by Andria Williams
This past September, I was part of a War, Literature, and the Arts panel at the Air Force Academy here in Colorado Springs, led by poet and army wife Abby E. Murray, and featuring, besides myself, fiction-and-nonfiction authors and service members Mary Doyle and Tracy Crow. Our panel, “Writing Feminism in Military Communities,” dealt with several facets of what it means to write, as a woman, from outside expectations of gender norms in a highly gender-segregated institution, the U.S. military.
The imbalances can cut both ways: when women are service members themselves, they’re a minority inside a macho culture with an often poor track record of how it treats its female participants. In the spouse community, women are the majority, but expectations for their behavior can be highly defined and sometimes restrictive. In both cases, it seems that womens’ roles are defined less by who they are or want to be, and more by who they are not.
The highly segregated, cloistered nature of military culture can make it seem, at best, a “blast from the past,” or a stifling institution that brings out the worst in men and women alike, turning husbands into cardboard cutouts and walled-off, distant figures, their wives into resentful, overly sexualized household trinkets, only-partly-known angels or whores. The paranoid shadow-soldier who’s snuck home from Iraq, unbeknownst to his wife, only to crouch, spying, in his own basement, in Siobhan Fallon’s short story “Leave”–while the wife may or may not be unforgivably cuckolding him right above his head–is perhaps the logical limit of such a trope, but it’s neither unfounded nor unfelt by military spouses who know the strain of long separations for often-married-young couples, amidst sometimes rapid paces of personal change.
In any case, as for our panel: Tracy Crow read a witty, subversive nonfiction story she’d written about learning, on a dare, to qualify on the M-4 rifle when she was a young Marine. Mary Doyle talked about the issue of representation: most specifically as it pertained to I’m Still Standing, the official biography she wrote of Shoshanna M. Johnson, a black, female Prisoner of War. The autobiography had at first been assigned to a white male author who unfortunately missed many avenues for insight into Johnson’s character, so much so that by the time he’d written it, she’d been rendered flat and unrelatable. Doyle, assigned to the task when the first biographer failed, was able to ask Johnson the right kinds of questions. She read us a warm, funny passage where Johnson frets, before deployment, about how she will maintain her African-American hair in the field; other women, trained in the art, have always done it for her. The dialogue fairly popped off the page, and Johnson came through with a fully fleshed-out clarity and energy that made it easy to see why the book was nominated for an NAACP Award.
I decided to approach the issue of writing feminism in the military sphere through the lens of an historical literary-fiction writer. My suggestion was that when one writes historical fiction–but is concerned with the plight of women, minorities, or any situational underdog in general–they almost have to “write feminism backwards:” creating characters who do not know what feminism is, in the modern definition, or who have not known the mainstream striving for equality we are familiar with today, but whose desires, plans, and personality are specific enough, carefully and clearly-enough drawn, to give them a full humanity.
In art, feminist intent and alertness is often shown through scenes that depict feminism’s exact opposite: the abuses of power, the isolation and even violence, that misogyny can produce, either on the personal or the larger, institutional level. By crafting scenes that demonstrate misogyny or bigotry, historical fiction writers (and, interestingly, many dystopian writers), if they are doing their jobs right, must be sure that their work spurs progress and equality rather than encouraging its opposite, keeping in mind that we are only so responsible for what happens to any of our words once they enter someone else’s head. Without careful enough characterization, such scenes will seem exploitative, but the author also has to be aware of her character’s historical and experiential limitations. The goal as I see it, with fiction anyway, is to craft scenes just open enough that the reader can insert his or her own emotions into what transpires, but specific and sensitive enough that there is no mockery or caricature.
As Abby Murray read her poetry on our panel, it struck me that writing as a military spouse often requires the same tactic: prodding empathy out of (often darkly humorous) scenes of difficulty, alienation and discomfort, mild or consequential misogyny. The culture, the people and mindset of the story or poem, are often unaware or unable to deal with the main character’s longings, goals, individuality—but we, as the audience, can be treated as smarter, or more aware, even if the character herself doesn’t know yet quite what she wants or how to attain it, and the substrate around her (even the people most intimate with her) are utterly at a loss.
The audience was alternately laughing out loud and hushed with compassion as Murray read poems that dealt with estrangement, deployment, the forced companionship of very-different-from-herself army wives, dangerous childbirth, and more. Whatever tactic she was using, it was working.
