This morning, I woke up feeling extra tired. Sometimes, I can’t place the source of my fatigue. Then, I decided this morning would be a good time to round up all the books I’ve reviewed since May in order to post the reviews on this blog. Now, I think I know at least one source of the tired. These books have been my teachers for the past five months. I have quoted them in discussions, used them to understand what it’s like to be a refugee, learned new words from them like “hagiography,” gained new insight into the early roots of democracy, and flat out enjoyed some really good poetry in the process. So, it is with great pleasure that I post these reviews which originally aired on Around Cincinnati, a fine cultural radio program produced by my longtime friend, Lee Hay(who is probably way more tired than I am for her weekly dedication to producing fine programming for the Greater Cincinnati arts community.) The show airs each Sunday evening at 7 pm. I will post audio links with my reviews so that you can see what else WVXU.org offers our community each and every day.
Medic Against Bomb—June, 2015
I once told my high school American Literature students that The Red Badge of Courage was all I ever needed to know about the Civil War. And yet, Stephen Crane wasn't even born during that war and had not yet experienced battle when he wrote his realistic account. Some sources indicate that he pieced together his heart-wrenching narrative from talking to war veterans and from examining news articles written during war time.
Frederick Foote did not have to look far for his accounts of battle and its aftermath in Medic Against Bomb: a Doctor's Poetry of War. He was there, piecing together the wounded and grieving for the dead. His 2014 collection from Grayson Books is the 2013 winner of the Grayson Books Poetry Prize and draws this praise from North Carolina's former Poet Laureate, Joseph Bathanti who says:
"These are tough poems, yet imbued with a beauty borne of truth that one can't turn away from…These poems are crucial. These poems are Requiem."
In the first section of Medic Against Bomb entitled "Contact," there are poems about wounded Iraqi soldiers, wounded American soldiers, the nurses and the doctors, innocent civilian victims , and the press. I noticed on reading this section, that Foote often used some form or rhyme, almost to make sense of the suddenly blind civilian, or the soldier missing limbs, or the special needs child thrown onto the medical helicopter to rid his family of the burden for his care. Most of the poems here are told from the medic's point of view as he tries to make sense of the senseless. I would like to share part of a beautiful poem entitled "You Gave the Iraqis Their Scarves, for Doctor Pat McKay.
"you'd find a place
no one could observe
bring out an ancient
Singer sewing Machine
and squares of silk
left over from a quilt
the nurses made
to celebrate our work
And there each night
like the breath of a word
You'd sew, quietly sew.."
In the second section entitled "Battle Fugue," the poems abandon most conventions, favoring the hard-packed density of words associated with the battle experience in Irag and the medic's struggle to put the wounded back together. Medical instruments are juxtaposed with military equipment in lines that almost demand to be barked through clenched teeth.
Here is an example from the poem, "Corpsman."
"reaches under Kevlar to augur the dawning
flange no wider than fingers torn flesh thin door
flash back to times of homely diarrhea
pack him like you never packed before
clipping with Kellys abdominal chitlins
pushing trach oncounter Marine boots still on
Sam stick with me Sam…"
Foote provides notes at the end of the volume for those not acquainted with medical and military jargon. He explains the "Kellys" as surgical clamps and the "trach" as an abbreviation for the tracheotomy, a procedure for cutting open the wind pipe to ease breathing. I used the glossary after reading all the poems to get a deeper understanding. Although all of them were comprehensible to me without the explanations, I like to fully understand.
The third section of the book is called "The Ruins of Peace" and deals mainly with the after effects of war on a country, the soldiers, and the medical teams. Those effects often last for years, or may never go away. One poem, "Blood Brothers," paints a picture of enemies who died together:
"The flight swirled down from the roof
where the troops went in
and somehow, amid confusion
and acrid haze,
these two fell down
together: a beardless Marine
poured out on a Mujahadeen
killed by grenades."
Foote calls his final section "Coda." It contains one small poem that I will read in its entirety.
"The Gunner John
Pity him here, his skull crushed by a tread--
beneath the mud pressed out, one intact jaw.
some teeth at ninety degrees, the scraps of a tongue--
Was he no more that this? No this was a mask,
place it in calm beneath the ground,
and when he takes it off, he'll still be whole."
Frederick Foote is a retired U.S. Navy physician who lives in Bethesda, Maryland. He is the director of Warrior Poetry Project at Walter Reed National Medical Center. A portion of proceeds from his book, Medic Against Bomb: a Doctor's Poetry of War goes to the Green Road Project for Wounded Warriors. You can find a link to this book at wvxu.org/aroundcincinnati