Thursday, October 30, 2014

Another Kind of Poetry

Imagine a poetry opera: seventeen poets presenting an array of poems that wove a tapestry of battle-battered, yet persistent themes on war, accompanied by a jazz band and a trio of singers whose wistful harmonies were bell-ringing clear and eerie as funeral hymns.

That’s the program the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival presented at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark, NJ, last Saturday night. Thrust into the daunting role of presenting the first poem in the 90-minute production, titled “Another Kind of Courage,” I nearly choked up when the band played a thunderous grand entrance fanfare, as I shuffled across the stage in NJPAC’s enormous concert hall. It was the startling opening of an evening of startling stories by war veterans and military family members drawn from the depths of nightmares and momentous, life-long memories.

Based on the thunderclaps of applause from the audience, this audacious opera conceived by Dodge Poetry Director Martin Farawell worked spectacularly. Among the interwoven themes were love and loss among soldiers, pride and prejudice in the military, and of course death, grief and mourning, with a recurring, raw-edged, still stunned emphasis on suicide.

The set list of poems included established pieces by acclaimed masters of modern poetry and emerging work by young veterans whose powerful poetry and performances were developed in workshops conducted by Warrior Writers and Combat Paper, the veteran-oriented arts programs that encourage plumbing the depths of “unspeakable” memories.

The eclectic cast included Dodge Poetry Festival featured poets Jehanne Dubrow, Elyse Fenton, Charles H. Johnson, Yusef Komunyakaa, Gardner McFall, Marilyn Nelson, Brian Turner plus—from Warrior Writers/Combat Paper—Jan Barry, Kevin Basl, Chantelle Bateman, Jeremy Stainthorp Berggren, Lovella Calica, Hugh Martin, Jennifer Pacanowski,  Carlos Sirah, Jon Turner and Eli Wright.

Music was provided by the Tomas Doncker Band, which played pieces composed for poems by Komunyakaa and Jennifer Pacanowski, and the Parkington Sisters, who sang with the band, did a solo, breath-taking rendition of Leonard Cohen’s “If It Be Your Will,” and closed the show with a haunting melody they wrote, “In the Garden,” sung to their own violin and guitar accompaniment.

Another presence on stage was Jacob George, an Afghanistan war vet and folk singer who killed himself last month. His poem “Support the Troops,” published in a Warrior Writers anthology, was read by Chantelle Bateman, who served with the Marines in Iraq and with Jacob in peace actions calling for ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Other spectral presences evoked on stage included Gardner McFall’s father, who died on a Navy bombing mission in Vietnam; Marilyn Nelson’s father, who survived World War II and thrived in a military career but couldn’t quite shake the insults of racism at home; and Private Miller, a member of Brian Turner’s Army unit in Iraq who shot himself one morning—and, as Turner said in his poem “Eulogy”… “for this moment the earth is stilled.”

My contributions to this theme included a new poem, meant to evoke a lost army of missing soldiers and veterans.

Singing Out

How big would the war
Memorial wall be
If it listed all the names
Of soldiers who died of suicide—
Adam, Baker, Charlie…
Jacob David George
Three tours in Afghanistan
Jeffrey Lucey
Marine vet of Iraq invasion
Theodore S. Westhusing
Col., US Army
Who wrote in Iraq
“Death before being dishonored”

I couldn’t write about
The first Vietnam vet I knew
Who killed himself—
I couldn’t write about him
I couldn’t write his obit
Because newspaper policy prohibited
Reporting suicides

I didn’t know what to do
With that—that—that—muzzling

The second vet I knew
Who killed himself
Was found with a copy
Of one of my writings
In his wallet—
We cannot protect our buddies
We cannot protect our friends
With words alone

We need to change
Our apocalyptic, hellacious
Hell-bent, death-dealing culture—
Our flag flapping, sword saluting
Sworn to secrecy
Stiff upper lip, suck it up
He-man, iron man military mindset

We need to transform
The “death before dishonor”
Code seeded in our souls—
To singing out for life,
For a lifetime
Singing out
To challenge, to change
Our dancing with death

--Jan Barry

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