You can tell an army Ranger by his wife!
Murray writes, in one of my favorite poems, “Ranger School Graduation.”
You can tell an army Ranger by his wife!
Because she works at Applebee’s,
And she’s always on her knees,
You can tell an army Ranger by his wife!
My reaction to reading this poem for the first time was, Oh sweet holy Jesus. This was not one of disbelief but rather an inward groan of recognition paired with the vividness of the scene Abby paints. In the previous poem, she describes how, married for five days, “her belly still full of lemon cake and champagne,” wearing a purple silk dress and with her hair straightened, she’s been driven to a lawyer’s office to sign off on her husband’s living will, even though she
[tells] the lawyer I want nothing to do with the war
as if that’s his business, identifying pacifist wives
and sending them home with good wishes
But, in the end, she “[aces her] signature/ and the lawyer calls me a champ.”
That’s wife-trope number one, but by Ranger School graduation, there are different expectations at play:
Wives show up for the mock battle
at Ranger School graduation
in heels and spandex skirts,
some of us threaded into silk thongs
and some bare-assed,
some in black-and-gold I Heart My Ranger panties.
….This is how we sway like choirgirls:
America oils our hips.
As the collection moves on, Murray explores other incarnations of military wifehood: being the comforter, an acknowledger of her husband’s struggles and moral injury, a server of beer to rooms full of men who “have gathered/ the bones of their friends like books/ jostled off a table.” Simultaneously she struggles to become a mother, and finally does, her daughter’s sweet curiosity about words and ideas sparkling from the pages. “A Portable Wife” is another poem I adore, and can relate to quite deeply:
By the time we move to a seventh city
I am as portable as a jug of water,
cold handles jutting from my edges.
I am easy to lift, easy to set down,
sweet as a tissue-paper bookmark,
the way I hold my husband’s place
when wartime calls like a drunk father.
……tell myself I can fold my body up
like a wedding tent and be unrolled again
in a matter of hours.
In these poems, Murray is constantly having to “tell herself” one thing or another, coaching herself in the art and sport of military wifehood like her own best cheerleader and worst enemy, a champion of her own repressions. Certain things are clearly very important to her—autonomy, art, education, politics, feminism—and the fact that little of this is shared with many of the young wives around her is an obvious and constant irritant. Her maiden name is “a wound she should allow to heal” (she doesn’t), and she watches with empathy as another new wife joins the ranks, “a new name squatting on her signature/ like a forty-pound cake.”
The language in these poems is always precise, almost writhing; the poems can feel like caged beasts, and yet, it becomes clear that another facet of Murray’s discomfort is not just what she has sacrificed personally, justifiably difficult as that is, but the perhaps even darker specter of loss—of an unborn child, and also of her husband, who is lost to her at intervals, again and again; possibly lost in subtler, irrecoverable ways by a life spent in wartime; and who could, she is well aware, be lost forever (“Everyone keeps saying God forbid”). In “Jewelry,” a poem that made tears spring into my eyes with its final lines, Murray pokes slight fun at herself and the other wives, distracted like magpies by husbands’ gifts of jewelry; but she can only be distracted for so long, because she knows that the army will take and take, and maybe take all.
I want to protest the diamond band
you order from Afghanistan,
the heft and glare of each stone
that says there is no more prize,
your body is the final prize,
carved from the earth and polished.
So, here’s the thing about military-spouse writing: it’s never going to pass the Bechdel Test. For anyone who’s not familiar, this “test” comes from Alison Bechdel’s comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For, and has three simple parts which fail movie after movie (or book) once you start trying to apply them. It goes like this: to pass the test, a movie needs to have 1) at least two women in it, 2) who talk to each other, 3) about something besides a man.
And number three always gets us, dammit!
“I’ll build an altar/ to the tiny flecks fallen from his razor,” Jehanne Dubrow writes in her poem “On the Erotics of Deployment” – poking fun at herself, just a little. After all, we military-spouse-writers are smart women. We are supposed to know better! But deployment and all its inherent pining was simply not designed to pass the Bechdel Test, unless perhaps you are reading Valerie Miner’s novel All Good Women, about two women who fall in love during their husbands’ absences in WWII. But many of us have not had that experience: so.
