Thursday, July 8, 2010

Post Traumatic Poetry

Imagine if the US government promoted poetry by war veterans as ardently as it churns out lavishly designed, taxpayer-funded military recruitment campaigns. Imagine the Pentagon switching from selling patriotic hoopla to conveying the real deal of war's horrific legacies.

Here's what such an astounding change in perspective might look like: "FM 22-51 Post Traumatic Stress Field Manual -- Basic Load -- Department of War Poems - May 2009." That sly, yet sobering parody of military training manuals is the work of poet Dayl Wise, a New Yorker who runs a bootstrap publishing house dedicated to lancing lingering wounds of the war, such as the one he fought in Vietnam and Cambodia 40 years ago.

A retired engineer and draftsman who has forged a late-blooming literary career, Wise has created a new line of timely poetry collections by himself and fellow vets through a desktop publishing operation called Post Traumatic Press, based in his Woodstock, NY home. Wise's poems range from wry odes to can openers and other basic military equipment to hard-eyed elegies for dead comrades and other memories that still haunt his thoughts decades later.

"How far did we travel/ before they cut you off?" he wrote abruptly in "Ode to Boots."

Others came home,
not you, discarded
like a pair of unwanted slippers
piled in a bloody heap
of clothing and bone.

This theme of being discarded, unwanted, fundamentally disconnected from the nation he left at age 19 to fight in distant war zones that tore apart other nations, threads through his poems. Some are stunning commentaries on American life, conveyed in a tight-jawed economy of words, such as memories of trying out for a local American Legion baseball team as a kid and later coming home as a wounded Army sergeant.

In ten years, entering a bar, their bar,
he would be asked to leave... lost your war!

They may not read his poems at American Legion bars, but Dayl Wise has found a widening circle of compatible veterans who aim to shake people up with raw-edged passages of GI poetry and prose. Funded largely by small-scale book sales and sweat equity, including editing work by his wife, poet Alison Koffler, Wise has quietly marshalled a creative movement through publishing anthologies and chapbooks and organizing poetry readings focused on illuminating long-lasting consequences of war.

I first encountered Wise's work a couple of years ago when I stumbled across online references to a poetry collection titled "Post Traumatic Press 2007." In the midst of the seemingly endless wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, Wise presented what one reviewer called a "searing raw-whisky anthology by military veterans from World War II to Iraq."

A core poem in that collection is "America" by Larry Winters, a marine in Vietnam who is now a mental health counselor and widely published poet. "I killed for you," is Winters' refrain throughout this poem addressed to Americans who didn't go to war. "When I came home./ You expected me to heal for you./ To get on with my life for you," he concludes, ending with this damning line: "And most of all to forget for you."

In time for July 4th and other summer reading, Wise's small press recently issued a flurry of new and revised work by veterans intent on reminding their neighbors that soldiers are still killing and being killed or injured "for you" or for the American way of life or for military missions that may haunt the latest generation of wounded warriors the rest of their lives.

The new books include a revised edition of Wise's "Poems of War and Other Stuff," first published in 2004; a new edition of "Love & War" by Thomas Brinson, first published in 2009; "Wild Geese Returning: Haiku and Photographs" by Michael Gillen, a contributor--with Brinson and others--to the 2007 Post Traumatic Press anothology; and "The Summer Joe Joined the Army & Other Poems" by Walt Nygard.

Over the past year or so, I've gotten to know all these poets through Veterans For Peace poetry readings we've done together, reading and rereading their work, and jointly participating in a writing workshop for military veterans and families that has enriched my writing and my life.

An example of Wise's eye for telling details is the red plastic flower he highlighted in an old black and white photo of Lt. Thomas Brinson sitting beneath a machine gun in a jeep in Vietnam. That's the cover art for "Love & War." Sometimes, Brinson wrote in his introduction to this collection, he "stuck a live lotus blossom in the barrel of the M-60 Machine Gun, emulating the famous picture" of an antiwar protester putting a flower in a soldier's rifle barrel.

Perhaps the most chilling piece in this collection is Brinson's memory of coming home from war and looking out of the airliner descending to land at National Airport on April 4, 1968. "I rubbed my eyes, peered out the window again, thought I was hallucinating or dreaming, was much drunker than I thought I was, became very frightened, couldn't believe what I was seeing... I had just left that scene two days almost and 12,000 miles ago! Why was Washington burning?" Stumbling into a bar to order a stiff drink, he saw in a daze "TV news showing scenes of the aftermath of Martin Luther King's assassination in Memphis three hours before I landed in D.C. Washington, like so many other ghetto areas in cities across our red, white & blue land, was a fire from the rage of blacks. 'Welcome Home, Son.' The bartender murmured."

Walt Nygard's poetry, as I wrote in a preview on the back cover of his new chapbook about wars then and now, mines popular culture and literary traditions, seeking ways for a modern-day bard to convey the nature of things today. Poems in this collection burst like midnight flares beyond the stark bounds of war poetry to illuminate the unsettling terrain on the homefront for a disillusioned Vietnam veteran whose son marched off to a new war; "my oldest son," laments this gray-haired vet, deployed to distant battles over oil and gas supplies from a suburban state whose prime patriotic symbol consists of humongous "American flags flappin'/ over car dealerships an'/mini-malls...wind-bent, storm-lashed/ almost to the point/ a 'snappin'..."

The cover art for this book is a color-enhanced night photo of an artillery barrage in Afghanistan by a 10th Mountain Division unit that included Nygard's son Joe. As this poetry collection was being edited and proofread, Joe Nygard was called back to active duty and shipped to Iraq. Walt Nygard's response was to add to these pages his own pen and ink drawings of peace signs entwined with flowers and American flags, a US soldier waving at a bright night star shining over a desert, and a hand with a pen writing "Dear Joe."

Like the adventuresome arc of his life, Michael Gillen's haikus range through time, seasons and places--sometimes sketching delightful miniature portraits of mother nature, sometimes unveiling startling encounters with human nature. That's a summary of "Wild Geese Returning" that I wrote for the back cover of this homage to migratory birds, arts and cultures Gillen embraces, starting with Merchant Marine voyages to Vietnam that set the course of a life that challenges human boundaries in war and peace.

In a poem titled "Brothers," he wrote:

Where are my brothers
As I take up oar and row--
Above and below.

And for a departed buddy, Bob Hennel, he wrote in a poem titled "Chu Lai":

After missions
He could wash choppers out
But not memory.

For further information:
Post Traumatic Press
104 Orchard Lane North, Woodstock, NY 12498
or email