Prior to the release of his new poetry collection, Blood Stripes (Sundress, 2019), Aaron Dylan Graham continues his interview with Sundress editorial intern Stephanie Marker as they talk about landscape, space, and language in the making of trench poetry. This is part two of the interview. Part 1 can be found here.
Stephanie Marker: The geographic landscape also worked to shape the poetry. What was it like to recreate that landscape from memory? As a writer, can you speak to the process of weaving physical landscape into the language of your work?
Aaron Graham: Yeah, I suppose the way I conceived of this was that there is mirroring in the way warfighters experience war and the way one perceives a landscape. Like, all we know is really a set of concrete particulars. Like, this event happened at such and such a location at this time on a given patrol. While at the same moment, there were countless other events in the theater of combat, on different patrols, with other war-fighters flying air cover, or conducting reconnaissance, or interrogating an enemy combatant, or giving the last scrap of food from their only MRE to a kid whose parents had been killed by the insurgency the day before. So, a poem, or a collection of poems can only present a single blip on the radar of “the war.” I suppose the process of weaving the physical landscape into the language of the collection occurred more through the description or incorporation of the effect of the landscape on those who were in it. That’s another thing, too, about the military experience—even the landscape of a place is considered first in terms of its purposiveness. What do specific topographical features mean in terms of their ability to conceal threats or provide tactical leverage in a given situation? This results, both fortunately and unfortunately, I think, in an inability to even consider a landscape or a natural feature as an aesthetic object or from the perspective of aesthetics at all. So there was an attempt in the collection to resist that and to re-envision the place of all these events as having a vitality or an existence that animated the events that occurred within their reality.
I also remember the impression of the smallness of myself, as part of the war effort, as part of humanity, and more as part of the landscape. I mean the sand that I was walking on is the same sand that Paul was stricken blind in on the way to Damascus. There’s just a reverence and an awe that I felt when I thought about the totality of human experience that that landscape has witnessed play itself out. That was an interaction I wanted to try to capture in the sense of place the collection gave off—the smallness it made me feel, but not in a negative or insignificant way. It was in a fashion that I remember being, in some odd way, grateful for.
So maybe in that sense, there is no physical landscape in the work, I’m not sure. I started to consider this question and came to the realization that the physical landscapes I am rendering in the collection are much more the mental impressions or the affective states the natural world gave off, or created in me at the time, that remain in my memory with sufficient detail to become part of the linguistic topography of the collection.
SM: This collection also plays with psychological and emotional distance, and maybe the universal human habit of creating space for ourselves between us and the life that surrounds us. Can you speak to how you created these distances, these spaces, in your work? How you crafted your language to hold such spaces?
AG: So, one thing I realized in writing the poems that make up the collection is that being at a close proximity to death, either in your experiences literally being proximal to a lot of death, in your thinking through death a lot and trying to mentally prepare for it coming to find you, or in your thinking through death a lot to mentally prepare for putting an end to another human life, creates a psychological and emotional distance between yourself and life, in all of its forms, to the point that you cannot help but come to conceive of yourself as somehow apart from or separate from life. And this is something I’ve only come to realize in the last few years. And it really took the birth of my first daughter to bring me back into contact with life and in that moment I became aware of the gulf that had emerged in my own consciousness between myself and life in such a way that I became acutely aware of the distance, and for the first time since I enlisted in the Marines, made me feel any desire to close that chasm.
The interesting thing about the creation, or even merely the existence, of distance—whether psychological, emotional, geographic, or even temporal—entails the co-production of a border that delineates the end of that space we are capable of creating for ourselves and the beginning of the remainder of existence—what we each can control and that with which we struggle, each day of life. It’s the delineation that creates “Self” and “Other” but it’s also the delineation of order from chaos, and, no matter on what level of analysis you look at existence, these points of division arise and form a border. An attempt to delineate distinct wholes.