In Lynn Marie Houston’s Unguarded (The Heartland Review Press, 2017), poems of deployment and longing are complicated by the fact that she is not, in fact, a military spouse, but rather the fairly recent girlfriend of a deployed National Guardsman. She is not forcing herself into a proscriptive, alien, stifling role, as Murray is in How to be Married After Iraq, but faces instead the equally unmooring challenge of almost too much freedom, vast stretches of time to think too much, miss too much.
Houston makes good artistic use of this time. “I bathe myself in words until I glow,” she writes. She imagines her feelings reflected in the world around her, the change of seasons, the way life blooms and thrives and then begins to decay. At the same time, her words elevate the natural world, loving it through her scrutiny as she observes moths, birds, grass that “breaks into sparkle,” a feral cat, a donkey’s muzzle. It’s the give-and-take she can’t have with her absent love, exchanged with nature instead.
The poem “Ignition” shows some of Houston and her partner’s early, playful attraction, jokes exchanged. His joke gets larger play, but later, her own arch humor comes through: after he’s had several beers she recalls that, “For your own safety, I had to invite you to my bed.”
Many of the poems, like Dubrow’s, are sensual, as if the sounds, sights, and feels of the world insist themselves with uncanny, unyielding force when a partner is missing. “I remember the way your lips were a million ladybug wings on my skin,” Houston writes. And,
I need another blanket on the bed now. But I leave
the windows open. I want to be present to the passage of time.
Her understanding of the nature of arguments and apologies is moving to me:
felt like turning around again to face the sun.
Like Dubrow, she pokes fun at herself for all this unfeminist, womanly yearning. Houston places her “big, dumb, idling heart/ in front of opaque windows.” It’s a timeless self-deprecation in the face of absurd love; I think of Yeats, in “Never Give all the Heart,” “deaf and dumb and blind with love.”
But Houston—like Dubrow, like Murray, like Siobhan Fallon and Elyse Fenton and Lisa Stice and me—gives her whole heart.
Still, even in the grips of it, Dubrow warned us:
…even if we’re sure
he’s coming back, it’s hard to know
the farther out a vessel drifts,
will contents stay in place, or shift?
Houston sees her partner’s Facebook post from the Caspian sea: a young woman posed by the beach, her concurrent Facebook-friending by the man in question, still months from home.
You are anywhere, everywhere that is not here.
With everyone who is not me.
And the poet shows herself, through her Unguarded poems, to be such an ever-present, perceptive, artistically generous person, that when it becomes clear that her partner’s feelings are not wholly reciprocated, at least not in the way they should be, a (for example) engaged and supportive female reader like myself could start to grow indignant on Houston’s behalf, could start to, maybe, want to give this guy a real talking-to, and wish that the poet had perhaps stuck with nature and not wasted so many of her high-quality thoughts and similes on him. Because, to be quite honest, he starts to seem like a bit of a cad. But Houston is clear in her Acknowledgments section that nothing here was truly wasted, and that the book is not “about” the man in question so much as it is about the experience. “I am thankful to have had such intense experiences of both joy and grief,” she writes, graciously, “so that I could write about them and share them with others.”
And that’s one of the true values of this book, this sharing of emotion and art and time. It doesn’t matter, in an artistic sense anyway, that she is the bigger person and her partner is small. As W.H. Auden wrote, talking about “stars that don’t give a damn”: “If equal affection cannot be, let the more loving one be me.”
Murray, Abby E. How to be Married After Iraq. Finishing Line Press, 2018.
Houston, Lynn Marie. Unguarded. The Heartland Review Press, 2017.
Dubrow, Jehanne. Stateside. Triquarterly Books, 2010.
A review of Jehanne Dubrow’s Dots & Dashes by Peter Molin on Time Now, touching on some of these same thoughts and a shared appreciation for Dubrow’s work. Also: a review of Dots & Dashes which previously appeared here by Alison Buckholtz on the Mil Spouse Book Review, and a very kind and appreciative write-up by Jehanne herself. Rather sweetly, Dubrow recalls that Alison Buckholtz was the first fellow milspouse writer she ever met (at her parents’ synagogue, no less!).
Collateral Literary Journal, edited by Abby Murray.
A post from my first meeting with Abby Murray, and a good time with other military spouse writers, on this blog. I am happy to count her as a friend, now.
The difference a year makes. 2017, above; 2018, below.
Abby Murray and Lisa Houlihan Stice, poets.