Regarding the literature that’s been written by military spouses over the past ten years, I’ve noticed a difference between what authors write “in the midst of” — during wartime, during a deployment — and the writing that comes after. The “midst-of” writing tends to have a stunned, raw urgency that’s making meaning on its feet. (I’m thinking Siobhan Fallon’s You Know When the Men Are Gone, or Jehanne Dubrow’s Stateside.)
The writing that comes later, on the other hand, is somewhat quieter, like a gathering-up of the things that, over the past decade, have been scattered far and wide.
I was happy to get to delve into poetry from both sides of the experience recently, as I read three collections: two from Elyse Fenton (Clamor, 2010, and Sweet Insurgent, 2017) and Lisa Stice’s 2016 collection, Uniform.
Both Clamor and Uniform, written during their authors’ initial experiences becoming military spouses and getting through their husbands’ deployments, have that “in-the-midst-of” feel. Sweet Insurgent, on the other hand, reads like a continuation, a “Part II” –to Clamor, of course, but also like the Part II that Stice might approach should she write a second book.
In an even broader sense, it reads as a Part II for the lives of any military families who’ve shared the same recent timeline of separation and homecoming — or a Part II for anyone after the main events of their particular war have passed.
So I’ll pair Uniform and Clamor first, and close with Sweet Insurgent, which feels like the perfect coda for what these two poets are saying about life during wartime and the life that carries on.
The poems in Lisa Stice’s Uniform are told primarily from the point of view of a new military wife — a Marine wife, to be exact, perhaps the branch of the military it would be hardest to enter from the outside, though I can only guess at that.
After spending her life as a civilian — a schoolteacher and a poet — Stice marries a Marine and finds herself thrust into a world she could not quite have imagined. Even as a committed officer’s wife and, from what I can tell, a very good sport, Stice finds herself an outsider — a status highlighted by everything from the larger, hyper-martial culture of the Marines to the seemingly-inconsequential divisions military wives make for themselves. (“She’s no moto wife. She doesn’t/ even run. Her dog is just a little, tiny thing. /She doesn’t plan to join the softball team.”) Sure, these hair-split observations might not matter unless you realize that everyone around you, from the women you hope will be your friends, to the man who shares your bed, feels more at ease with this culture than you do:
and you saw the other wives
cordoned off inside the beast’s belly,
and your husband ate ribs and laughed.
With her husband in league, however unintentionally, the act of eating ribs at a BBQ becomes a small betrayal.
There’s always that sybillant whisper in the ear, however, to which Stice is keenly attuned: “This is what you chose.”
Unlike Stice, up to her neck in the Marine Corps, Elyse Fenton seems to endure much of her husband’s combat deployment(s) alone. She alternates between the effort to calmly endure — planting bell peppers, reading — and tormenting herself with what her husband must do (“the day you spent shoveling human remains into a body bag”), the paralyzing possibilities of bombings and friendly fire. She suffers the familiar anxiety dreams of breaking teeth. (The poem “Endurance” consists of only two powerful lines: “I used to stand in doorways and know/ There was no human way to go on or through — .”)
In Uniform, Stice writes of her husband’s “wooden fearlessness,” how disorienting it can be to see someone you love force the appearance of being unafraid to die. Fenton notes that same strangeness, bringing to life the new vocabulary of lovers’ wartime conversations:
…I don’t yet register the casual solemnity
of newscast banter
falling like spent shells
from both our mouths, nor am I
startled by the feigned evenness
in my lover’s tone, the way
he wrests the brief quaver from his voice
Deployment may be a grinding purgatory, but homecoming — supposedly the great, long-awaited relief — is no less fraught. Fenton and Stice evoke the almost dizzying expectations, and the quieter realities, of a soldier’s return.
Stice’s poem “Retrograde” is the only one I can identify as being in her husband’s voice, as he goes through an elaborate code, which must seem ridiculous to civilians, trying to suggest when she might reasonably expect him home. “Your birthday month minus two,/ Our anniversary date divided by five….. that is when I will retrograde,/ but it could change.”
That casual “but it could change” is everything.
Both Stice and Fenton use the image of doorways in their homecoming poems. Fenton chooses a haunting, almost fable-like voice for her prose poem “After the War:”
They lived like revenants, just outside the gate. He was The Returned. She was the one who propped the storm door to watch the empty street.
After holding down the homefront on their own, when does a woman stop being watchful? Does her husband’s homecoming mark the return of happy, domestic safety, or is a different kind of watchfulness required? Here’s Stice, in her beautiful “The Amazons Prepare for Retrograde:”
We put our quivers and bows,
broadswords and shields
back in pantries…
We paint our faces.
Shine our disguised armor:
necklaces and lockets,
secure them over our hearts
because we never know
what might hurl
through our doorways.
“The War Ends/ Offstage, if it ends at all,” writes Fenton in the opening lines of Sweet Insurgent, and thus begins her Part II.
