Blake reflects on the cost of war in this debut collection of poems.
War is a famously difficult subject to capture. As Blake notes in one early poem, “I didn’t keep a diary because it was too late to start / So much had already happened.” Blake examines the ways war discombobulates the soldier, taking the familiar and making it unfamiliar or shifting the expectations of object or place. In “New Bullets,” for example, the narrator describes how important keeping track of bullets and their casings had been during training; even one unaccounted for round could shut down a shooting range. In war, this punctiliousness went out the window: “with careless speed and gluttonous greed / we stuffed our pockets and filled stiff pouches / more than could be missed or counted.” Likewise, in the poem “Shrapnel,” the soldier muses on the ways a metal object is transfigured by an explosion, fragmenting into bits that suddenly have neither a recognizable shape nor a purpose. “I feel like you now,” confesses the soldier, “Because since we met / In the hot Arabic dry space between two ancient emerald rivers / I’m changed in a way I can’t explain.” Up close, war is all fragments. The notions of precisely executed strategies and maneuvers are a product of distance, but the poet reveals how different things look on the ground: “to observe war is like a pair of scissors cutting a paper clean / to those in the spot the image is magnified / not a clean cut / but actually tiny fibrous strands being ripped apart / they see and live each decision.” It is an affecting, destabilizing lesson that lingers long after the soldier has returned from battle.
Blake’s writing continually toggles between muddled and sharp. The lines are sometimes choked with too many monosyllabic words (though even these seem to mimic the unwieldy, dispassionate euphemisms of military language): “Hours of restless convoy daydreams / Anticipations voltage a constant power source / Whirring into motion the minds ability to escape / Transcending mechanized journeys through ancient orchards.” More successful are the moments when Blake allows himself to slip into the short, tight pattern of vernacular speech, adept as it is in expressing anger, fear, and boredom: “There were loud explosions in a nearby distance / So I grabbed some war things and opened a door.” Blake captures, in both the book and its title, the sneaky way that the war ends (or doesn’t end), lingering long after the flight home. The last few poems are set along the American coast, where beaches and surf no longer offer the relaxation they once did. A late poem, “Footing,” describes the inability to acclimate to life after war: “I didn’t move / no desire to wade deeper or retreat to the dry grainy beach / but the world paid no respect to my position and made me move / by removing every fleck beneath my heavy feet.”
A raw, insightful collection that evokes the detritus of war.