War and the literature of war are siblings, perhaps even twins. As long as there has been conflict over scarce resources and fertile land, competing visions of the good life for humans, and bruised feelings among the uneasy powerful, there has an accompanying literature praising the brave, memorializing the proud dead, singing the virtue of the leaders of the victorious side, and preparing for the inevitable next conflict by rallying the old to risk their fortune and the young to risk their strong bodies and sound minds. There have also been reluctant war poets who sing of the sorrows and destructiveness of war. Drew Gilpin Faust in her wonderful 2011 Thomas Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities “Telling War Stories: Reflections of a Civil War Historian” states, “As we have sought through the centuries to define ourselves as human beings and as nations through the prism of history and literature, no small part of that effort has drawn us to war.”
A review of:
Cleveland State University Poetry Center
The first great secular work of literature in what we call The West is Homer’s great, gory poem of war and loss the Iliad. The literature of war is now enormous; every conflict has had its chroniclers. The literature of war, like war itself, has been pretty much a man’s game; for example, The Penguin Book of First World War Poetry includes 165 poems from that extraordinary outburst of disaffection and creativity around the war to end all wars, but only nine of the poems are by women, and only one woman has more than one poem in the collection. The rise of total war in the 20th century, in which populations, not just armies, warred and died, and perpetual war in the present 21st century, in which women have become combatants, has liberated the voices of women to write about war as they live it and as observers and critics.
Drew Gilpin Faust contributed to this literature herself with her stunning book This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War, a wrenching account, as cold and as touching as anything in Homer, of the forms of death, burial, mourning, and explanation of the fulsome slaughter that was the US Civil War, which the poet Robert Penn Warren called “that mystic cloud from which emerged our modernity.”
Emily Dickinson’s greatest poetic output was during the Civil War, and although she is often thought of as a shut-in poet unaware of the surrounding world she wrote several poems about the war, including “It Feels a Shame to be Alive,” written in her usual arresting syntax with its odd juxtapositions. It begins:
It feels a shame to be Alive—
When Men so brave—are dead—
One envies the Distinguished Dust—
The making of a war writer, especially a woman war writer, is an amalgam of history and special circumstance; it is also often a matter of love. Elyse Fenton is by personal history and inclination an unlikely war poet. She is a student of the peaceful arts—a master of fine arts—and according to an article “My Deployment as a War Bride” she wrote in the “Modern Love” section of The New York Times in 2008 “[her] only connection to the war in Iraq had been protesting the decision to initiate it.”
Elyse Fenton is also an unlikely candidate to have become part of the less than one half of one percent of the population of America to be directly affected by our current global war (the “long war” is the Pentagon’s favored term) as a member of the military or a family member of someone in the military. Elyse Fenton was drawn unwillingly to the war in Iraq by love; her husband Paneesh Shah was in the military when they fell in love and married and was sent to Iraq as a combat medic soon afterward. The intensity of that love and the possibility of loss of the beloved in that war produced in this unlikely, reluctant war poet the work in Clamor.
Clamor consists of 50 poems, 16 of which had been previously published; they are short with only a few longer than 20 lines and written in free verse. The most common form is unrhymed couplets. There are eight short prose poems of sorts in the middle section of the three main sections of the book. These three sections are preceded by an extraordinary poem that functions as prelude and followed by a touching coda. There are few catchy lines in any of the poems; they are memorable by their stark recapitulation of a scene, through their striking imagery and somber, subtle rhythms that amount to a music that reveals itself slowly. In the article mentioned above, Elyse Fenton described deployment as “waiting interrupted by chaos and permeated by flights of despair and an overwhelming lack of control.” It is a circumstance of anxiety, and these poems quiver with anxiety.
The notion of clamor itself is fitting for such a conflicted time and circumstance as she describes. The term clamor is defined at the beginning of the book as: one, a noisy shouting or a loud continuous noise; two, insistent public expression (as of support or protest); and three, SILENCE. (Silence is capitalized in the original.) I was surprised at definition three and looked up the term; alas, definitions one and two are from the Latin root clamare (as in De Profundus clamavi) and definition three is from an Anglo Saxon expression meaning to silence a ringing bell. This auto-oxymoron must have certainly appealed to such a word-motivated poet as Elyse Fenton. Various poems in the book are animated by the combination of a situation and a single word, such as “After the Blast” in which the word concertina (as in concertina wire) spoken by the poet’s husband by phone, a word “snagging like fabric on a barbed fence” unites a bomb blast, a dead body enmeshed in wire, a search for survivors, a search for the right words to respond, and the rush of orgasm, the second of two orgasms in this short book — all in 18 lovely lines.
