by Dan Boehl
Greying Ghost Press 2010
Reviewed by DJ Dolack
“After all, we’re all human.”
If you haven’t noticed, Greying Ghost Press is putting out some chapbooks. The Salem, MA outfit has already released 25 separate titles (many of them in the last year), and after its latest open reading period, has plans for an additional twenty or so by the end of 2010. I can’t recall the last DIY small press that put out such a handsomely-designed quantity in so little time, with such vigor. If you haven’t noticed, Greying Ghost Press is going for it. So I was extremely excited when handed my first GG chapbook, and my first experience with the work of Dan Boehl, other than a So and So Manila Broadside I’d received as a gift. However, after initially flipping through the collection, I noticed I was in for more than I had originally expected. The flash of a verb here and a title there, and I came to the frightening realization that this wasn’t going to be your common, abstract confessional poetry, but poetry of a greater suffering and social responsibility. This, my friends, was poetry about war.
Though the cover of this new chap implies that the title is simply “Poems,” the title page, Les Miseres et les Mal-Heurs de la Guerre, roughly translates to The Miseries and Misfortunes of War, which is (spoiler alert) taken from the title of a series of eighteen etchings done in the early 1600’s by the artist Jacques Callot. Each poem title is based on each individual plate in the series, which, through various painstakingly detailed images, collectively tell a narrative of the Thirty Years War, though not of a specific battle. Upon first reading, your average reader, including this one, will probably miss that detail and with it, some of the influence of the collection itself, though it’s not totally necessary to understand the background in order to enjoy the book, but well, now you know.
As with the other Greying Ghost chaps, the presentation here is eloquent, and knowing the motive or not, the French language gives the whole thing a more classical and obviously un-American timelessness. More importantly, it also gives us an opportunity to look at the poems and themes a bit more objectively, therefore helping to leave settings and timeframes uncertain. It’s a nice stylistic choice that has an even more positive corollary impact. Though Callot’s original images were perhaps based on the Thirty Years War, for the layman, there is no evident connection here. And because we are not immediately tied to a certain war or country, time or place, Boehl’s presentation of war bypasses a specific conflict and speaks to the effects of conflict in general.
With this book, too, it’s possible, perhaps plausible, to follow a weak narrative of one war throughout: the opening poem, “L’Enrolement des Troupes (Mustering of the Troups),” as a call to arms; proceeding poems such as “(The Bombing of a Temple)” and “(Looting)” engaged in acts of war; and “(The Hospital)” and “(Distribution of Medals)” closing the story and commenting on its lasting effects. However, even after careful reading there is mystery as to the identity of our narrators. It is clear Boehl’s intention is to muddle and entwine his influences with modern storytelling, and respectively, the methods and tools of war seem to span time and mix with each other, sometimes from page to page. From burning a village with a flame thrower, iPod in-ear, to car bombs in a market, to a wooden ship battle on the sea, Boehl also appeals to the need for the cinematic tension that many 21st century media participants have come to rely on for experiences with, and opinions on, this kind of violence. In “La Bataille (The Battle),” Boehl writes what feels like a modern day film script to a period piece:
… Sombrero wheels around, a
ship like a sphinx towering over a boat
looking smaller the more demonstra-
tive she becomes. The King is blood-
stained. Her khaki sails and her keel
sides are soiled. Her port bow has a
hole in one deck. Sombrero wears
fresh, good-quality linens and kites.
Her prow face shines. Jack’s crew
moves to the guns, feeling awkward.
Not all the poems are this dramatic or intense, but Boehl does a good job picking us up and placing us down into one independently specific moment after another, each perhaps completely unrelated, but sharing a common tension. The entirety of “La Revanche des Paysans (The People’s Revenge)” reads,
Men came into the hotel
with their rifles wrapped
in flags. The manager said,
“These are all foreigners.
They are Americans.” But
it was too late.
Even here we’re wondering about the exact setting and context of the moment, but for Boehl, it’s really not about such information. It’s more of an evocative gesture and snapshot. Page after page he constructs small, intimate situations that leave us briefly discombobulated, save for the informative titles. We are repeatedly thrown for a loop just as the characters are; we experience our own confusion as they do. It’s a successful way to draw us into the poems, but it also creates room for some redundancy. About midway through the book, it’s not tough to pick up a pattern of punch lines ending each poem, attempting to give us a grave and cerebral icing to the proverbial cake. In “Le Bucher (Burning at the Stake),” after describing a man in a gasmask trying to drink a can of soda, Boehl finishes with,
…We laughed. Others
laughed, then we stopped laughing.
And similarly in “Le Pillage d’une Ferme (Pillaging a Farm),” after an errant ‘they’ pronoun, unsure of who “went up in / a crude balloon into the bluest sky ima- / ginable,” we are left with
We let the kid shoot them
down. After all, we’re all human.