Of course, the charged, embattled language of “The War Ends” (“zip-tied,” “tortured corpse,” “draggled body”) shows that war is not far from Fenton’s mind, even as she plants asparagus, zinnias, and dahlias, ruminates on Picasso, and cares for her daughter. Sweet Insurgent reads like scar tissue, the “keloid shore” of aftermath. You get the sense that the poet almost wants to retreat, to protect herself — but life, motherhood, the harsh beauty of nature, and the knowledge that injury and death don’t end with wartime keep pressing her words and thoughts forward. Some of the poems seem to unfurl almost reluctantly before going in for the kill. There’s a pure thin vein of ferocity that runs through these poems, too, just enough to make them crackle and spark as you read.
Fenton is a gutsy writer, the kind who’ll f*ck all conventions by ending an entire book with the words, “the gas lines, the mutilated voles.” (!!) Peter Molin, writing on Time Now, notes Fenton’s “survivalist rhetoric,” and that seems an apt way to describe her style, the way her stark words twist the knife. In fact there are many places that Sweet Insurgent reminds me of The Dog Stars, Peter Heller’s post-apocalyptic-survival novel — and that’s a good thing.
After all, Fenton’s family has survived — military service, new motherhood — and now she has more space to ponder those who, sadly, did not: a friend whose child has died, victims of sexual abuse (in “Surrender”), and even the intriguing but truncated life of Amal Ahmed al-Sadah, fifth wife of Osama bin Laden, who was originally reported to have been used as a “human shield” in the raid that killed him. “Human Shield” comprises all of Book III, and I had to read it several times to fully appreciate what it does; it’s larger than merely al-Sadah’s life (“Kevlar-Spined Goddess of Guardpost & Wait”) but very close inside her imagined consciousness, too.
The worst part wasn’t blindness
but the lack of news. All-day static like a sonic cut-
lass licking its blunt way through blighted groves.
The poem appears to open at the moment she’s summoned forth for her grisly task — “I was ready when you wanted me / shadow-polished severe & human as a lie” (Brilliant – “human as a lie!”) — and then goes back into the preceding weeks. The “you” here, initially bin Laden, also seems to morph and widen into the lens of an American soldier’s gaze, the public gaze:
How else did you think you’d find me
but lacquer-blacked & bandoliered
inked back to the vernacular just after
you’d looked at me and looked away?
Al-Sadah listens and waits, plots how she might save herself from the expected “double-tap” when the Americans inevitably come. Her thoughts are simultaneously cutthroat and uniquely feminine.
If I have to, I can wait. I can
hold this naked pose for years.
While Fenton’s poems certainly challenge any mainstream representation of daily life — no sitcom families or Hallmark cards here! — her evocations of motherhood and marriage still feel, to me, redemptive and strangely hopeful. (They can also be profoundly affectionate. Take, for example, this sketch of a toddler’s walk: “Your daughter walks…/on new legs. Head a buoy, body a line / fed down ….”)
I’ve always thought that women have an ease with both the good-and-bad sides of parenting that can be slightly startling to men, that we can talk about both in the same breath with no diminishing of the joy we take from our children. Fenton’s version of motherhood often takes the form of a snapping-to-consciousness, a quiet moment interrupted by a monumental realization of a mother’s responsibility and the child’s fragility, a lulling-into-peace that suddenly perks the survivalist-poet’s ears again: warning, warning, this may not last, this is where you must be extra careful. “I never planned to love like this,” she writes. That guardedness, the “relentless” vigilance of early motherhood, may not be the most pleasant part of the whole deal, but it is certainly familiar to mothers, especially those who have parented alone for any length of time, and I would also offer that is its own kind of beauty: the care to continue a small life separate from yours no matter what it takes, the lighting of a tiny candle for which you are solely responsible (“you, the god who put it there”) and the obsessive drive, against all circumstance or personal cost, to keep it from going out.
In a sense this reckless, unreasonable love is not all that different from the care and fear Fenton and Stice feel for their husbands in their first collections, set in wartime, when they were the gatekeepers who “propped the door to watch the empty street.” There are many ways, these poems seem to say, that we can be both watchful and guarded but also, thankfully, startled by life again and again, we women who “never planned to love like this.”
Fenton, Elyse. Clamor. Cleveland State University Press, 2010.
—————–Sweet Insurgent. University Press of New England, 2017.
Stice, Lisa. Uniform. Aldrich Press, 2016.
About the Authors:
Elyse Fenton is the author of Clamor (Cleveland State University Poetry Center, 2010), selected by D.A. Powell as winner of the 2009 Cleveland State University Poetry Center First Book Prize, and Sweet Insurgent. Winner of the 2008 Pablo Neruda Award from Nimrod International Literary Journal, her poetry and nonfiction have also appeared in American Poetry Review, Pleiades, Bat City Review, The Massachusetts Review, and The New York Times. In 2010, she received the University of Wales Dylan Thomas Prize for Clamor.
Born and raised in Brookline, Massachusetts, Elyse Fenton received her B.A. from Reed College and her M.F.A. from the University of Oregon. She has worked in the woods, on farms, and in schools in New England, the Pacific Northwest, Mongolia, and Texas.
She currently lives in Portland, Oregon.
Lisa Stice is a poet/mother/military spouse who received a BA in English literature from Mesa State College (now Colorado Mesa University) and an MFA in creative writing and literary arts from the University of Alaska Anchorage. She currently lives in North Carolina with her husband, daughter and dog. You can find out more about her and her publications at lisastice.wordpress.com and facebook.com/LisaSticePoet.