A Navy wife sings of our common humanity

Penelope, wife of the long absent Odysseus, is traditionally associated with fidelity. But it is men who have been doing the associating, and today Penelope’s story is being reinterpreted by feminists. It should be reinterpreted by all of us, and that is what Jehanne Dubrow is doing in Stateside.

This is not merely the verse story of a Navy wife facing the challenges with which her husband’s duty confronts her. It is the story of waiting, wondering, fearing, persevering, triumphing—but triumphing not merely as a adjunct to her husband’s honorable career but in her own right as a woman, an artist, and an observer of the human condition.

The theme of a wife’s behavior in the absence of a warrior husband is habitually viewed through male eyes, as if her life is book-ended between the husband’s departure and return. Stateside is a radical departure from this tired world view.

It’s pretty hard to tell a story in the West without thinking about Homer and the Nordic sagas; it’s even harder to grant women some semblance of equal standing with Achilles and Eric the Red, so much so that we’re inclined to cheer the bloodthirsty Viking shield maidens disembarking from their dragon ships with their men simply because they’re central to the story and not merely the embroidery of their men's shirts.

These poems are not about another facet of war, another angle of vision. They are about us, our culture. A press release accompanying this admirable collection cites Brian Turner’s Here, Bullet, published five years ago and explored here recently as a high mark of human sensibility. The release speaks of the book giving “a powerful voice to the often overlooked, yet fraught, experience of the military spouses left behind during wartime deployment.”

I won’t argue with this view, but I suspect it short-sells the poems, because no one really is left behind. War seeps into the marrow of our culture. It changes us. The action is not merely at the front, even when we can find the front, which in the 21st Century is no easy feat. These are not poems about another side of a story. These are war poems, sagas in their own right.

And they often have the particularity and kettledrum cadences of The Odyssey itself. But the gravitas and braggadocio of The Odyssey is in Stateside supplanted by lyrical plaint, acuity honed by loneliness and dread, and sometimes savage poignancy.

Feminists may revisit Penelope and her appeals to Artemis and Athena all they like, but until we hear the shield maidens and the Penelopes, hear them and not about them, they remain less real than the larger-than-life male figures to whom they are furnishings. In Stateside we do hear them, and this is a landmark of sorts. This is one of those books that changes the landscape of our poetry, not in the grand way Ezra Pound’s Cantos change it or the poems of his friend, William Carlos Williams, but change it they do. I claim more for this book than its press release does.

Odysseus and Penelope

Like Tony Barnstone in his masterful Tongue of War, Dubrow reminds us that the sonnet is as useful today as free verse and in some instances more appropriate. It has an internal, clock-like logic, a syllogistic impulse, that carries through an observation or recognition in a way far more satisfying than other forms. The sonnet is like a perfect vase, its attributes being as key as its content.

There is nothing new about a linked sequence of sonnets, but such a device in the employ of a woman speaking so sharply to our time is at times breathtaking. Too bad we can’t call the sonnet by some other name so as to avert its antique connotations. It’s as modern as Arthur Rimbaud’s or W.S. Merwin’s prose poems.

Dubrow is a deft prosodist. She moves from the narrative iamb in a poem like "Eastern Shore":

Remember when we touched at twenty-two,
so willingly aligned in one twin bed....

to the eight-syllable rhymed quatrains of "In Penelope’s Bedroom":

Whole regions that he used to kiss
are now abandoned land. What does she miss
the most? Without Odysseus
even her skin becomes extraneous...

Stateside cover

Here is none of Homer’s portentousness, nor the grandeur that sometimes thunders in The Odyssey. Dubrow could be speaking for the Afghan and Iraqi women who are also bereft. She could be speaking for that entire half of humanity that war does not bother to be about. I think this aspect of her work is easy to overlook because the novelty of so good a poet singing the songs of a warrior’s wife so facilely overshadows the universality of the song.

