This post is several weeks in the making. For two months I’ve been carrying around Jehanne Dubrow’s Stateside and Amalie Flynn’s Wife and War (both collections of poetry) — reading them furtively during over-too-soon toddler naptimes, thumbing through with a beer on precious evenings after the kiddos have gone to bed, even lugging both books on planes over 3,000 miles of ocean.
3,000 miles of ocean? Who am I kidding, I never go anywhere!
But, wait — I did! Amazingly, wondrously, I got the opportunity to meet up with my husband in Hawaii for two full days a few weeks ago.
I was excited about the opportunity, but I also felt guilty about it. In fact, I felt so guilty about it at first that I considered staying home. I knew the kids would have loved to see their dad, but we couldn’t afford five plane tickets, and besides, I selfishly wanted some alone time on the plane with books with my husband. And I also know full well that most military spouses don’t get to see their husbands halfway through a short deployment. But, thinking of my own little family, I decided that if there were a way we could make this easier we should, and besides, six months of single parenting (or being without your kids, in my husband’s case) is not the easiest thing, and we’re in this for a while so we need his career to be sustainable. So I decided to go. I postponed writing this up because I wanted to wait until a friend’s husband was back from Afghanistan — she’d been so kind and supportive even though her husband left six months before mine did, and I thought that if I posted my giddy vacation photos in the last weeks before her husband got home I’d feel like a real sh*t. Now that he’s home (yay!), I feel better about posting!
So, for the mere price of six months apart, Dave and I got a two-day vacation at the amazing Hale Koa hotel in Honolulu. It’s a gorgeous hotel run by the U.S. Army, and it’s for servicemembers and their families. I wish I could fly every servicemember in history there for a full week. It was that beautiful!
and eating a lot of terrific Japanese food. And I did have 12 hours of plane travel-time alone with books, which in itself felt like a spa vacation. My entire carry-on was a back-breaking load of books: The Art of Fielding, Moby Dick, The Orchardist, Stateside, and Wife and War, plus my own writing notebook and pens, and the pad of paper I took from the Hale Koa (I might be a little bit of a hoarder). After having to say good-bye to my husband at the Honolulu airport, I comforted myself on the ride home with all my books.
Which brings me to Stateside and Wife and War. There’s a reason I’m writing this review in a long, personal narrative kind of format, and that’s because both poetry collections speak of intensely personal experiences. They’re not meant to be read at arm’s length, with a monocle and a terse little frown. Stateside and Wife and War were both written by Navy spouses weathering long deployments in which their husbands could not have been considered “safe,” and both touch upon broader themes of loss, longing, disconnection, tragedy, and reunion. Reading them, I saw much that was familiar: the initial struggle to wrap one’s mind around a deployment, the dread, the long boring wait, the anxiety, the reunion. And there was much also that was beyond my experience: deployments longer than a year, dangerous tours, difficult “reintegrations.”
But when I read, there’s no way to keep what I’m reading from spilling all out of the pages into my life and into what I’m thinking. Just as lines I’ve read come back to me all day long, aspects of my life slip into the pages of what I am reading, and that seems to me what writers would want — a life for their words beyond their own minds, the computer screen, the page. Why else share it?
Jehanne Dubrow’s Stateside is an elegant, slim volume, almost classical in feel. The poems deal within the relatively small timeframe of a deployment, with perhaps a little time on either side, and so the book feels like a small, quiet journey.
The first line in the book, from the poem “Secure for Sea,” is a definition: “It means the moveable stays tied.” And with that Dubrow sets up the essential tension of the collection — that her husband is moveable and she is not. He will be going to sea, far away and to an unstable place, and she will be set into a role women have inhabited for thousands of years, that of the wife waiting at home.
Dubrow examines every facet of this tension across the book’s 43 poems. Is a sailor heading off to sea a romantic ideal? Yes, and Dubrow touches on this. Is there also an essential killing-of-romance necessary to survive a deployment? — well, yes, that too, and she smartly explores this in the quintessentially romantic form of a sonnet called “Nonessential Equipment.” As her husband discards the trappings of love — poems, perfume, his beloved dog, almost his wedding ring, and, of course, temporarily, his wife — the poem becomes an anti-sonnet, like the old joke about a country song played backwards (he gets his wife back, he gets his tractor back…).
She also tries on the character of a modern-day Penelope, in a central set of poems that I greatly enjoyed. Literature about the recent wars has gone many times back to ancient Greece and Sparta for inspiration and even explanation, but much of this takes itself too seriously or focuses on political misjudgments-and-failures (fair game, but restricted from the outset). Dubrow takes a more intimate, wry approach, setting her Penelope in modern situations that highlight both the noble history and the absurdity of a long wifely wait. “Penelope” tries on lingerie, she takes little Telemachus to the mall, she goes on a diet. The poems highlight all that is stubborn and faith-filled and beautiful and possibly a little dumb about waiting, waiting, waiting for one man to return.