Clamor appears not only in the title of the book and as the title poem but throughout the book. In “In the Beginning,” the poet (who refers to herself here as “she” but elsewhere as “I”) while on a train reads the first letter of her deployed husband and is struck to read, “Only now am I afraid to die.” She looks up from the page “to feel the desperate clamor of a train/jerking roughshod through its gears/the car’s slow-rocking-in-its-tracks/like the heart’s smallest engine/just beginning to seize.“ In “Love in Wartime II,” there is “the clamor of branches.” “Friendly Fire” begins “Caught between gunner and gunner/slough and sand bank, clamor and clamor.” In the final poem, “Roll Call,” a lovely memorial to the “unanswered name,” there is the “Last clamor of the swan-beaked rifle.”
There are few people in these poems: the poet, her husband, a friend who broke his neck in a rugby game, a young woman clerk in a store, Radha a two-day old child, L. ‘in Baghdad’. They are primarily small meditations, some almost prayers. It is however, a sometimes intensely fleshy collection: the lovers are united by their knowledge of the other’s body, a remembrance of a soft touch, the patient bringing of release. There is also the awareness that animated flesh becomes dead matter in death.
One companion who turns up in three poems is Dante and his Inferno. The husband’s deployment in Iraq and Dante’s descent into the medieval notion of Hell are expressly compared. The poet addresses her soldier-husband in “The First Canto” and wants to talk of unwarlike things, to tell him about Dante, “A man brought to the edge/of the cindery lip to peer in. Even Dante had a choice: to ascend/to sunny mantle of light or take the first slope down, to flee/the wolf approaching, his own fear.” This descent is echoed in her husband’s less chosen descent a few poems earlier in a “corkscrew landing into the lit-up city” of Baghdad; the poet again drawn to the word corkscrew, “a plane corkscrewing down into the verdant green neck of Baghdad’s bottle-glass night.” The poet seems at times to assume the role of Beatrice to her husband’s Dante, but in “Refusing Beatrice,” she accepts that it will be she alone who will meet her returning husband as his deployment ends: “Maybe it’s time to stop comparing/I could never be Beatrice, couldn’t harbor such good faith/And I won’t be there in the Tigris basin to watch/heat flake cinders of paint from the Chinook’s body/like a rug shook out/or see it hasten to the sky’s surface/like an untethered corpse.“
These poems are sometimes difficult; they are sometimes stingy of their meanings and their syntax often a challenge. The references also are sometimes, to me at least, obscure; for example the child Radha in “For Radha, Two Days Old” is not identified, but the poem’s celebration birth of a child in winter in a time of war is sufficient for any meaning.
These poems individually are lovely, but one of the great achievements of Clamor in my view is its narrative structure that in the end sustains a consistent storyline. Part one, which is by far the longest, addresses with a deep intensity the descent into the inferno, the time in Iraq, the husband caring for the wounded while surrounded by body bags and concertina wire, the poet’s life mostly waiting “interrupted by chaos and permeated by flights of despair,” but also planting peppers, some of which she knows will not live through the season. In part two, the prosaic intervenes; it consists almost completely of short prose poems describing the husband’s return from the war, the barbed wire backyard fence that supports no bodies and has known no blast, the lovers relearning to see each other outside the flames of war; there is also a slight sense of the poet’s concern about the effect of the experience of war on the one whom she came to love. Part three, consisting again strictly of poems, is a quieter meditative exploration of the experience of love in a time of war and of a coupled life re-imagined and altered through the intensity of their separate but shared war-life.
The prelude poem “Gratitude” is a tribute to the poet’s medic husband’s response to the shattered body of another in battle; the poem ends “And I love you more for holding the last good flesh/of that soldier’s cock in your hands, for startling his warm blood/back to life. Listen, I know the way the struck cord begins/to shudder, fierce heat rising into the skin of my own/sensate palms. That moment just before we think/the end will never come and then/the moment when it does.”
The short coda is called “Roll Call” and reads in full: “No matter the details. It always ends/at the sweat-salt metal of your un-/answered name. Twenty-one triggers/and twelve-hundred bit-down tongues./Last clamor of the swan-beaked rifle./Last unmuzzled throatful of air.” The ambiguity of clamor in this poem is perfect.
These poems, sometimes in their form, sometimes in their syntax, remind me of Emily Dickinson. In 1862 during the Civil War, Emily Dickinson began a correspondence with Colonel Thomas Wentworth Higginson, commander of the First South Carolina Regiment, which consisted of black soldiers and saw action in Florida and South Carolina. In the course of their correspondence, she wrote “War feels to me an oblique place.” Almost 150 years later, Elyse Fenton echoes this thought in “North Coast.” “This close to North the sun/protracts an angle heretofore unknown/as all things I didn’t know before/you returned from war.”
That Elyse Fenton, who seems a thoroughly gentle person, came to know war, we can only regret; that having known war she produced this book, we should celebrate.
Poetry lives in speech. It’s possible to listen to Elyse Fenton read from Clamor at the website of the Prairie Lights Bookstore in Iowa City, Iowa.