On Twitter today, I came across Amalie Flynn’s poetry, which you can read on her blog Wife and War. In many ways, Flynn reminds me of a homefront Yusef Komunyakaa; her narrator gives a voice to mediations on the same dark register. There is an unfiltered honesty–approaching, but then veering away from, the confessional–that must be so evocative for veterans and their spouses. Poems such as these are the kind I most enjoy teaching.
Her most recent poem, “Scope,” attracted attention for its mediation on the night raids in Afghanistan, but what strikes me most about it is the horror in wanting-to-but-not-knowing:
When I talk about the night raids,
My husband’s face closes like a door,
Because I am asking how, how it works,
But I should know better,
Because this is war,
And there are things he cannot say.
There is a tragic tension there between the wife’s dark thoughts and the husband who cannot address them. Perhaps, it is a matter of OPSEC that he does not speak; perhaps, it is that he does not want to have those events visit him in his sanctuary away from the war. However, his inability to speak triggers this cascade of darker and darker images that inescapably visits their home:
What I know is this,
There are lists,
How there are names on them,
Names of men,
That other men turn in,
And how they say, they turned,
Or they’re with them now, the Taliban,
And they become the targets, that soldiers hit,
Clearing their houses, in the pitch black, searching,
For something, or how, sometimes, people get killed,
The soldiers searching,
Or the men,
Their wives, and their children, and
It is night, now, in my kitchen,
And my husband is, here, now,
Standing in front of me,
Saying words that are safe,
Like good and night,
The narrator’s preoccupation grows ever more “tactical” in her desire to know the “how.” The narrator begins with the “known”–the existence of these “high-value target” lists. At that point, everything becomes uncertain. The faceless, nameless sources give up names, but they cannot be trusted. Too much, she must think, is unknown. Are these men–and their families–legitimate targets? This, too, is ambiguous, because all we know is that “The soldiers searching, / Or the men, / Their wives, and their children” are killed. Was there a cache of weapons or an IED factory? We do not know. This uncertainty destabilizes all words–even those “safe” ones like “good” and “night.” Their link–like the link between those nameless Afghan men and the Taliban–becomes questionable at best.
Later, my husband is in bed,
And I am awake,
Standing at a window, in my kitchen, over
A sink, thinking about it,
The scope of this war,
Ten years, now, or him,
My husband, how I still do not know, everything,
Or about targets,
The human body,
And how it looks through the scope of an M4,
A head, the collection of limbs,
Torso, this chest, surrounding
The heart as if it mattered.
Ultimately, the poem asks but cannot know the answer to the question: “How are targets identified?” The inability to know leads the narrator through a train of thought until she imagines the most tactical of targeting–what the human body looks “through the scope of an M4.” At its most “tactical,” the horror reaches its height. Notably, she stands at a sink with her own body framed in a kitchen window not unlike a body framed within the reticle of a scope, targeted not by a weapon but this horror of not knowing.
There is much more that could be written about this poem and others, but you would better be served reading them yourself at Amalie Flynn’s Wife and War. It is well worth the look.