Thursday, September 15, 2011

A Poet Sends Her Lover Off to War: Stateside by Jehanne Dubrow

Last month, I told you about Siobhan Fallon's marvelous collection of short stories You Know When the Men Are Gone, one of the best fictional treatments of life on the homefront during war I've ever read.  About a year earlier, Jehanne Dubrow quietly released Stateside, a book of poetry which just as powerfully explores the pain of separation between spouse and soldier.  If you enjoyed Fallon's collection, Stateside serves as the perfect companion, drilling just as deep to examine the relations between lovers split by war.

Using Penelope, Odysseus' faithful wait-by-the-sea wife, as her model, the poet writes intimately of a spouse's uncertainty.  Dubrow's husband is a career Navy officer who has frequently deployed overseas.  As Ted Kooser writes in his introduction to Stateside, Dubrow is "well acquainted with the perils of the sea, the perils of war, the perils of loneliness."

Speaking personally, as the soldier who slipped quietly out of the dark bedroom after brushing my lips across my wife's cheek on the morning I left for Iraq, the poem "Before the Deployment" is as accurate as they come.  It ends with these lines:
But I believe he shuts the bedroom door,
as though unsure if he should change his mind,

pull off his boots, crawl beneath the blankets
left behind, his hand a heat against my breast,

our heart rates slowing into rest.  Perhaps
all good-byes should whisper like a piece of silk--

and then the quick surprise of waking, alone
except for the citrus ghost of his cologne.
Once the husband (or wife) has laced up the boots and gone off to war, Dubrow says that's when the real longing sets in.  Desire rises like mercury in a thermometer, memories fade, the snapshot smile gets fuzzy, and the lover focuses on the smallest details.  "On the Erotics of Deployment" opens with these wonderful lines: "I'll build an altar/to the tiny flecks fallen from his razor."  In another poem, "Penelope, Stateside," Dubrow advises the military wife to succumb to the sexual itch by going to the PX to shop for bras and lacy thongs.  Or perhaps buy a pair of jeans,
the denim pressing on each thigh
so that there's no sensation but
      blue fabric like a second skin,
           no lover's touch more intimate
                 than the zipper pressing in.
Elsewhere in the collection, she describes what it's like in the days just before a deployment, that period when lovers should be closer than ever but, in reality, turns out to be the time when both partners are already pulling away, steeling themselves for what is to come.  In "Against War Movies," she sees her husband in every scene from Platoon, M*A*S*H, and Midway:
He's burned or gassed, he's shot between the eyes,
or shoots himself when he comes home again.
Each movie is a training exercise,
a scenario for how my husband dies.
And, on the other end of the deployment, there is not always the happy homecoming, the ecstatic reunion after war and distance.  Even when the sailor returns, there is uneasiness, a brittle tension in the air that can crack and splinter with just a word.  In "Eastern Shore," the spouses lie in a wide king-size bed and "barely scrape together in our sleep."  The marriage bed, it turns out, is wide as an ocean, as hard as a cold desert floor.

Stateside should be required reading for all military couples, both the deployed and those who remain home at the hearth, as a training manual for that most perilous of battlefields: the human heart.  It's also applicable to anyone else who's ever been in a strained relationship.  After all, the world is full of Odysseuses who wander out to sea and the Penelopes who wait for their return.

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