I thought about Stateside while I prepared to, very briefly, see my husband again before another separation. In the weeks before this reunion, I identified with her characters’ boredom and the weird, slow erosion of self-esteem that seems to accompany a deployment.
On an island called America,
start fantasizing of the sex
you had with him. Go shop for bras
and lacy thongs at the PX,//
black garters, bustiers, a cream
that leaves your body woven silk,
a self-help book for self-esteem,
a bag of M&Ms, skim milk//
to keep you thin, and Lean Cuisine
(you hate to cook for one).
Siobhan Fallon touches on this in several of her stories, too — that a deployment is a sort of long, socially acceptable obsession. Whatever strong, busy woman you’ve become, whatever interesting set of friends or successful career — when your husband is on deployment it colors everything, defines everything. It’s a strange, low lid over your world. You get bumped back, every time, to the anti-feminism of waiting and preening and staring at yourself in the mirror at 1 a.m. and realizing how much those three-kids-in-six-years have changed you (okay, maybe that is just me), and will your husband remember how much they have changed you, or will he be startled afresh when he sees you again? The reunion, the big reunion! — it’s on the horizon, and you don’t want to disappoint! In a blog post written in the weeks before her husband returned home, Amy Bermudez described his homecoming as feeling “like a wedding,” and I knew exactly what she meant.
A whole culture springs up around the mortal fear of disappointing deployed men. In Fallon’s story “You Know When the Men Are Gone” (first in the book of the same name), the women living on-base turn a blind eye to a fellow wife’s barking, oversized dog, and even to borderline child neglect, in the interest of the man at war: “No, they would not be responsible for the grief her husband would feel when he came back, having survived the year in Iraq, to a home without a dog. They could not play a role in his disappointment and so they went without sleep, cursed under their breath, banged the ceiling or floor with brooms, and smacked their palms against frail drywall.”
There are some ways in which I still feel uncomfortable as a military wife, as if I’m just dipping my toe into a role meant for someone else. As I read Dubrow’s poems I felt a sense of belonging at the same time as I identified with her moments of alienation. Her descriptions of certain Navy locales, in all their haze-gray-and-underway-ness, were very familiar (particularly those in Virginia’s Tidewater region, the first duty station of our Navy career. Virginia felt like another planet to me when we arrived, but was slightly more comfortable for my husband who, having spent formative years living outside Baltimore, was used to the funny, brash, populous, history-steeped culture of the mid-Atlantic states). Dubrow’s poems took me right back. I remembered hiking at First Landing State Park, which was weird and swampy until it opened into a stunning view of the Chesapeake Bay. I’d jotted lists of intriguing place names like Birdneck, Princess Anne, Witchduck.
I also empathized with Dubrow’s sense of being an outsider in a world so wholly military-industrial. Unless you are from a military background, it’s hard to prepare for living on or adjacent to a busy Naval or Marine base. We’ve lived next to to both Dam Neck and Little Creek, and when Dubrow talked about seeing the ships outside her window, smelling diesel fuel from shore, I felt a surge of unexpected nostalgia for that very particular world which still feels vivid to me.
Nora and I passed many hours lined up along the canal by our apartment, watching the hovercraft roar by and waving to all the sailors standing on the decks of the small amphibs. We sat on the beach and watched SEALS do their morning run-swims in the cold, misty sea water, with osprey diving overhead, a treat for the early risers. We met Dave for lunch on-base, and I was saluted for the first time, which, given my egalitarian upbringing, felt very odd.
All our lives, I’d been the world traveler, my husband the kid who’d never left the States. I’d been to Japan, Italy, even Africa, because my parents believed that travel was the best education. He’d been to the memorials of D.C. and the old battlefields of Antietam and Gettysburg. Now we’d switched places — he in a career which would take him around the world; myself, at home day and night, with no family or old friends, no writer buddies, but a beautiful baby in a crappy-as-hell apartment surrounded by very young soldiers and their multiple pit bulls. And I was transported back there when I read her poem “Swim Test,” about something familiar to me from my husband’s own descriptions (mandatory swim tests where the sailors have to demonstrate that they can use their pants and shirts as inflatables by removing them, tying the legs together and blowing air into them).
She’s talking about her husband’s swim test here, but I felt the numbness of an early deployment all over again, the pain that is being the one who must wait, who doesn’t get to move:
The hardest part is playing dead, to be broken,//
inert, when what the body wants is motion,
to kick like a sprinter toward the finish line,
at least to tread water, not to breathe it in.