It seems impossible that experiences can create such a distance between one’s self, who is alive, and life itself, including the life one inherently participates in. I guess this is also what I perceive to be the misperception of the public about the sacrifice those who serve in the military make. The real threat, the real danger, in military service which those who go to war assume so that those who remain at home will hopefully never have to, is not the risk of getting killed. The real risk those who serve endure so civilians will not be required to, is the distance between self and other, between live-self and the other of death that collapses when one invites death into the world with their own hands. The Greek word “to wound” (Tramatus), literally taken, means “To pierce or to rupture” and, as I see, it is this distance between life and death, that is the space between self and other that collapses such that you cannot rupture the space between another’s life and their death without simultaneously rupturing a necessary barrier that preserves you from the damage a psychological proximity to death entails. And this rupture in what is a natural barrier between selves (my-self should never exist at the expense of your-self) is also a rupture of one’s own life by the same death dealt to the other.
So, when Levinas says, the face of the other contains the moral imperative “don’t kill me,” there is a reflexive imperative that states, “if you sever my connection to life, yours will be cut as well” and so in the act of killing, there is always already, self-slaughter. Which, if you buy into—I think I do—really makes you think differently about Shakespeare’s characterization of poor Hamlet’s predicament.
SM: Speaking more specifically to this psychological space, the speaker in this collection serves as a witness, and although present in these scenes, feels distant from them. Can you speak to this choice? What part did it play in telling this story, in constructing these landscapes?
AG: I suppose the choice comes from my reading of other poets after I got out of the Marine Corps. I didn’t really read at all before I went into the Marines and pretty much just skimmed some of the books on the Commandant’s Reading List and news articles in Arabic while I was enlisted. I started to read about three years after I got out, I guess to just try and make sense of things at first, or try to find something to relate to. The crowd of my fellow undergrads in the pre-medical program I was in possessed a set of experiences with which I just failed to relate and, so, I suppose I turned to literature to find what some folks made of their un-relatable experiences, and so I read about authors’ accounts of war.
One issue I faced was that, partly because of a TBI I had while enlisted and some cognitive difficulties in the aftermath of that, I didn’t have the capacity to read very much prose before my attention wandered and I had to get up and do something, so I kind of defaulted poetry because it was short enough. Generally, I could get through a poem without my mind blinking off or being disinterested or distracted by whatever was at hand. What I found was that the majority of “war poetry” seemed, to me, so heavy-handed and Manichaean in their treatment of their experiences of war, which I felt and feel are deep, complex, and rooted enough in fundamental questions of the human condition and our place and duty as human beings in relation to other human beings as to resist any hasty totalization or monolithic grand narratives of good triumphing over evil. I mean, in the world wars, or even Korea and Vietnam, there was more of a rationale for that kind of account. By which I mean that I could imagine warfighters seeing it along those lines, and how the experiences based on the sort of combat operations occurring in those conflicts could similarly be considered along those essentialist lines.
Still, especially concerning the more recent conflicts we’ve actively participated in, poems that present a narrative that reifies itself in terms like: war is hell, but we had God and justice on our side, so we prevailed against the bad guys by just being extremely badass, was just not helpful to me or representative of my experience and I came to think that it’s also unhelpful concerning the broader culture’s understanding of actual difficulties, and conflicts and situations folks are put in and endure in which the costs of war are most clearly visible. Poetry to me is a way to play out these impossibly difficult scenarios and leave the tension and the irresolution that characterizes the experience fully in the writing. Like, to read poems that have the speaker as a protagonist, heroically overcoming dangers and felling foes with Pietas reminiscent of Aeneas or that present all the moral evaluations, confusions of combat operations, and chaotic cognitive thrum one experiences…intellectually trying to make sense of something going sideways during an operation assumes a perspective and a level of clarity that I certainly can say I do not possess. So to end a poem with a moralization like: So, that’s exactly how it happened, so the good guys won that day, so freedom and liberty triumphed over evil, or even sometimes you gotta roll the hard-six and let the god of war take you in their hands, or, I’m alive so that alone justifies whatever happened in the field; gives the reader the dictate: “here’s what the experience was, here’s what I, the poet, think of it, and here is what you should take away from it.” This is, I think, wrong for a poem, because it gives the reader the impression that the experience can be directly comprehended at all, and not only that, but the poet has comprehended it, made sense of it, and realized how it fits seamlessly with the warrior ethos, the national narrative of exceptionalism, and the series of events in their life both before and after their military service. Really it is forcing a specific sense-making on the reader and places the poet in a position of authority over both the experience and the limits of its presentation, in verses, meaning. I think this ultimately betrays the duty of the poet—to culture, to her work, and to society.
