by Alison Buckholtz (author, Navy spouse)
Jehanne Dubrow’s fourth book of poems, Stateside (2010), reads like an urgent telegram from the front lines of a wartime marriage: concise, constructed, and compelling. She writes from the perspective of a wife whose husband is preparing to leave for combat and is then deployed for an extended period of time. It’s gripping reading—evocative, personal, relevant, and sometimes even very funny–from a corner of the country that has always been silent about its struggles, as military spouses have been.
Stateside’s nuanced and knotty answers to questions that most people wonder about but don’t dare ask (Is she faithful? Is he? Does she worry he’ll die? Has war changed them?) put military marriages on the literary map. Not since Penelope waited for Odysseus have these wives’ internal lives received such close and unsentimental examination.
Dubrow’s newest collection, Dots & Dashes, returns to our generation’s Forever War—because, after all, it’s still going on. As the wife of a Naval officer, she knows that a spouse’s deployments get harder rather than easier on the ones left behind. The language of longing that’s so straightforward early in a relationship grows layered, later, with the complicated syntax of separation. Dubrow’s new poems acknowledge this as they underscore the urgency and necessity of communicating across distance, interminable separations, and other barriers.
Of course, communicating with someone who is not there—like a deployed servicemember—is an impossible business. The effort must be made because without it the relationship is doomed to fail. Yet any outreach is destined to fall far short of what’s needed. With no listener to hear or respond, thoughts are ephemeral and dialogue is unachievable. Dubrow knows this but is undeterred, pursuing connection not out of optimism but because of the grimness of the alternative. Her narrator even translates “three dits three dahs three dits”—the classic “SOS” distress signal descended from the Morse code of the book’s title—because
No matter where the listener starts, the pleas
For help—please help me please—repeat their small
Alert. The ship is threatened by a squall.
The ship is lost, has suffered casualties.
If we are ships we too have signaled land
Or called each other in the dark. We’ve scanned
The sky for help. (from “SOS,” p. 53)
Dubrow’s poems plumb other ways two people at risk in the darkness can sustain their bond. If words, codes, and celestial navigation fail, there’s always the signal flag:
For every letter of the alphabet,
there is a flag that spells things out, phrase
by phrase, whole messages in stark displays
of stripes and checkered squares and crosses set
on seas of white. For every flag, a threat
that’s near—steer clear of me. So many ways
to warn of danger in the world, to raise
alarm. Man overboard. I’ve lost my net.
If only marriage came equipped with signs
as manifest, a flag that says I’m drowned,
that says I’m trying to communicate.
It would be easy then to read the lines
and circles, not to run the ship aground,
to change one’s course before it is too late.
(The Signal Flag,” p. 24)
Total loss of communication is the “threat that’s near”: once the vessel (the boat or the marriage) runs aground and the sailors are drowned, nothing can save it. But Dubrow won’t abandon the ship if there’s a chance of survival. She reminds readers that amid the wreckage of miscommunication there are still individual letters of the alphabet left—vestigial gestures, really—that can draw two people back together. Strung together with genuine intention and effort, those symbols can at least stand in for the other half of the dialogue necessary to chart the continuing course of a marriage.
Dubrow’s narrators are communicating with themselves, too. In solitude, and with memories taking the place of a flesh-and-blood partner, words order their thoughts and reason out the rightness of a lifestyle that strikes most people as unworkable. To impose that degree of reason on a highly-charged situation takes discipline, and the formality of many of Dubrow’s poems—especially the sonnets and the villanelles—tame what in other hands might be shapeless and overwhelming, just as loneliness is.
There’s much more to Dots & Dashes than Dubrow giving voice to the waiting wife. Poems across the book’s three sections, “Please Stand By,” “Calling Any Station,” and “Over,” allow a writer intimately familiar with military mores to engage more deeply with readers who may recoil at the sight of a uniform. Other poems are devoted to communicating the granular details of military family life to subcultures within the military—each of which believes that its understanding of service is already complete.
In “Five Poetry Readings,” for example, Dubrow recalls reciting parts of Stateside to young plebes at the U.S. Naval Academy. The future officers in her audience can’t yet fathom how their careers could possibly interfere with their relationships, or in what way Dubrow’s life as a military wife is relevant to theirs. As they wait in line for her to autograph their books,
About my wedding ring,
How much it cuts
The kind of bruise commitment leaves.
Although they can’t imagine her life, she, a veteran “dependent,” knows exactly what lies ahead for them. A gentle warrior, she concludes:
Their collars gleam
With golden anchors.
Already they’re weighed
Down. I tell them light,
I say, you’ll barely feel the burden
Of this thing. (p. 37)
Nestled amid these revelations are implicit communications with another audience: readers who are military spouses themselves. As a Navy wife, I can attest to the electrifying feeling of seeing my own situation represented so honestly and fully in print—in poetry—for the first time. Stateside was a revelation, allowing me to place my experience within a larger literary and historical context while showing me that I was not alone. In interviews, Dubrow has mentioned similar responses she received from other military wives who felt she captured their reality and put words to feelings they could not—or would not–admit.
