Sunday, June 3, 2012

A Parade of Poems

Article first published as Memorial Day Postscript on Technorati

As usual, I attended a Memorial Day Parade this year. I watched veterans and active servicemen and women march with town officials, school bands, and children’s sports and service groups. But this year I set my gaze longer on the men and women who passed by in military uniform, thanks to a different sort of Memorial Day parade I watched Saturday night – a parade of poems.

Connecticut poets Michael F Lepore and Lisa L. Siedlarz, editor of the Connecticut River Review,shared their published war poems at The Buttonwood Tree to a filled room of friends, neighbors, family, and servicemen. Most of us had driven to Middletown under overcast skies, heavy with the day’s humidity. The heat had settled in the venue too.

As Lepore, a Vietnam War veteran who lives in Glastonbury, was introduced I watched a thunderstorm break out the window. I felt my forehead, soaking wet, as he spoke of his commission as a lieutenant in the US Naval Dental Corps, having served with the 2nd Marine Division at Camp Lejeune, NC, where he was given independent duty at an outlying facility called The Rifle Range. There he saw Marine recruits, coming from basic training at Parris Island (SC), leave for combat duty in Vietnam. “Young men and women intellectually and emotionally unprepared for the guerilla warfare, so different than WWII,” said the bearded poet. His American flag lapel pin marked a striking contrast against the deep browns of his shirt and suit jacket. Yet, he didn’t look as if the heat bothered him as he started to read “Rookie.”

Crouched ankle deep in muck

the hard part –waiting, knowing

the enemy is out there, but not where

or how many.

The poem ends with the young recruit forever changed by “a rippling aria of destruction,” and the view of “his enemy tattered to shreds, a julienne salad.” My attention, drawn away from the room’s temperature, settled onto this veteran’s parting comment that war tallies no winners, “only different degrees of losers.”

Siedlarz, dressed more comfortably in a tank top, acknowledged the veterans in the house and reminded us all that Memorial Day –first called Decoration Day – has been honoring the men and women who died while serving the American military since just after the Civil War.

I was already familiar with Siedlarz’s debut collection I Dream My Brother Plays Baseball, about her brother’s life as a soldier in Afghanistan, published by Clemson University in 2009. Her powerful and varied points of view emerge through three sections: Sister speaks, Brother speaks, and Pictures speak. Three years ago the collection brought the climate, conditions, cause, and calamity of the war to me as no news story could.

Siedlarz began with, appropriately, Memorial Day, a poem that compares a hometown USA commemoration of a fallen 20-year-old PFC with her brother’s regiment’s BBQ “just like ours, burgers, dogs, salads,” in dusty, 100-degree Afghanistan. He had reported the details of the desert celebration in an email.

Last year Siedlarz, who lives in New Haven, followed I Dream My Brother Plays Baseball with an extended collection: What We Sign Up For: War Poems. She added a What We Don’t See section. When she read, acutely aware of the graphic imagery of her poems, she sometimes stopped to ask the audience, “Are you OK? Should I go on?” before moving from one poem to another - and then on to her the last poem of the night, “Why I Don’t Watch Good Morning America”. This poetically registered complaint against news coverage of the war includes

A scroll bar for the number

wounded by roadside bombs, full coverage

only when friendly fire causes death,

or a soldier empties his clip into civilians

because his buddy was snipered.

Boys come home with hostile fire

looped in their minds. News clips gloss over

second and third tours, ignoring families

widowed to this label of freedom.

Wounded, 25,000 and rising.

All of which contributes to why I’ve begun to skip morning news shows myself these days, why I grew accustomed to the heat at the Buttonwood Tree poetry reading, and why I found myself gazing deeper at the faces of the military who marched in this year’s Memorial Day parade the next day.