what i learned at the war

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These notes are part of my “read 100 poetry books in 12-ish months” effort. Far from an official review, they represent first impressions and provide some context for what I brought to the reading of the text.

Here, as I started to write quick, personal thoughts in a bulleted list as I have with the other books so far, I realized my response to this book required a more blog-post like narrative. If you’re just here for the highlights (favorite lines, online reviews, links to poems), they’re still here. Just scroll to the bottom.

6 of 100: What I Learned at the War by Jeanetta Calhoun Mish (2016, West End Press)

I met Jeanetta before she was Oklahoma Poet Laureate and before I had any connection with Oklahoma (my oldest son is in college there now). She was in Albany for a poetry event and staying with my friend Dan Wilcox. I have fond memories not only of that time in my life but also that particular evening of good conversation. It was wonderful to hear Jeanetta talk about her journey up to that point, her poetry and the grit in both.

I have a lot of affection for that kind of grit and have understood its role in literature since I was a teenager. I owe this to my high school English classes where we were taught not only the value of other people’s famous stories (the classics) in teaching us what it means to be human but also the importance of our own stories as they unfolded.

We were kids growing up in a paper mill town in Northern Maine. All teenagers think they’re special, but none of us would have included that particular upbringing on a list of what made us special. The mill seemed so bland and ordinary to us. (Insert cliched factory smell, smokestack and shiftwork.) The town’s short Main Street and small grocery store felt claustrophobic. (Insert stereotypes about rural towns with a single traffic light.) I feel different about it now — that’s what happens, of course — but at the time, the role the town and mill played for me were as Things to Leave Behind.

And so the ideas planted by high school English teachers about exploring our personal stories were just tiny seeds. I was foolish enough then to believe my story hadn’t started yet. But poets like Jeanetta remind us that’s just not the case.

Irene McKinney (West Virginia poet laureate, 1994-2012) is another one of those poets. I count Dr. McKinney as my first poetry teacher. She was the lone female professor in my college’s English department. Her male colleagues wore dark colored suit jackets and button down shirts. She wore flowing floral garments and large red-framed glasses. Together with her bright red hair, she stood out (happily, I think). I studied with her as an undergrad (1990-1994) long before I knew what a big deal she was, and I didn’t familiarize myself with her work until Vivid Companion came out in 2004.

I’ll write more about Dr. McKinney’s poems in a future post (maybe I’ll reread VC), but I mention her now because her poems and the poems in What I Learned at the War are in a similar tradition and are important to me for many of the same reasons. They assert that women’s stories matter. They hold space for the female body and its wars. They get down in the dirt of place (region, town, house, room) and of poverty and the working class. In other words, they have a lot of grit, exposing its raw qualities and often also — without glossing over anything — daring to tend the moments of sweetness discovered in the process.


Lines from What I Learned at the War I want to remember:

  • “manicured hands twisted my thick brown / hair into a french braid, accented by loose / tendrils curled with an iron. Iced and calmed / what was left of my most-recent black / eye. I went to the ball and, as I remember it, / managed to always use the right fork / and to not say fuck out loud, not even once.”
  • “language I have tried to forget, so as not to confuse an arm reaching out in comfort with one poised to choke; so as not to confuse a body hovering over me in ecstasy with one preparing to suffocate.”
  • “when scared: : Harjo’s ‘I Give You Back” / of darkness. of pain. of hunger. of / fear itself. shadows, raised fists, torn / dresses. the small light under the door.”
  • “This poetics demands I ban every pretense, / all talk of love and questions of propriety. / It allows only this primal sacred performance / this paean to need, this clashing of bodies.”
  • “All / of us destroyed, my brother first. / I became a desperate / romantic, lying awake at / midnight in my room / at the farm, wishing my soul / into the great horned owl / eating june bugs / under the vapor lamp, / wishing on the first faint / star that I’d never have to / go back home.”

What others have said:

  • Cahoodaloodaling: “War is defined as a state of open and armed conflict between two parties, but has typically been reserved to describe a declared and systematic campaign, such as one country warring on another or a country divided between two parties in a prolonged civil armed struggle. But what about the other, often unspoken of, and yet as systematic, wars? What about the war on women? The war on children? The war on ethnicity and heritage? The war on the mentally ill? And, the survivor’s war on self? Jeanette Calhoun Mish’s What I Learned at the War tethers our nationally recognized wars, such as the civil war and the war on Native Americans, by way of her own personal heritage to these other less-acknowledged wars.”
  • The Raven Chronicles: “A writer whose work evokes the America that birthed ‘new’ southerners, urban mixed-blood NDNs, midwest greasers, and the legions of lost travelers who, like Kerouac in the fifties, cross the continent endlessly, searching for their lives.”
  • “You cannot forget unless / you’re decomposing / in the dark forests / beneath a red cedar. // And then, and then / and then // the cedar cannot forgt you.”

Where some of the poems from this collection live online:

Have you read this collection? If so, let me know your thoughts in the comments!

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