Because Dubrow says what military spouses have for generations left unsaid, her poems can teach as much about the purpose of poetry as how to articulate, and even elevate, the quotidian elements of the military family experience. As the poet W.S. Merwin believed: “Poetry addresses individuals in their most intimate, private, frightened and elated moments . . . because it comes closer than any other art form to addressing what cannot be said. In expressing the inexpressible, poetry remains close to the origins of language.”
“Expressing the inexpressible” is the motto I’d paste next to Jehanne Dubrow’s name. It’s an apt description of poems that tackle big ideas like love and absence and memory. But it operates in the poems that portray everyday moments, too—moments that are uniquely informed by the fact of being married to a servicemember. The poem “Photograph of General Petraeus with Paula Broadwell” –explaining how the officer’s affair with his biographer is revealed via telltale truths in an iconic photo—is a good example. It begins:
As with some painting from the Renaissance,
perspective pulls the eye to where his hand
encloses hers, his fingers reddening
around the white flesh of her palm. Notice
how even this professional touch has made
the General blush. He would do well to shun
a body pressed into a pencil skirt,
a bust that strains the limits of its blouse.
And yet the composition cannot work
without them both, their light a sweaty sheen. (p. 61)
Dubrow continues to situate the two within the epic: “Petraeus from the ancient Greek for stone,/but here he’s just a man, hardly alone/in wishing to unloop a silver hoop.” She compares the photo to Jan Van Eyck’s painting “The Arnolfini Wedding,” where
We can’t stop
staring at the hands,
her right outstretched
and resting in the cushion of his left.
They should be smiling, yet both seem staid
as if already they can sense the secrets
that weigh all unions with a dark brocade.
It’s no surprise that the picture of General Petraeus and Paula Broadwell is the subject of a poem in this collection, because for military spouses the question of adultery during long separations is hardly theoretical. This infamous handclasp, hundreds of thousands of miles from home, sparked suspicion and feelings of vulnerability among wives whose husbands are also out in the field. It unleashed a flurry of essays (including mine) that addressed whether or not such fears are legitimate. Whatever the judgement, it sparked that “intimate, private, frightened” moment that Merwin believed is elemental for poetry.
A military spouse would be excused for asking why they (we) haven’t their (our) own poet until now—someone who can transmute a seemingly innocuous handshake into a meditation on headline-making mistakes. A more fruitful question might be this: what can Dubrow’s poetry offer to readers –military spouses or anyone else–cursed by geographical or emotional separation from a loved one and pursuing genuine connection? If it’s true, as Wallace Stevens said, that the poet’s function was “to help people live their lives,” then Dots & Dashes is the best primer possible.
Dubrow, Jehanne. Dots & Dashes (Southern Illinois University Press, 2017).
Reviewer’s Note: Dots & Dashes won the 2016 Crab Orchard Review Series in Poetry Open Competition Award and was published by Southern Illinois University Press in August 2017. To read more about Jehanne Dubrow and her work:
NPR Fresh Air interview with Jehanne
Jehanne talks about her favorite form, sonnets, as a marriage of form and content here.
About the Author:
Jehanne Dubrow is the author of six poetry collections, including most recently Dots & Dashes, winner of the Crab Orchard Series in Poetry Open Competition Award (Southern Illinois University Press in August, 2017). Her previous books are The Arranged Marriage (University of New Mexico Press, 2015), Red Army Red (Northwestern University Press, 2012), Stateside (Northwestern University Press, 2010), From the Fever-World (WWPH, 2010), and The Hardship Post (three candles press, 2009, Sundress Publications, 2013), and a chapbook The Promised Bride (Finishing Line Press, 2007).
The daughter of American diplomats, Jehanne was born in Italy and grew up in Yugoslavia, Zaire, Poland, Belgium, Austria, and the United States. She is an Associate Professor of creative writing at the University of North Texas.
About the Reviewer:
Alison Buckholtz is author of Standing By: The Making of an American Military Family in a Time of War (Tarcher/Penguin, April 2009; in paperback April 2013). She wrote the “Deployment Diary” column on Slate.com from 2009-2010, and her other articles and essays have been published in the New York Times, New York Magazine, Real Simple, Parenting, Washingtonian Magazine, Salon.com and many other publications. As an advocate for military families, she has appeared on NBC Nightly News, NPR, and in national news stories. Her L.A. Times op-ed, “An ‘It Gets Better’ for the troops,” was the inspiration for a national public service announcement campaign about military suicides.
She received an M.A. in English Literature from the University of Virginia and a B.A. in English Literature (Honors, Phi Beta Kappa) from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. She also completed a year of undergraduate study at Trinity College, Dublin. In 1997-98 she lived in Jerusalem, Israel as a recipient of a Dorot Foundation postgraduate fellowship. She now lives in the Washington, DC area with her husband, an active-duty Naval officer, and two children.