Three Books of Poetry: Washing the Dust from Our Hearts, Icarian Flux, and FOB Haiku

Washing the Dust from Our Hearts: Poetry & Prose from Writers of the Afghan Women’s Writing Project

“They talked and talked and sold me,” writes one of the women poets, Massoma, featured in Washing the Dust from Our Hearts. “They talked and talked and beat me. … I was not a good bride. I was not a perfect woman, because I was thirteen….My head exploded, full of their talking.”

In Washing the Dust, women from seven of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces share their stories. Their voices are poignant, urgent, and clear.

washing_dust

The women are referenced by first names only; sometimes, just an initial. It’s obvious that they fear retribution for speaking out, for writing, but that a taste of this freedom has been too sweet and that they are unable to stop.

I write of my pain, my broken heart…

I will lose my strength

and the stunning world

that I create for myself in writing

 

If I fail to tell my stories of struggle

I will lose myself

These poems are full of humanitarian awareness and a budding feminism. It might strike the American reader as simple, this feminism, its basic goals, and for that we should be grateful; for our own feminism — equal pay for equal work, reproductive rights– must seem, to the women in Afghanistan, like gilding the lily. Their desire is to get an education, to be free from the burqa, to marry the young men they choose. To not be stoned to death  for looking the wrong way or for talking to a friendly male stranger while out in the street.

Don’t laugh!

Don’t speak loudly!

Don’t look at men!

Shut up!

These women dream of freedom, but they care for the men in their lives. They cook for their sons, kiss their husbands, send family members off to war.

Army uniforms become threads

of mourning — white cloth, like snow, snow, that covers every mother.

Snow comes, permeates our families, our hearts,

alights on our destroyed walls and windows.

And with the deepest feeling, I and others

know these coldest of snows.

What remains in my mind after reading the poems in Washing the Dust is the pure humanity of these brave women, the way their circumstances have hurt and changed them, but also the way they have survived. They feel loss and pain; they rejoice in calm, quiet moments. They are moms and sisters and daughters. They are just like us.

That first woman, Massoma, sold off as a bride at thirteen, reflects:

My head exploded. My head exploded…

But I love my infant, my family. …My baby

laughs and I laugh. Life laughs, and I am happy.

—-

Icarian Flux by Colin Halloran

I’d enjoyed Halloran’s first poetry collection, Shortly Thereafter (focused around his deployment to Afghanistan), so I was eager to read his second, Icarian Flux. While it deals only obliquely with issues of war and service, Icarian Flux does delve into the mind of someone who finds himself, post-deployment, young and adrift — and utterly, painfully conscious of himself and the world around him. The ghastly wonder of the world seems to have knocked him, for a time, off his feet, and everything that is beautiful is also horrible in its own way. (And vice versa.)

halloran_2

Colin Halloran

Many young people, certainly, have found themselves staggering in the face of loss, change, and love. Halloran is aware of this, creating a democratic vision of human awareness and longing that encompasses far more than a war-trauma narrative. “I lost God in the sunset,” the poet writes in “I Talk to Stones”:

With my religion sunk into the Gulf with the sun, people reasoned I would find it in the sands of war.

But I lost it on an evening stroll, finding it only falsely since….

Anyone can lose God on an evening stroll, rather than in a Humvee or a firefight. Is it worse, Halloran seems to ask, to lose your faith in one way rather than another? The generous and empathetic tone of Icarian Flux suggests that the nature of suffering is fluid, and that no one path to pain trumps any other.

The narrator of these poems often feels isolated, solitary. (“I guess I love control more than most,” he muses. And: “i sat on a front porch in Albany, a stranger to those walking past.”)  At such moments his observations are pointed and honed; minutiae appeals to him; he realizes this, and pokes fun at himself. His humor is always on target.

But Icarus doesn’t fall alone: what burdens him, he realizes, burdens many. In “Rain Fall,” he writes:

Your solitary descent

becomes bigger than yourself:

communal

alone among the many,

also alone.

Embracing poetic convention and allusion, Halloran also protests these devices as if to find a shorter route to the heart of the matter.

Must it all be metaphor?

Let Icarus fall….

Let us gaze in awe as he tumbles,

a heap of melted wax and feathers

and boy.

The flourishes of poetry are all here, but at heart, what falls is a boy.