Like, I don’t think I’m in a position to know or to say exactly what the ultimate impact or the deeper meaning of a certain event is. So, to circle back around to the actual question, the distance is intentional because I don’t want the speaker of the poems to be myself, to carry my own set of prejudgments, experiences, biases, values, and rationalizations. I don’t want ever to moralize or justify in a poem. So this psychological distance you aptly pick up on is precisely the space I’ve tried to vacate so the speaker in the poem can convey the emotional landscape of an experience such that can be inhabited by a reader, and its contours can mean something unique to them based on what they bring to the poem as another human being. I don’t want how I’ve rationalized and made sense of something to overdetermine and force out other readings or views of the experience. I guess, in the simplest of terms, the distance exists because I am trying to communicate that, not only do I admit, but, in fact, I find it quite likely, that I’m flat wrong about the meaning I’ve derived from many of these experiences and in my perception of how they’ve affected and continue to affect me. And I don’t know what these experiences mean, but I am certain there is something essential to the warrior ethos and human condition writ large that’s present in them, but to pretend I can pin down or totalize or even grasp in a concrete fashion what that is would be flatly untrue. So, in that sense, that psychological distance I intended as an attempt to invite the possibility of truth into the poetry and give it a place to abide where it can take on its own life by meeting whatever a reader brings to bear on a poem resonate with their humanity.
SM: There is more than one mention of Greek mythology in your collection—can you speak to this choice, and what part you see it playing in these landscapes you’ve created?
AG: The choice to use Greek Mythology, allusions, passages pulled from Greek source texts, I think one could call accidental but inevitable when trying to assess the topography of war, invasion, the psychological, sociological, political, personal, and physical costs of any war. Consider the Odyssey. The story isn’t about Odysseus, not really. The poem is about the cost of going to war for all those who are left behind by the soldiers and generals who leave to fight the war. Also, it’s about the cost the surviving warfighters pay themselves upon returning home and how they are implicated in the damage their absence has wrought. In fact, in the Greek conception of duty and social order, they cannot escape culpability for it. The story is about how, generationally, society is traumatized and deeply wounded in its perception of self, other, family, and neighbor as a result of prolonged campaigns of war. The Oikos and Polis are literally configured based on their mutual suspicion against each other, disrupting the structure of authority, productivity, and the social trust that allows such things like military campaigns, commerce, rule of law, foreign relations, and artistic production to be maximized in any society. If one believes Ann Carson in Eros the Bittersweet—which was a life-changing work for me when I read it, and thus I tend to believe her argument in it—the Greeks were incidentally involved in the conceptional innovation of thinking through how our bodies serve as the experiential containers for emotion—how embodied all emotion is—at the same time they considered by necessity how written language can be a container for speech and for the breath and the effect that can be spoken into a room, but that resists complete transposition in the written word.
I suppose, I mean, that, as a warfighter, there are very few words I experience more acutely and can bring me to tears faster than most of book IV of Odyssey. The epigraph for the poem “The Curse is a Hammer About to Drop” is taken from Book IV:
If Zeus of the far-reaching voice had allowed us to return together… I would have given him a city in Argos: I would have built him a palace, and brought him from Ithaca with all his possessions, his son and his people… Then we might have lived here together, with nothing to part us, loving, delighting in one another, until death’s black cloud covered us.
I do not know of a veteran who can read the words, meditate on what they’re actually expressing about the unique nature of the relationships between warfighters during a war and how that must be altered by the toll war takes and reevaluated after a war, and not be moved on the deepest of levels. So, I guess, to put it simply, there are some essential aspects of the effects of war on warriors and on their society the Greeks just get right and since I cannot outdo them in their perceptions of the human condition, I need to cite them for it.
