Northwestern University Press
Ted Kooser, in his foreword to Jehanne Dubrow’s new volume of poetry, Stateside, compares the work to the traditional white wool sweaters knitted by the wives of fisherman on the Aran Islands. Meticulously crafted, these sweaters, as Kooser observes, are encoded in their braided designs with information about the wearer, most importantly, where to return his body in the not-unlikely event of it washing up on shore. It is an apt analogy to describe poetry by an avidly traditional formalist writing about her life as the wife of a career naval officer at a time of war.
Dubrow is, if nothing else, a craftswoman. She is ensconced in the high reaches of up-and-coming 30-somethings in the Formalist/New Formalist pantheon. But craft is one thing and success is another. With Stateside, we have a success. Dubrow manages to weave a particular situation––a life and death situation––into poetry that deals directly with life and death and effectively with everyday things such as dieting, contemplating a new hair style, and walking the dog.
What truly impresses this reader is how the poetry improves the farther he stands back from the loom. Overriding the complexity of design is an integral picture, one in which classical references––heavy on Penelope, light on Lysistrata––meld into a fresh depiction. Dubrow’s approach is one of pared-down introspection, tough-minded and honest, appropriate to wartime poetry. The theme of Penelope waiting for the return of Odysseus––weaving at the hearth, if you will––is never forced or overbearing. And the form, as readers of Dubrow’s poetry would expect, works appropriately behind the scene as an elevating engine.
Dubrow’s ability to tackle the “relationship poem” is impressive. She navigates waters from which has emerged an immense swath of truly bad quotidian poetry, much of it produced by formalists in Dubrow’s weight category, usually taking on that monstrous Leviathan, the “stable marriage”. Sure, Dubrow’s situation gives her a lot of “edge” to work with. But that opportunity doesn’t guarantee poetry that mixes the shared with the personal in such a compelling fashion that a reader is likely to read the collection from front to back in one sitting.
Inside its grand narrative arc are, of course, many narratives. The poems are divided into three parts, roughly defined as before, during, and after deployment. It truly launches with the second poem following a pat and rather flawed overture titled “Secure for Sea”, a play, as its subtitle advertises, on maritime terminology. That second piece, “Assateague Island, March”, digs into the central relationship in Stateside, depicting a fitful night on a windy island beach. The narrator and her husband each remain wakeful and anxious, believing the other sleeps effortlessly despite the tent’s snapping and jostling in the wind. The poem ends in the morning following the husband’s avowal that he spent a sleepless night.
of all those hours I listened for his breath
and he for mine, the air a frozen wing,
the wild ponies snuffling for food.
Goddamn our domesticity. At least
we should have sighed the other’s name, or rubbed
together, tried burning like two broken sticks.
Goddamn our domesticity––an interesting and thoroughly explored theme in Stateside. The Assateague camping trip is evoked in Part Three of the book with “Moving”, a poem about the familiar military routine of moving house. Amidst the bubble wrap, X-Acto knives, packing tape, and makeshift bed of the first night’s unpacking, the narrator observes:
...I can’t say when I reached for you
if we rustled like tissue paper, delicate
as shards, or if we slid our razored edges
back and forth, until we split apart.
The shared mixes with the personal, in Stateside, the subjective with the objective. The chronic disconnect between husband and wife, defined by what they do when they are away from each other, rings universally true beyond the kit and regimen of military life, addressing a basic dilemma in domestic relationships. There is broad civilian empathy for poems such as “Moving”.
But the details of military family life, specifically the home front existence best portrayed in Part Two of the book, provide Stateside with its rich texture. The section begins with “The Rooted Bed”, a contemplation of the bed built by Penelope and Odysseus before his deployment. “I’m stateside now, my husband six months gone. / I think of another soldier and his wife––”, it opens, launching a group of poems with Odyssey-play titles such as “Ithaca”, “At the Mall with Telemachus”, “In Penelope’s Bedroom”, and “Instructions for Other Penelopes”. Here the equalizing ritual of military life is reflected in personal rituals pertaining to things such as which side of the bed one sleeps on. Dubrow describes days of waiting, cooking for one, fending off lecherous divorcees at PTA meetings, and thinking the worst. Her Penelope is too wise to buy the husband’s italicized assurance, “I won’t be anywhere near the fighting” in Part One’s “A Short Study of Catastrophe”. She has seen the pictures from the war. She knows the story.
In fact, the book’s theme of marital disconnect is most intriguingly explored in Part Two, when the narrator is alone. “The Rooted Bed” ends with speculation on the home life of Penelope and Odysseus upon his return: “I can’t help asking if, when he came home, / did they lie together there or sleep alone?” (one of several grammatical tangles in Stateside, by the way––the first shows up in “Secure for Sea”). The narrator of Part Two illustrates, somewhat subconsciously, how the ritual, longing, and apprehension of a Navy wife whose husband is at sea (and whose bumper sticker says so) mix to create a state of self-imposed isolation. In “Ithaca,” the narrator describes herself as:
…almost a widow
to the Trojan War, her love
preserved in plastic wrap like some
dessert too beautiful to taste.
Dubrow conveys a great deal of sensuality in Stateside, aided by the sound and texture that emanate from her well-crafted stanzas. She also repeatedly conveys prophylaxis. The narrator in “Love in the Time of Coalition”, for example, describes her body as a naturally fortified battlefield––“liquid sarin”, “pure plutonium”, “She’s marsh and salt, / alluvial. She’s Tigris and Euphrates.” This theater of operations defies her husband’s advance maneuvers, which amount to reading the lights of tracer flares and holding a congressional inquiry. Like Homer’s Penelope, Dubrow’s narrator is at war on the home front, a war not covered in the military history book that her husband falls asleep reading. This from “Situational Awareness”, which serves nicely as a nut sonnet for the volume:
These past few weeks I’m more than just aware
of where he is--I’m hypersensitive,
stretched thin as a length of wire, a hair-
trigger mechanism. Nothing can live
Dubrow ends her volume with flares in “Shabbat Prayer, on the Occasion of War”, which begins with a line from Siegfried Sassoon, a voice from The Great War: “A flare went up; the shining whiteness spread”. It resolves on an understanding of where connection ultimately occurs:
The night served as the complement to day,
like salt on something sweet. And, in this way,
we tasted syrup mixed with brine.
And, in this way, we learned a prayer
that joined the shadow with the shining flare.
This last stitch in the sweater, sensual and ethereal in the form of a nonce-metered sonnet, completes a volume of poetry as traditional as it is enduring. Stateside, however, is by no means as nostalgic as the white Irish sweaters that are nowadays most popular with Irish American visitors to the old country. These poems are still very much “in country,” the hearth not a stone in an island cottage, but a moving target, an ideal. Home is the elusive objective in Dubrow’s Odyssey.
Rick Mullin's poetry has appeared in several print and online journals including Measure, Unsplendid, Ep;phany, Crannóg and The Flea. His chapbook, Aquinas Flinched, is available from Exot Books, New York. His booklength poem, Huncke, was published this year by Seven Towers, Dublin. He is a painter and journalist, and lives in northern New Jersey.