The core of Icarian Flux feels to me conscious, tender, puzzled, defiant, kind — a lot like youth, if youth were filtered through a voice with uncommon intelligence, scope, and life experience. Icarian Flux works both as a complement to Shortly Thereafter and as its own, stand-alone rumination on a life’s pull toward darkness, its protest against gravity, its flirtation with and devotion to light.

—-

Welcome to FOB Haiku: War Poems from Inside the Wire

I happen to know Randy Brown (a.k.a. “Charlie Sherpa”) as the funny, astute blogger behind Red Bull Rising, but I wasn’t quite prepared for the knockout punch of his poems in Welcome to FOB Haiku.

FOB Haiku

Certainly, many of the pieces are funny, particularly the haiku. These pithy poems hold much more than they at first let on, and I laughed out loud at many of them.

Take care of your feet.

Dry socks are better than sex

Out here in the field.

and in “your drill sergeant writes haiku”:

Sergeant White is black!

I am Sergeant Brown! I’m white!

Do not mix us up!

 

You are all ate up

like a soup sandwich, soldier!

Where! Is! Your! Weapon?!

 

Or, in my personal favorite, the very darkly funny “jody stole your haiku tools”:

Jody got your pay,

stole your woman and your house.

But you still have Rex.

—-

Randy Brown served twenty years with the National Guard and then embedded with Iowa’s Red Bull units in Afghanistan as a journalist in 2011. Anyone who’s gotten through a full career with the military knows well its trials, its whims, its bureaucracy, and can enjoy rolling their eyes along with him. But Brown can write poignantly of the United States’ role abroad, too, as in “night vision”:

We may own the night, after all,

but we are renting their country by the day.

and, in the sonnet “on the runways of Kabul”:

Magazines will cover what he’s wearing:

The emperor’s new clothes we’re sharing.

—-

There’s one poem, though, that has moved me ever since I first read it, in another publication, some months ago. “Static” is about a Navy Corpsman (medic) trying to communicate with his very young son, apparently from the distance of deployment. Every time I read this effing poem, I tear up. [F*ck! It is happening now. -Editor] Its simplicity belies a whole world of loss, patience, waiting, love. The whole world of a small child distilled through a parent’s hopeful questions.

Instead of speaking louder, I’m told

I should dial into your distance,

quietly fine-tuning our conversations

as if I am cracking a safe.

 

How was your day, over.

Did you make any new friends, over.

Daddy loves you, out.

—-

Noack, Lori, editor. Washing the Dust from Our Hearts: Poetry & Prose from Writers of the Afghan Women’s Writing Project. Grayson Books, 2015.

Halloran, Colin. Icarian Flux. Main Street Rag, 2015.

Brown, Randy. Welcome to FOB Haiku: War Poems from Inside the Wire. Middle West press, 2015.

State of Wonder: Leslie Hsu Oh Discusses Leigh Ann Henion’s ‘Phenomenal’

By Leslie Hsu Oh

Named an editor’s pick by O, The Oprah Magazine, Backpacker, and Barnes & Noble Review, Leigh Ann Henion’s New York Times best-selling book Phenomenal: A Hesitant Adventurer’s Search for Wonder in the Natural World is now available in paperback.

leigh_ann_henion

Leigh Ann Henion proves that it is possible and essential to be a wife and mother and still see the world. Her memoir opens with the birth of her son and her honest confession that she “cannot help but mourn the loss of something I can’t place. I have an inner emptiness — literal and figurative — that I’ve never felt before. It’s as though nourishing his life has built a new chamber in my body that is now cavernous and empty, waiting to be filled…I have never felt more alone.”

It is this voice — unflinching bare bone self-examination —that keeps me hooked through her pilgrimage in search of wonder. Three years before her son is born, Henion witnesses the monarch butterfly migration to Mexico on assignment for the Washington Post Magazine and realizes that she’s missing out on nature’s most spectacular shows. On her first trip after her son is born to see the bioluminescence bay of Puerto Rico, she learns that “nature has the power to completely disarm people.” In the lightning storms of Venezuela: “an admission of human frailty and the perfect magnificence of earth, the universe, time, in a way that removes the masks of humankind’s many religions to reveal their connectivity, the fact that we are — in the end — one.”