SM: Is there a poem in this collection that speaks most strongly to its story as a whole? If so, in what way(s) does it encapsulate the collection’s mood or message?
AG: The Poem “Violence,” I think, best takes up the primary concern of the collection and conveys what I think is the general mood I hope the collection gives off. It tries to express the difficulty and frustration, as well as the humor and pleasure, language inevitably leaves all of us trapped in. The poem tries to laugh at the absurdity of the whole scenario and at the same time, emphasize the reverence I believe we should all pay it—merely for its (and our) existing. And by “it,” I think I mean idiom, life, love, war, anguish, and language. By which, I think I really mean humanity.
SM: Finally, there are, of course, literary traditions surrounding war. Do you see your work as a traditional telling of war, or as breaking with these traditions? Maybe a mix of both? And how?
AG: One thing I can say is that the military experience is vastly different for junior enlisted military personnel than it is for commissioned officers. The differences between experiences that exist in the military along these lines, when in garrison, compound exponentially in a theater of war. I’d certainly imagine that, as the military—and specifically, warfighting experience—of commissioned officers and enlisted marines is so divergent, their respective writings about the experience would diverge as well. So, one thought about the literary tradition surrounding war that I think is broken to some degree here is who is telling the story.
Almost every major, publicly known telling of war—especially poetic tellings, but also the vast majority the prose as well—regardless of their branch of service, was written by a commissioned officer.
This seems especially true of the poetry which has garnered national attention written in the Post-911 era. I mean, Here, Bullet by Brian Turner is likely the best known. He’s an officer with an MFA from an Ivy League. He goes into the military because he wants to write war poetry, so he’s in Iraq writing about what’s happening to the troops he is literally in command of and—maybe only theoretically—responsible for the well-being of. I think any enlisted servicemember would feel a certain kind of way about that kind of officer’s war poetry.
Redeployment, Phil Klay’s tremendous collection of short stories, which you can tell by its voice and language is DEFINITELY written by a Marine, is still the language of a Marine Corps officer. Ron Capps of the Veterans Writing Project out of Walter Reed and John’s Hopkins was Commissioned in the Army. Black Hawk Down was written by a journalist with no military affiliation. All you’ve really got to go on from the enlisted side is The Things They Carried, prose by Tim O’Brien. O’Brien was a sergeant in the Army in Vietnam, so he was at least enlisted. Still, I wonder if an NCO’s (Non-Commissioned Officer) experience of war—especially combat operations—may be drastically different from that of a Marine Lance Corporal or Private First Class.
They are the ones, at the age of 19 or 20, who are kicking all the doors in and stepping on IEDs and standing post in the middle of the desert with orders not to return fire because of political optics. So, I suppose I hope, in some small way, this collection gets the experience, the voice, the reality, of these warfighters—who make up 70–80 percent of the troops the Marine Corps fields in combat operations, into the literary side of the tradition. More than anything else, I hope if one of those warfighters picks up the collection and reads a few lines, they might think: “damn, yeah, that’s how it was….” That would be the largest break in tradition I could see these poems as perpetrating. It would also the greatest form of success I could hope for.
Aaron Graham is a veteran of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. His work has appeared in f(r)iction magazine, Scalawag: A Journal of the South, and Rising Phoenix Press, among others. He served as the editor-in-chief for the Squaw Valley Review, is an alumnus of Squaw Valley Writers Workshop and The Ashbury Home School, and the Cambridge Writer’s Workshop. Aaron is currently attending UCNG’s MFA program in poetry and finishing his Ph.D. at Emory University. He currently resides in Greensboro, NC with this wife, Alana, and their three daughters, Alexi, Nora, and Naomi.
Stephanie Marker received her MFA in fiction from Bowling Green State University in 2010, and her PhD in English from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette in 2017. Originally from Kalamazoo, Michigan, she now resides in Tuscaloosa, Alabama with her partner and their two puppies. Her work has appeared in Hayden’s Ferry Review, Third Coast, and The Collagist, among others.