It’s not that these ending thoughts are so distracting or that they take away from the overall work, but that, as a reader, falling prey to any pattern of expectation (especially in poetry) tends to rush the reading and we might miss some of what’s going on in the penultimate lines. Maybe I’m off here (or my concentration is at this point eviscerated), but my mind kept overzealously jumping to the ending lines of some poems and bypassing the setups. It’s kind of like reading the caption of a political cartoon without taking in the intricacies of the actual image. I was forced to go back and search for meaning, but to me, that sometimes upends the experience itself. Regardless, the collection holds itself together remarkably well for a small, disparate selection of rather melancholic and helpless reflections.
Ultimately, I think Boehl reaches the humanity of war, wrapped in paradox and contradiction that not only inform but influence its smallest, most imperceptibly influential moments. And because he does this mostly by stringing together abrupt and perhaps inconspicuous anecdotes — the more strange and sad, the better, or at least more interesting — there is no escaping the comparison to other contemporary American war literature that acts similarly. Obviously Tim O’Brien comes to mind, as does Denis Johnson’s recent Tree of Smoke, not to mention classic image-based examples like Apocalypse Now, Platoon and many more recent additions such as Band of Brothers and even The Hurt Locker. It is from these, and scores of other similarly influential models, that many have gathered our understanding of the struggles and horrific impact of war. We’ve traveled with and grown close to characters who have been engaged in such a duty. (My own first experience is still one I love to bring into the classroom: Jarrell’s “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner.”)
But really it’s not that the situations themselves in Boehl’s poems are redundant or have even been written before, it’s that it has become easy to expect a certain non-sequitur behavior in the representations of soldiers (and the war itself, as a character) in war time, especially on foreign soil, in an unfamiliar environment. I’m not saying we’ve been completely desensitized to the horrors of battle, the inexpressible mental strain of the soldier that could follow him or her through a lifetime, just that perhaps we’ve come to expect these moments as surrealist cut-up gestures — men and women coping with their situations through irrational and sometimes misguided behavior. The examples are most recently strewn across fifty years of pop culture and I won’t go into them here, but the allusions show each time we discuss or interact with the subject. So though Boehl’s characters and situations are in one regard fresh, they also almost obligingly fall prey to the stream of others that have gone before him, coloring his own work before the reader can come away with a new revelation or inventive insight.
Perhaps, though, that’s not the point. My assumption here is that Boehl isn’t playing unaware, but that he’s trying to reintroduce and even redefine the very same ideas and sentiments that made the aforementioned influences such successes in their own. He’s using the collection’s imposed objectivity and timelessness to create an amalgam of the terror, recklessness and consequence we call war. And, I believe, somewhat unheralded and near the end of the collection, he’s calling out the very same sentiment that humanity has called out since before even Callot’s time: why do we refuse to take a more active role (and thus, more control) in our society if we see that history has proven, and continues to prove, that war does ultimately destroy us and negatively impact our societies? In his poem “La Roue (The Helm),” Boehl himself calls this unanswered question “an impenetrable area of shadow,” and proceeds to give what I consider to be the collection’s rather simple, but cornerstone enigma:
has ever explained how a con-
scientious public allowed this to happen,
Again, Boehl is not reinventing the conflicted and disturbed war characters in these poems, but he’s reintroducing them to us as men, women and citizens that are at one with our own struggle, whether we’ve “grabbed the kids by the back of the neck and shot them with a pistol” or not. These poems expand the timetable of any war to the present. They strengthen ties to our past by making them current and immediate. They return us to a sense of humanity easily lost between street clothes and a soldier’s fatigues.
Unfortunately, when I hear people discussing modern war poetry, my mind still recoils, shifting into dismissive notions of clichés, rants, romanticized concern and idealistic protest, wrung through the guise of poetry and splayed there, half-assed metaphor and bleeding heart line breaks for the workshop roundtable. But poetry has such a rich history taking on the subject that I wonder how I’ve become so jaded. I suppose that, for me, poetry hasn’t kept up with the new face of war, and it’s difficult to give poems the modern adornments we see technology bringing to the arena. In essence, we’re still talking about a Lowell, Yeats or Callot kind of war, only with the guided missiles and iPods, but also war of car bombs in the market, Limp Bizkit soundtracks to tank and mortar assaults, unmanned aircraft bombers trying to avoid schools at recess, and video games and news reports that prep us for the violence by keeping us streamed 24/7, often through repeated highlight reels.
This is not easy stuff to take on, and many of us don’t. (Though they exist, there are few collections coming out from the university presses, or even through SPD, that deal with this kind of thing.) It is probably the fear of writing a sappy, uninformed and altogether shitty war poem that holds many of us back from attempting them, not so much an ignorance or apathy. It’s the fear of getting it wrong, and getting called out for it. It’s the fear of not doing it justice when every artistic medium, even poetry, has a difficult time doing war justice. But Boehl goes for it, and even over seventeen short poems, he gets it right. So I suppose one answer is to take it piece by piece, moment by moment, and focus on what we can. Boehl is here taking it on, zooming in on a reference point in history and adding a modern humanity that can easily be lost during commercial breaks in the evening news, or by a simple skimming of the online article. Whether you agree with me or not about the state of modern war poetry, or care enough to check out Jacques Callot’s original etchings for the accompaniment, we need this small collection on our coffee tables and in our collections as an appendix to our often abbreviated and streamlined realities.