“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.
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 speak loudly!
Don’t look at men!
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.
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.)
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:
alone among the many,
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
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.
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.