Review by Lynn Marie Houston
A holiday this past week went largely unacknowledged on my social media feeds. Wednesday, June 14th is known as “flag day.” In fact, the whole week of June 14th to the 18th is called “flag week.” It’s a holiday to commemorate the adoption of the official design of the U.S. flag by the Second Continental Congress in 1777. We’ve since added a few more stars to represent the total number of states in our nation, but it’s still the basic design we use today.
The passing of flag day with little fanfare makes me think of news articles I’ve seen over the last couple of years that attempt to remind the American people that we are still regularly sending troops to ongoing conflicts in the Middle East. Just last month, one of my college English students had to turn in his final portfolio early because he was deploying to Afghanistan with his National Guard unit. And yet, like flag day, these deployments seem to go widely unacknowledged. Some advocates have taken to calling the war in Afghanistan “Forgotistan” in order to underscore the lack of public knowledge and support for the ongoing sacrifices of our military personnel.
But it’s not just our military personnel who are continuing to make sacrifices without headlines; their families do, too. In fact, the spouses, parents, and children of our deployed service members have been long accustomed to making sacrifices without much public acknowledgement. I know a little bit about the latter kind of suffering, having supported the man I was dating through his deployment last year. In November, the Heartland Review Press will be releasing Unguarded, my prize-winning collection of poem-letters written to him during our time apart. In honor of flag week and of Forgotistan, I’d like to draw attention to the poems of Jehanne Dubrow, whose 2010 collection Stateside rewrote the Penelope myth for modern times, capturing in poetry the quintessential 21st-Century experience of the woman who waits for her lover while he is at war.
Dubrow’s Stateside chronicles the entire arc of separation between her and her Navy husband during his deployment—from the initial notification, to the packing, the waiting, and the return.
In poems like “Secure for Sea” and “Nonessential Equipment,” she explores how the preparations for going to war—tying down what’s moveable, leaving behind objects of sentiment—are the inverse of the rituals of the woman who waits, who has to let go instead of holding on and who treasures the daily objects that remind her of her life with her husband. Dubrow employs the vocabulary of the military in many of her poems as a way to geolocate her grief.
She tells of the last days she shares with her husband before he goes, which are fraught with the tension of his inevitable departure, hours that bristle with the thought that passing time could be bringing them closer to his death. These poems function as important precursors to the section of Stateside that is about waiting for her husband to come home. Without the tenderness of these glimpses into the daily life of a devoted couple, the terror of waiting is not as easily conveyed.
Dubrow is unafraid in exploring all the facets of the emotional life of the military spouse—her distaste for war movies, for instance, because “Each movie is a training exercise, / a scenario for how my husband dies” (“Against War Movies”). She very accurately portrays that it is the imagination that both sustains and tortures those who wait at home: the fantasies of a successful homecoming alternate with the thoughts of everything that could go wrong.
The things that can go wrong are both related to war and related to the dynamics of a couple who has spent time apart, possibly grown apart. In “The Rooted Bed,” Dubrow’s speaker imagines Odysseus and his wife Penelope, asks about the bed they’d crafted from an olive tree “when he came home, did they lie together there or sleep alone?”
Part Two of Stateside, which includes “The Rooted Bed,” maps the Penelope myth onto Dubrow’s existence “stateside” while her husband is away. In Penelope’s world, waiting becomes a funhouse mirrors that distorts her relationship with herself and with others:
At PTA meetings, she’s chased
by divorcés and other glum
suitors. Nobody seems to care
that she still wears a wedding ring (“Ithaca”).
Jehanne Dubrow’s Stateside is necessary reading for any military partner who knows (or wants to know) how difficult it can be to resume a romantic relationship after a deployment. It is the touchstone collection for anyone who has experienced that waiting, like war, is hell.