Now all this brings me to Amalie Flynn’s Wife and War. Whereas Dubrow’s poems are tightly controlled within classical structures, Flynn’s tone is looser and more immediate. I think these collections do well to be considered side-by-side but not necessarily compared, so I’ll share a few thoughts about Flynn’s book here.
Wife and War is, on one level, a narrative of trauma — it opens with the collapse of the Twin Towers, which Flynn herself witnessed, and continues on through the related hardships of the following years (a husband’s deployment, loss of pregnancies, difficulty of her husband’s return home). But “narrative of trauma” sounds a little oppressive and I don’t think this collection is oppressive at all — it’s more like getting a front-row seat into an intelligent and sensitive mind, one that’s enduring several years of hardship. Despite the book’s 406 pages, it flew by, partly because of its format (verse, with a lot of white space on each page), but also because it was simply very readable. Weeks or months are often encapsulated in a paragraph or a page.
It’s almost like a journal, this book, a journal in verse — which is fascinating to me because it would never occur to me to record thoughts and feelings in verse, but I am delighted that some people do. There are the big moments of the book, the Twin Towers and the news that her husband is going to war, and then there are small moments which are rendered so well. When Flynn’s husband leaves for good, she recounts laying beside her two-year-old son to sleep:
And I lay on the floor, next to him, my son, next to his bed. Wanting to be right there, when he wakes up and sees, for the first time, sees that his father is gone.
In what I thought was one of the more beautiful passages in the book, she describes the intensity with which she misses her husband.
I can’t really explain how I long for him, my husband, for his body to be here, stretched out next to mine, in our bed, one side of his face lit up and legible, by the glow of the alarm clock, or his clothing, his socks and shirts and pants, all of it, left on the floor, there, as he climbs in, climbs in to find me.
…And, how, sometimes, I just want someone to open me up again. Read me like a book, word by word, hip by hip, sentences and paragraphs and legs, to keep on reading me, page by page, until he is done.
Damn. If that isn’t how you write longing, I don’t know what is.
When Flynn’s husband does return home, the distance between them does not easily close, and there is a long spell of tension in the poems. “I am not feeling grateful today,” she writes in one of two entries for July 2009.
I feel like you are my business partner, my husband tells me, after, after we are done, cleaning up the kitchen, after we check on the children in their beds, and now, as we lie here, next to each other, in our bed. And I am exhausted and he is unfulfilled , because he wants it to feel different, this marriage, us, what we are doing here.
This is an honest and careful look at a marriage, at the work that goes into keeping two adult people together, and most of it is not pretty or sweet or playful. That is what makes this memoir feel like life: a book of days, in which sometimes the pattern feels like bad-bad-bad-good-bad and sometimes the order is more like good-good-bad-good-good — the ratio can feel unbalanced but it must even out, like flipping a coin and getting ever closer to 50:50. And then, because we are human and not pure victims of chance, it somehow surpasses that 50:50 to get to something better, bigger, and worth fighting for.
Later we will go to our son’s school, where they have a garden. It is a small square where the children are growing tomatoes and peppers and beans.
And we will see him, first, our son, before he sees us, standing in the center, holding a shovel, one hand over his eyes to block out the sun, so he can see, see what is growing, at his feet, and when he looks up, he will see us.
I’m grateful that Stateside and Wife and War kept me company for those several weeks — longer than I intended, but not longer than I wanted them around — on planes and in the van (turning pages quietly so as not to wake the baby) and on my couch.
If there’s anyone out there who made it to the end of this blog post: thank you.
I am home now, back from my two days in paradise and back to real life: puzzle pieces and sharp little Legos all over the floor, lunches to make and floors to sweep, a toddler with a head cold and a nice track of spring-green snot running from her nose to her upper lip. Just as reading gives you space to make sense of everything else, so does a brief vacation. Children are growing, books are waiting to be read, and when I think of my husband in the airport, waiting to watch me go through the security line, my heart skips a beat with happiness: all this has happened, we’ve been all these places and started over and charged ahead, and we are still going, and we are still young.
Jehanne Dubrow, Stateside. Northwestern University press, 2010.
Amalie Flynn, Wife and War, 2013.
Related, in the index of my mind:
Tennessee Ernie Ford, “The Girl I Left Behind Me” — a parting song that dates back to at least the late 1700s. I always sing it to Susanna — “That sweet little gal that pretty little gal, the gal I left behind me…”
Tom Petty, “The Waiting”
The waiting is the hardest part
Every day you get one more yard
You take it on faith, you take it to the heart
The waiting is the hardest part
Oh don’t let it kill you baby, don’t let it get to you
Don’t let it kill you baby, don’t let it get to you
I’ll be your bleedin’ heart, I’ll be your cryin’ fool
Don’t let this go too far
Don’t let it get to you