And if these revelations don’t strike a chord within, Henion introduces infrasound and indigenous ways of knowing on a burning volcano in Hawai’i. Beneath the Northern Lights of Sweden, Henion asks: “If I want to trust nature, to trust life, I can’t always be trying to control it. Haven’t I learned this by now? Isn’t this, like, a main rule of parenting? Will I ever really be able to just do the best I can and then just let go?”

leigh_ann_henion_reindeer

Leigh Ann Henion (right)

On the great wildebeest migration in Tanzania, Henion realizes that if she were not having phenomenal experience after phenomenal experience, she would not be parenting her son in a way that awakens him to using plants, and landmarks, and symbols to make his way in the world. “If I were not being led by wonder, it is not the source from which I would teach.”

It is this parallel journey that Henion has with her son that lies at the core of this book. Henion says in an interview, “My son is seeing trees for the first time and discovering pine cones and rocks and everything was amazing. And I was seeing the solar eclipse, northern lights, and everything was new and amazing…and then we were able to come together and explore together with that sense of wonder.”

Leigh_ann_henion_son

Henion ends her memoir with an unforgettable image of her son wrapped up in a blanket in her arms gazing up at the night sky and whispering something she learned on one of her trips, “We’re stardust.”

***
Not only does Henion place her readers in these visceral scenes of experiencing phenomena which she defines as “that which is amazing and that which is observable,” she also introduces us to shamans, indigenous leaders, reindeer herders, phenomenon chasers, people who are happily living what some call the “unconventional life.”

Henion writes in her introduction, “I had no idea there were lay people from all over the world, from all walks of life, already going to great lengths to undertake the sorts of phenomena chases I’d dreamed up. Some took odd jobs to stay under the northern lights. Others left white-collar positions to make time for swimming in glowing, bioluminescent bays. There were people who braved pirates to witness everlasting lightning storms, stood on volcanoes, stared into solar eclipses. They trusted their instincts, followed their passions, willfully shaped their days into the lives they most wanted to lead.”
Humphrey, a guide she meets in Tanzania, says this about his life: “I am free! I can go anywhere I want and look for things. I can move! There’s no stress — not that kind of stress when you are confined. I am never bored. To me, that’s what freedom means.”

A clinical psychologist named Kate, whom Henion meets in Australia, explains that eclipse chasers make choices that allow them to be in the right place at the right time. “I think people put restrictions on their lives. They perceive: I can’t do this because I don’t have the money. I can’t do this because of whatever…But if you’ve got that passion, if you’ve made that choice, it will happen.”

This is ultimately the gem I’ve uncovered rereading this book in times when I doubt the unconventional choices I’ve made in my life. Or worse, I miss out on the freedom that Humphrey speaks about when I decide not to do something because I think I can’t afford it or I’m worried about what other people think.
In particular, Henion bravely addresses what all of us mothers wrestle with: “does being a good mother mean devoting every drop of my being to my child, or does it mean being true to my spirit in a way that illustrates that there is more than one way to live a good life? Motherhood affects everything, but does it have to change everything about who I am and what I choose to pursue?”

As a travel writer and a soon-to-be mother of four kids, I berate myself with these questions all day long. It’s especially heart-wrenching, when well-meaning friends or family tell me that I shouldn’t do something because I’m a mother or that my decision to have so many kids means that I should always prioritize motherhood over my career. A Wisconsin Public Radio interviewer once said to Henion: “The script in our culture tends to have being a mother and being an explorer as mutually exclusive roles. You’re supposed to get your wandering and adventuring done before you have kids and then you’re supposed to nest and settle down.”

Critics have actually asked Henion how she could “abandon” her child or husband for a week, or whether she felt guilty about leaving her son “especially when he was just a baby, to go off on this wonder pilgrimage?” I, too, am asked these questions when I’m on assignment. It makes me wonder how often mothers are asked “what about the kids?” when they have to travel somewhere for work, and how often fathers are asked that question. In fact, I don’t think anyone has ever asked my husband whether he feels guilty abandoning his wife and three kids when he’s out-of-town five days every week?

