On Tuesday, November 9, two days before Veterans Day, Edward Hirsch gave a poetry reading in the UMass Boston bookstore. At the time of the reading I had been working on a profile of a friend of mine who is a veteran. The piece you are reading is an attempt to unite thematically the profile and the reading.
I had been struggling with the profile of my friend David Perillo for some time. It has only recently become clear to me why: I am also a veteran. One might think that sharing that title would make it easier to compose the profile. After all, understanding tends to be strengthened by shared experiences. It is a peculiarity of modern service that this was not the case.
For one thing, the military, which is composed entirely of volunteers, trains individuals to be highly aggressive. For another, it conditions units to be highly cohesive. As a result, it creates an environment that fosters a very potent kind of competitive attitude. Add to this competitive attitude the fact that, while units are conditioned to be cohesive, the highest military accolades are awarded on the basis of self-distinction, and that that distinction almost always occurs in relation to armed combat, and the attitude of competitiveness is lent to one of elitism.
There is this constant unspoken tension between veterans of differing backgrounds that each is always kind of sizing the other up; trying to wade through the bullshit, as it were, of who got shot at the most, or who saw the most action, or who lived in worse conditions. Trying to determine who is “more of a soldier.” It is a strange paradox of service that those who come closest to the logical end of this line of thinking, those who come closest to death, are the ones least likely to regard themselves as the epitome of a soldier. There is a bizarre conceptual disconnect between those who almost died and those who are buried in Arlington.
It is common knowledge (amongst military personnel) that those soldiers who brag about the action they’ve seen, who glorify combat, are either lying, exaggerating, delusional or just flat-out dumb. All of these judgments are based on the inseparability of fear from what constitutes “action.” One could be lying or exaggerating about the conditions of a given event or about their response to it. Perhaps the situation wasn’t as intense as they make it out to be, or perhaps they were (really) huddled in a bunker and praying for the explosions to stop rather then wildly firing back and shouting into the sky as they would have you believe. Delusion and stupidity are related to the Socratic conception of bravery. According to Socrates, bravery can only exist if one is aware of inherent danger. Drinking a cup of water is a qualitatively different action depending on whether or not one knows it contains hemlock. In this way one can be delusional or ignorant of the conditions, not recognizing the gravity of the situation and so not meeting the requirements of bravery. But of course, if this were true, than they would have no motivation to brag – merely to cite.
Real fear, fear of death, is at the heart of any authentic combat experience. David was pulling guard duty on a tower in Afghanistan when a mortar round literally landed on the tower.
“What was the first thing that went through your mind after you got hit?” I asked him. “I remember I was lying face down on the dirt,” he told me, “and I couldn’t feel my arms. There was just a horrible burning pain all over my back and shoulders. I was so scared to open my eyes because I thought I had lost my arms. I just laid there for a few seconds and when I finally opened them I was just relieved that they were still there. That’s really the last thing I remember before waking up in the helicopter, just being so happy that my arms were still there.”
David had taken thirty-seven pieces of shrapnel to the backs of his arms, neck, shoulders and legs. His vest saved his life. But while getting injured meant, ultimately, going home, it was really the start of his journey, not the end of it. “When I was in Germany (at the hospital) I got really depressed. I was just isolated, away from everyone, surrounded by a bunch of guys who were hurt, some of them dying. I mean, I was glad to be going home, but it wasn’t the return I wanted.”
“Did you ever feel guilty?” I asked him.
“No, not really. I knew it wasn’t my fault or anything. But at the same time I felt really detached from everyone, knowing that you guys were all still there and wouldn’t be back for another nine months. I don’t think I’ve ever felt that alone.”
To me, these words really exemplify the disconnection about which I spoke earlier, the conceptual chasm between how injured soldiers might think about themselves versus how they think about those on either side of them – the quick and the dead.
Unless he’s wasted, you won’t here David bragging about the time he got blown up, and even then it’s only because he’s discarded his inhibitions along with his pants. That’s because there is an essential humility that comes with those kinds of experiences: the realization that you almost weren’t, and it was that fast. But humility doesn’t square itself with the context in which it was experienced. According to the patriotic, militaristic system by which you’ve been conditioned, more danger equals more honor, and more honor means more clout, and those who have died in defense of these virtues are the most honorable, the most brave. And yet, here you are, scared, alone, and alive. Happy Veteran’s Day.
“Coming back was definitely hard,” says David. “I didn’t even feel like a soldier anymore but I still had to wear the stupid uniform and report for morning formations. It was nice not having to put up with shit like PT (physical training) but it was annoying having to be there at all. It was just physical therapy in fatigues.”
David found himself in a position that I find analogous and extremely relevant to what Edward Hirsch called “the state of modern poetry”: “Here I am, trying to elevate the tone in the room, and it sounds like there’s a really great party going on outside.”
This is, indeed, a very perceptive metaphor. In Mr. Hirsch’s case, just as in David’s, there is something prescribed by his role as poet (versus David’s as soldier) that doesn’t square with the context in which it appears. You can hear this tension in the closing stanzas of his poem “The Widening Sky”: “I am so small now no one can see me. How can I be filled with such a vast love?”
The poet seeks the universal through the particular. Hirsch spoke to this phenomenon when talking about how, for him, poetry is an attempt to rescue a personal experience from the inevitability of death. It is the reader’s contact with, and internalization of, that experience that overcomes the death of the particular through universal transcendence.
Because of this dichotomy the reader is an integral participant in what Hirsch calls the poem’s “stored magic.” By its very nature, poetry seeks an audience; and the wider the audience, the deeper the magic.
What does Mr. Hirsch’s metaphor reveal? Well, first and foremost, it tells us something about how he feels about poetry; it tells us that he wants to elevate the tone and that he feels poetry is an appropriate tool with which to achieve that elevation. Obviously, Hirsch sees value in poetry, and as such he wants to share that value with others. It also tells us that he’s aware of his surroundings, that he recognizes the discrepancy between “in here” and “out there.” It tells us that he is aware (all too aware) of societies disengagement with poetry. Lastly, it tells us something deeper and more personal about Hirsch himself.
There is an ambiguity in his statement that “it sounds like there’s a really great party going on outside,” and that ambiguity rests on the word sounds. The statement could mean one of two things: one, there really is a great party going on outside, and we can hear it. Or, two, it sounds as though there is a really great party going on outside, but in reality it’s not that great. I’m not entirely sure that Mr. Hirsch knows for sure which of these is more accurate.
Of course, I’m sure he believes that the sound is deceptive otherwise he would not have dedicated his life’s work to silencing it. However, there is an undeniable self-doubt that I believe is predicated by any true art form. You can hear it in his poetry: “sacrificing another five years, another ten years, to the minor triumphs, the major failures.”
This self-doubt is, I believe, humility manifest. Just as the soldier who has teetered at the edge of the void finds it difficult to regain his footing, the poet who rescues life must inevitably dwell in death. He is the catcher in the rye.