Old Age" offers a concretely observed, sympathetic but unsentimental recounting of the last routines of life for a man of "the man of a thousand Oys."
              He falls asleep on a couch, wakes, nods off again, and the poem concludes with this metaphysical zinger: 

"Slowly, he lifts his head awake, whispers, You think it’s easy to dream?"

             Martin Willet's poem "How I Got To Vietnam" reports his experience as a medic in that tragic conflict, the simplicity and directness of the language lending weight to its powerful conclusion -- Should you read it here? (I don't know: is this a spoiler?):

 After years of butchering on a farm,
seeing men lose hands to combines,
finding a deer shot
and dragging towards death,
it was not the blood or guts
or carrying trays with amputated arms or legs —

it was the cries for mommy

            In her poem "Gulf War," Joyce Brown offers a succinct comment on the juxtaposition of news reporting and commerce that, for many of us, spoke to the heart the Gulf War. Here's an excerpt:
"We'll be back with more right after this:"

Chevrolet Caprice, Dodge Dynasty,
Dentu-foam and Chloraseptic Spray.

Pentagon officials praise
the "surgical strike...

But all that selling, and all that Pentagon PR, is not the whole story. The poem puts the event in focus with this last-line summation of the day's cost:

and two pilots two pilots two pilots”

Poet Dick Allen's sums up the contradictions of the Vietnam Era in his poem "Veterans Day,"opening with the frank acknowledgment:

Once I hated you, your uniform, your name,
The way you hunched with buddies in an open truck.
You were the soldier shouting at the rain.

...and concluding with the enduring wider perspective that applies to so many of us: 

Who can stop the rain?
We were young men in the days of Vietnam.

(Read the whole poems and many others on http://www.verse-virtual.com/current-poetry.html)