Dubrow’s eight-syllable lyrical line and her iambic passages both have a classical inexorability not often seen or heard in contemporary poetry. What kind of instinct is such loyalty? she asks in "Argos." One hears Penelope asking the same of Artemis. In this poem she has named a puppy for the dog that remembered the voyager Odysseus after twenty long years.

The politics of war hangs like the odor of sulfur around these poems, as it does in Homer’s The Iliad, but it is not addressed:

He whispers weapons of mass destruction
against the sand dune of her skin. She’s toxin.

She’s liquid sarin. She’s pure plutonium.
Her tracers burn and dim and burn again.

as last resort, he holds a congressional inquiry
about her lips. Have you no sense of decency,

he asks her body’s gulf....

I admire her rhymed iambic couplets in "Love In The Time of Coalition" for their restraint, irony, historicity and, above all, that implied sense that the poet knows what is worth talking about and what is surpassingly ephemeral. She is referring, of course, to the weapons of mass destruction debate and to the squalid but ultimately liberating McCarthy hearings of the 1950s. I was again and again exhilarated by her subtle references: for example, body's gulf calls to mind the Gulf War, and it doesn't matter if the poet intended this, because good poems always exceed the poet's intention. The implications are profound because they are not addressed:

War | Absence | Loss | Memory | Love | Death | Fear

These matter, but politics will soon be as forgotten as the self-seeking men who sent the young to war. We remember Alexander, we do not remember the Athenian and Spartan quibblers who argued the merits and demerits of his adventure.

Here we have a Navy wife and academic addressing the great themes, and it would be a shame to miss this simply because she is a Navy wife. These are not just a few words from Penelope, an incidental character in the life of the great seafarer. This is a modern woman’s saga, and it does not fall short of sustained narrative simply because its poetics is varied and supple. Nor does it fall short of stature, for we are not our warriors’ baggage; we are in it with them, and they are with us at home. Much is always going on, here and there. These poems are not about a husband being there and a wife being here; they are about our awful human condition. In some ways they are poems of chaos theory: our every move affects another. We cannot insulate ourselves from consequence, and the Navy officer and wife who understand this, as the Dubrows do, are tragic figures, because their comprehension is as terrible as a random shell. While the press focuses on the politics of war, poets like Dubrow, Turner and Barnstone focus on what is really happening, what matters, what endures.

For some, Stateside will recall The Poetic Edda, especially the three lays of Gudrun, which are startlingly modern in the sense that, unlike the traditional saga, they convey the feelings and and thoughts of Gudrun/Jehanne. The usual distinction between the later Norse sagas and the modern novel—that novels convey thoughts and feelings while sagas report actions—should now give way to our growing consciousness that thoughts and feelings are things, that they are in themselves actions. This is what young people began to call vibes in the 1960s. Anyone familiar with the Edda will see another parallel: the women of the Edda are not like Penelope. They are warrior women, they have recourse; they are more empowered, and this Norse concept is as much a part of our culture as the classical view of women.

I think there is a reason Tony Barnstone and Jehanne Dubrow have chosen a more formal metric to convey the hydra-headedness of war. War is so terrible, to paraphrase William T. Sherman, that its chaos would overwhelm all but the most structured verse. So it is not merely the victor who wins in war but also the poet who wrings art and recognition from the chaos.

Wittingly or unwittingly, Dubrow dispels the durable myth that war is therethere in order to keep us safe here. War is in fact everywhere. I believe that the best poetry always takes on a life of its own beyond the poet's vision, the poet’s own parameters, in the very same way that there is no here or there, there is only this frightening and yet majestic oneness, a “thisness” that makes these poems eerie, sharp as a scalpel and memorable. —Djelloul Marbrook

Penelope • Gudrun • Jehanne

(Stateside, Jehanne Dubrow, Triquarterly Books, Northwestern University Press, 2010, 58pp, $16.95)

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What a stunning, insightful review, Djelloul. There is deep vision and experience in your words. Thank you, Kaaren

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