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After Memorial Day

June 7, 2011

What do Americans do the day after Memorial Day? Move on, mostly, into the swing of summer, the resumption of daily routines uninterrupted by badgering advertisements for holiday sales and blaring reminders to commemorate the war dead.

So the crowd was sparse the day after Memorial Day at the Veterans’ Voices poetry reading at Poets House in New York City. Barely a couple of dozen Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans and a handful of supporters mustered on a sultry evening in a glass-walled meeting room off River Terrace near the former site of the World Trade Center towers. The event was billed as “The Day After: Poetry by Veterans for Memorial Day and Every Day.”

Not a politician or a chaplain or a flag-waving color guard was in sight when former Army medic Eli Wright strode to the podium and said: “I’ve been kind of avoiding Memorial Day for a long time.” Wright, who served in Iraq in 2003-2004 with the 1st Infantry Division, proceeded to relate a story about an Army buddy who killed himself after coming home.

“Hey Johnny... I really miss you man... the day I found out you died was the same day I found out I was going to have a child,” Wright said. “They used us, brother, forced us to help them abuse the ‘others’…So we both became trapped in the prison cells of our own selves…We went over there as boys and came back broken men… I just wish that I had a tourniquet that could have stopped your soul from bleeding out…"

“Johnny was just one of thousands who are not on any memorial,” Wright concluded.

Losses not recorded on war memorials was a major theme of the evening. Attired in a dark T-shirt emblazoned “War Is Trauma,” Carlos Harris read a stream-of-consciousness poem about preparing to visit a friend about to deploy to Afghanistan, his own war experiences popping up like explosive forebodings. “I’m frightened for the friend, Jesse, I’ll have when he returns—if he returns,” Harris said.

“You’re in the Army? Really? You don’t look like you’re in the Army,” related Kristina Shevory, an eight-year veteran of peacetime posts, sarcastically recounting how her military service was frequently questioned and belittled by fellow Americans. “So what do you think a soldier looks like?” Shevory replied. Such widespread disdain for women in the military dampened her sense of pride in public service. Now, she said, “I’m also asking myself what it means to be a veteran.”

Alex Miller noted other ways the home front is frightening, bewildering. He described scary walks, on hyper-alert as on a combat patrol, from the subway at his stop in Brooklyn amid memories of growing up in a rough Chicago neighborhood where families were often shattered by drive-by, drug-related shootings. “The real war is at home … The bullet with death on its mind, aimed at no one hit everyone,” he said. And then the kicker for a soldier who risked his life for a chance at a better life: “How can I be a homeless veteran at 24?”

Robynn Murray prefaced a set of gut-punching poems by noting that she was 20 years old when she returned from a combat deployment in Iraq, angry at college students oblivious to the war that consumed her. “Friend, let me carry that burden for you—I could use some help, but you’re nowhere to be found” went the refrain of a poem about trying to find a friend who understood what she was going through and feeling “left behind” in civilian life.

“Warrior Writers saved my life. I really didn’t think there was anybody else like me,” said Murray, who was profiled in the 2011 Academy Award-nominated documentary, “Poster Girl.” The film shows her struggle to restore her sense of purpose through writing poetry, creating art works and giving blunt-spoken public presentations as part of the art-as-healing writing project sponsored by Iraq Veterans Against the War.

Several other participants at the Poets House event credited writing and photography workshops sponsored by New York University’s Veteran Creative Writing Program and the NYU Military Alliance. They presented a slide show of photos from a recent exhibit titled “Seeing Here Now,” combined with poems that reflected on military scenes in one set of photos and, in turn, inspired a new round of photos of arresting scenes at home.

A photo of an immaculate wall of shower fixtures, for instance, inspired a poem titled “White Lie,” in which a soldier tells his mother that these showers (exclusively for officers) were what enlisted men in Iraq used. This concocted story was meant to allay the mother’s fears that her son might be electrocuted by faulty wiring in a shower building, as she had heard in the news killed another soldier. The son tells us in the poem that he had bigger concerns.

Robynn Murray noted that people at home are often clueless about the magnitude of memories war veterans carry around. “This Memorial Day, I was thinking about losses in my life,” she said in preface to a poem she’d jotted down on the subway ride to lower Manhattan. The poem recounted how she “helped a friend write an obituary for another friend who died in Iraq.” Drunk on drinks supplied by well-wishers honoring a man in uniform, the surviving friend jumped out of her car as she tried to drive him home. Stumbling to his own car, he raced off into the night until, she recalled, “he flipped his car six times.” Her war survivor friend ended up in a hospital, severely injured. “He acts about eight years old now,” she said.

Stanley Kunitz, a founder of Poets House and former US Poet Laureate, would surely have appreciated the significance of this low-key event as a solemn time for military veterans to share disturbing memories through their own writings. An Army veteran of World War II, Kunitz—who died in 2006 at age 100—spent most of his life promoting poetry as, he once said, a gift that is “life-sustaining, life-enhancing.”

Selected Works

Poetry
A tonic spray of poetry, verses that a Vietnam war veteran lives by.
Prose
A pragmatic, common-sense handbook for civic action at the community and international levels.