Here’s her graceful response, which I’ve posted on my wall: “I think a lot of people will look at this journey and think it’s self-indulgent. I had to wrestle with this. All my life I was told that women can do anything. When I became a mother, I felt like that suddenly changed. There seems to be a who-does-she-think-she is to just go chase an eclipse. When we talk about following a script, that doesn’t follow a script. When you’re a new mother and you go to a professional conference for a week, it doesn’t seem like people would talk about that how awful it is that she went to a conference. But if you swim in a bioluminescence bay in Puerto Rico, it seems somehow self-indulgent. It doesn’t follow a script of what you’re supposed to be doing of what’s acceptable. It’s interesting because it is actually my job as a travel writer. I’m on a work trip. That really gets to what it is that you want to do, that you think you can’t because it’s not what you’re supposed to do even though it’s what you feel called to do. When people read Phenomenal, that’s what I hope they will ask themselves.”

So tell me, what do you want to do that you think you’re not supposed to do?

And if traveling and exploring might be your answer, consider Henion’s suggestion to see the next total eclipse which will cross the entire country on August 21, 2017. She says, “The highest number of Americans in a century will be able to easily reach its path. This is something people go out on ocean liners or fly to tiny islands to see, and it’s going to be within driving distance for millions. A great resource is greatamericaneclipse.com. I saw a total eclipse in Australia. It’s a tremendous experience; you’re seeing the face of the sun. And to witness it with other people, you viscerally experience interconnectivity.”

Henion, Leigh Ann. Phenomenal: A Hesitant Adventurer’s Search for Wonder in the Natural World. Penguin, 2015.

—–

Buy Phenomenal here

—-

About the Author: Leigh Ann Henion is the New York Times best-selling author of Phenomenal: A Hesitant Adventurer’s Search for Wonder in the Natural World, about how she chased eclipses, migrations, and other natural phenomena around the globe to reawaken her sense of wonder.

Leigh_ann_henion_mugshot

Phenomenal was named an editor’s pick by O, The Oprah Magazine, Backpacker, and Barnes & Noble Review. Elizabeth Gilbert called it a “gorgeously written and deeply thoughtful memoir,” and The Sydney Morning Herald declared that “even a cynic reading Phenomenal will yearn for a taste of wonder.”

Henion’s essays and articles have appeared in Smithsonian, Orion, and The Washington Post Magazine, among other publications. She has received a variety of accolades for her work, including a Lowell Thomas Award, and her stories have been noted in three editions of The Best American Travel Writing. Henion lives in the mountains of North Carolina.

—-

About the Reviewer: An adventurer in her own right, Leslie Hsu Oh is an award-winning freelance writer whose work has been named among the distinguished stories of the year by Best American Essays.

Oh_five

Leslie’s nonfiction articles are often concerned with nature, wilderness exploration, parenting, and native cultures, as in “How Canoes Are Saving Lives and Restoring Spirits” for Smithsonian and “Important Lessons About Giving from Alaska” on Today.com. She has written extensively about the joys and challenges of combining her love of wilderness adventure and native culture with the raising of three small children.

Leslie_beach

This review of Phenomenal is one of four reviews and interviews Leslie has contributed to the Military Spouse Book Review, all dealing with the theme of preserving one’s own inner wildness in the face of loss or challenge. You can read her review of Eowyn Ivey’s The Snow Child-which, with its Alaskan setting and themes of loss and hope, resonated strongly with her– here 

I lost my mother and brother to the same disease when I was twenty-one. Eowyn Ivey’s language makes me forget for the moment that I’m motherless: “Through the window, the night air appeared dense, each snowflake slowed in its long, tumbling fall through the black.” It transports me to Alaska, a place I still call home even though I only lived there for seven years while my husband was with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

an interview with Christime Byl, author of Dirt Work, here; and an interview with Leigh Newman, author of Still Points North, here (“Write About the Place You Miss”).

As a mother [now] raising a nine-year-old, six-year-old, and one-year-old in the Washington, D.C. area, I’m often frustrated that I can’t give my children experiences like hiking with crampons on a glacier at the age of two when we lived in Alaska.

Oh_three

Hold Tightly to Your Stories: Tracy Crow’s ‘On Point’

by Amber Jensen (National Guard)

Military stories can be difficult–to write, and to share–but they are important. And that is why Tracy Crow’s On Point: A Guide to Writing the Military Story is an essential book for all of us linked to the military community.

