“War has a long reach”

I write this in the margin of my packet of readings for the Literature & Medicine session on the theme of memories. The packet includes poems by U.S. veterans and an Iraqi poet, a short story by a Vietnamese writer, and a piece from the Massachusetts Review called “War Chatter: Collage” by Donald Anderson.

“War Chatter” starts with boyhood memories: aspirins and vitamin C, apples and turnips take their place beside the root cellar that never quite converts to a bomb shelter in the recollections of the author. Leon Trotsky breaks through the boyhood details to say, “You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you.”

Soon the narrator is telling us about his dad’s best friend Sidney who died at Pearl Harbor, and then quotes from a letter his dad wrote 3 days before his own death: “Yesterday it’s been 52 years since my pal Sidney’s boat sank. How could I still miss him?” The piece continues with personal stories, but increasingly turns to statements about war from philosophers, veterans, writers, politicians. It is like the chatter that comes from flipping through the dials of the radio or TV. Chaotic snippets that the reader must assemble into his own meaning.

When I arrive at the Northampton Veterans Administration Hospital for the April session of Lit & Med (as it called informally) the group that gathers is friendly. They welcome me and seem to know each other well; this is their next-to-last session and they have been reading together through the winter, gathering monthly. A man brings in a cake to mark the retirement of one of the members, who says that, of course, she will return to the final session even though it will be past her final day. As the group begins its discussion, I’m not entirely sure who the facilitator is and don’t know the jobs of those participating. Everyone participates equally; it doesn’t matter that one may be a doctor and another support staff. Eventually, I realize that the man who brought the cake and offers gentle guidance to the discussion is Bob Meagher who, when he is not facilitating Lit & Med sessions, is a professor of humanities at Hampshire College.

Most of the time, he sits back listening intently as first one then another group member picks up an idea or a line from a piece, explores it, and often connects it to her or his own life. The members of this group are not talking about war in the abstract. They work with veterans every day, have served themselves, and some have family members who have served.

We start with “War Chatter,” discussing what makes it literature as opposed to a random collection of quotes. We muse that it is because the idea of “fragging,” the wounding or killing of an unpopular officer, keeps coming up in the piece, and it is so close to the idea of fragmentation, which is what the essay is: little fragments of ideas mixed together. The form gives its own message about the messiness of war’s long aftermath.

This moves the conversation quickly to what it is like to work with veterans right now. Someone reads, “Combat is so separate, so distant from normalcy that to expect soldiers to return easily from battle during or after war is an illusive prospect.”

Someone points out that we give soldiers Basic Training, but they also need training to return home, to figure out how to re-adjust. Someone says soldiers need a six-week Basic Leaving before they are sent home. There are nods and stories shared about difficult home comings. This seems to me to be an excellent idea. Who says that the study of the humanities can’t yield real world solutions for today’s problems? I’m watching this group come to solutions through this Lit & Med discussion.

We then turn to poetry and war’s long reach has us considering a figure from the time of Homer, but it is not a famous solder like Ajax or Odysseus. Instead, contemporary poet and Vietnam War veteran Doug Anderson introduces us to the unknown soldier of his poem who goes home to find four children rather than the three he left.

Anderson follows the revelation with: “And the wind snarling up the old road,/swirls a handful of dust over them,/a benediction against the bone-knowing/of what silence brings,/beyond the clunk of the goat’s bell.”

We debate the source of the silence’s snarling pain. Is it that his wife is clearly unfaithful to him? Or perhaps she wasn’t and he mourns the loss of seeing this child grow? It’s not the coming to a decision about the poem’s meaning, but the sympathy we all experience for this soldier. This sympathy continues outside of the discussion room, I hear. People share stories about how they are more patient with the vets they encounter and take time to listen to their stories.

The one time that Bob Meagher asserts his role of facilitator is when he introduces the poet Allen Miller to us and his poem “All the Voices are in the Water.” Bob knows the poet personally and tells of how he publishes little but spends time crafting poems that all bear some mark of his experience in Vietnam as a soldier who killed a man. The man was a farmer who Miller thought was reaching for a weapon, but was attempting only to show pictures of his family and asked to be spared.

Miller starts his poem, “All the voices are in the water./Maybe now will be the last time/I have to write about this.” It is a poem of unanswerable regret that comes through in the description of the shooting, the farm, the “light turned pale green,” and the landscape are given in vivid detail. Water flows through the poem:

Water came to me after I killed that boy.

Blood came to me, the sound it makes

Falling into water came to me.

Someone offers that he was only doing his job. We all seem to feel the pain of the poet. I think we are recognizing that he is diving deep into a trauma that can’t be easily be put away no matter the context.

And at the end of the poem: “All the voices are in the water. / My eyes focused and from the ash a seated Buddha rose.”

War has not released this poet from its reach. He writes poems telling this same story over and over again, always reviewing, “what I had done.” What is offered to me, the reader, is the possibility of transformation: the Buddha who offers the gift of enlightenment rises from the water. The poet, I believe, sees the man he shot as having become the Buddha, but what I am taking away from this piece is the urging to look deeply at the untidy truths of war time trauma.

As a society, we are more likely to ignore our veterans than to listen to their stories. But this collection of Lit & Med readings gives us our veterans’ stories in crafted form and heightened language in a way that in invites a holistic response. We not only know more about the complicated experiences of veterans, but because we have been touched emotionally we can act differently. We may even follow the example offered by Miller of the Buddha and look with greater compassion on the veterans we encounter. I hear that compassion coming from this group of people sitting around the Lit & Med discussion table when they talk about those they work with at the VA.

The April sun is fading, but still bright, when I leave the session. I, too, have been transformed a bit by these works and the care and attention with which these readers explored them.

Author: Carolyn Cushing

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