When my husband, Blake, shares stories of his military service, they seem to come tumbling out. Like the (in-his-words) funny war story that slipped from his lips, reaching me via the echoing phone connection between Baghdad and Sioux Falls, SD, before he could even think about what he was telling me. When the words ran out, he paused, and then whispered, “Why’d I tell you that? I never should have told you that.” And then my words ran out. I didn’t know how to respond.

Not all of Blake’s military stories are sad. But when he tells a funny story, I don’t laugh like an insider, like someone who gets it. Even though my relationship with Blake has spanned basic training, AIT, years of drill, a deployment, and now ten years of VA medical claims, there are a lot of things about military experience that I just don’t understand. So, I understand why military personnel might hold tightly to their stories. Why they so often only come tumbling out. Unexpectedly. Surprising the story teller almost as much as the listener.

On_Pointcover

But that is also why I’ve come to understand just how important the sharing of those stories is. And that is why Tracy Crow’s straight-forward approach to On Point: A Guide to Writing the Military Story is so necessary.
Crow gets it. She gets the military experience, and she gets writing. She invites us in by relating those moments when she doubted her own story, struggled through the writing process, and faced the personal and professional challenges of publication. She pulls us along by sprinkling excerpts of military stories throughout—examples of stories we can relate to and writing we can learn from. Then, at the end of each chapter, she translates those stories and examples into short journaling exercises that encourage both reading and writing practice—a crucial combination. A student in the Veteran’s Writing Program I lead at SDSU praises the way Crow’s examples and explanations make writing more relatable, explaining that in class he is given rules and guidelines, but through On Point he is able to imagine how those are relevant to his story.

Because the exercises in On Point start from the very beginning of the idea-generating process, and link the writing process directly to reading and learning from other writers’ style, the book is appropriate for very beginning writers, but it holds value, too, for writers like myself, who have been trudging through their stories for years. On Point offers insights that have rejuvenated my work, like thinking about progressive complications and the emotional charge and energy shifts within scenes. And On Point reminds me of the importance of my story, because I have continued, throughout ten years of writing, to doubt the importance of our story as a military family. Sometimes we need encouragement, and Crow’s book provides that along with the tools to move beyond a pat on the back and into the process of putting words on the page.

Crow writes in the introduction to the guide: “My wish is for On Point to inspire you to write about your military experiences and, more important, to grant you permission. Your story matters, even if you don’t yet fully believe so.” Military stories do matter. Each of our stories matters.
For all of us who have lived the military experience as servicewomen, servicemen, or soldiers, or as parents, siblings, spouses, or children of military personnel, the process of writing can help us develop understanding, make connections, and heal. In Crow’s words:

“Writing about your military experiences, even if you decide to turn your true stories into fiction, will help you develop a deeper understanding about your life, your decisions, and the motives behind your decision because meaningful writing comes from identifying meaningful patterns. Meaningful writing requires a self-awakening. When we write, we’re training ourselves to search deeply for motive behind choices, whether we’re writing about ourselves in a memoir or essay or about the characters within our military short story or novel.”

But military writing extends beyond the military community, and its benefits reach out beyond those of us tied to military experience. Military writing documents history as well as personal experience. That combination is what our country needs so that citizens removed from the military experience might begin to understand what it means to serve our country. What it costs to go to war. What it means to carry those experiences with us as we walk among the majority of our citizens who seem not to understand. Which is the point of sharing stories. Through writing, we document, explore, connect, and reflect. Through reading, we learn, empathize, connect, and understand.

On Point leads an important step in the right direction to making the military experience more visible to ourselves and those around us.

Buy On Point here

Buy Tracy Crow’s memoir, Eyes Right: Confessions from a Woman Marine

About the Author: Tracy Crow is the author of the award-winning memoir, Eyes Right: Confessions from a Woman Marine; the military conspiracy thriller, An Unlawful Order, tracy-crow-bio-photo-for-eyes-right2under her pen name, Carver Greene; the true story collection, Red, White, & True: Stories from Veterans and Families, WWII to Present; and the new writing text, On Point: A Guide to Writing the Military Story, in which Crow combines her skills and experience as a former Marine Corps officer, award-winning military journalist, author, editor, and professor of creative writing.

 

About the Reviewer:

image3Amber Jensen’s writing has been featured in 0-Dark-Thirty and I Am: Twenty-Seven. You can find an earlier interview with Amber Jensen here on the Military Spouse Book Review, July 2015.