Stateside: Poems

Stateside: Poems

by Jehanne Dubrow

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Winner, 2012 Alice Fay Di Castagnola Award from the Poetry Society of America
Winner, Individual Artist's Award from the Maryland State Arts Council
First Prize, Anna Davidson Rosenberg Poetry Award for Poems on the Jewish Experience (for three poems from her manuscript-in-progress, "The Arranged Marriage")

Although the poems in Stateside are concerned with

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Winner, 2012 Alice Fay Di Castagnola Award from the Poetry Society of America
Winner, Individual Artist's Award from the Maryland State Arts Council
First Prize, Anna Davidson Rosenberg Poetry Award for Poems on the Jewish Experience (for three poems from her manuscript-in-progress, "The Arranged Marriage")

Although the poems in Stateside are concerned with a husband’s deployment to the war in Iraq, Jehanne Dubrow’s riveting collection is driven more by intellectual curiosity and emotional exploration than by any overt political agenda. The speaker in these poems attempts to understand her situation within the long history of military wives left to wait and wonder – Penelope is a model, but also a source of mystery. These poems are dazzling in their use of form, their sensual imagery, and their learnedness, and possess a level of subtlety and control rarely found in the work of a young poet. Dubrow is fearless in her contemplation of the far-reaching effects of war, but even more so in her excavation of a marriage under duress.

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Northwestern University Press
Publication date:
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5.90(w) x 8.30(h) x 0.40(d)

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By Jehanne Dubrow


Copyright © 2010 Jehanne Dubrow
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8101-5214-4

Chapter One


      maritime terminology

    It means the moveable stays tied.
    Lockers hold shut. The waves don't slide
    a metal box across the decks,
    or scatter screws like jacks, the sea
    like a rebellious child that wrecks
    all tools which aren't fastened tightly
    or fixed.

      At home, we say secure
    when what we mean is letting go
    of him. And even if we're sure
    he's coming back, it's hard to know:
    the farther out a vessel drifts,
    will contents stay in place, or shift?


    We toss our coffee on the sand, watching
    the liquid sink and fade to almost nothing
    like disappearing ink. The wind disturbs
    our tent flap, jostles the poles, sways the frame
    so that I hope we cannot stay the night.
    Why don't we leave? I ask. He shakes his head,
    and in my borrowed sleeping bag I lie
    awake, shiver beneath its summer weight,
    curl myself into a question mark.
    I listen, for hours, to the pace of waves
    an irritant like sand inside a shoe.
    He always shuts his eyes before I do.
    He's slumped in front of the TV or pinned
    by an opened book across his chest, and here
    surrounded by the racket nature makes,
    he rests, so deep asleep I don't exist.
    At 8 a.m., we stand, roll up our beds.
    I couldn't sleep at all, he says. Too cold,
    though you seemed fine.
I laugh. To think
    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.


    This is the hour that writers eulogize,
      midnights when my husband guards his post
    against monotony. Before sunrise,
      this is the hour that writers eulogize.
    In port, a sentry walks the deck, replies
      all conditions normal, surveys the coast.
    This is the hour that writers eulogize,
      midnights when my husband guards his post.

    I can imagine that he faces west,
      the sky like a purple sail above the sea.
    Somewhere a buoy creeks. Waves sink or crest,
      and I imagine him. He faces west
    to stand and watch and wait alone, the rest
      of the crew asleep in the machinery.
    I can imagine him. He's facing west,
      the sky a purple sail above the sea.

    My words are just reflections from the shore,
      and the page, imperfect mirror of his ship,
    where white lights blink above each metal door.
      My words are just reflections. On the shore
    there's radio silence—no talk of war,
      only the sound of nothing, only the blip
    of words reflecting distantly from shore,
      and the page, imperfect mirror of his ship.


    We walked the pier to see the cruiser, moored
    with Kevlar lines thick as limbs, then came aboard,
    where decks vibrated underneath the weight
    of polished brass and perforated steel.

    My husband pointed out the fire main
    and cable run, explained scuttles and where
    the ladders led. I don't remember much
    he said, but only know he placed my hand

    against a hatch to feel the engines tense,
    the systems like a pulse inside my palm.
    And then, the CIC, where it was calm
    and quiet to the passageway—

      In war
    he'll stand before the green displays of light,
    evaluate a signal's frequency.
    He'll chart trajectories and blips across

    a screen. And all the ship will swallow him:
    its hull, an ashy paint they call haze gray
    (haze gray and under way, say the sailors,
    kissing their wives good-bye), a silver gray

    of knives, of mist which settles on the water,
    a gray so like the moon, its surface strewn
    with oceans, bays, and seas that tremble with
    the burden of their wide tranquility.


    Tonight we're kids again, all summers boring
    as peacetime, our grown-up lives distant

    like the barrel organ grinding through a song,
    the revolution of the Ferris wheel.

    If we look far enough beyond the strand,
    we'll see your cruiser there, a blurred knife

    that separates the water from its skin,
    quiet as modern warfare often is.

    Rocky road drips chocolate on your hands.
    You lick each fingertip, gesture at a ship

    so that it disappears behind your palm,
    the naval station still within your reach,

    so near we smell the breath of diesel fuel.
    I would like to call it death, this thing that sticks

    like marshmallows inside my mouth, gritty
    with a thousand sharp particulates of sea.


      You lead the puppy past the moored boat.
    He nuzzles sand, runs to where the waves break,
      snaps at lacquered fish that swim near shore.
    You let him off the leash, because you like
      to see the freedom of a loosened thing,
    a ball releasing from a hand, a voice
      untying from the collar of the throat.
    Each day you walk a little farther, then bring
      him home to me, his tail a muddy spike,
    his body soggy as a kitchen mop.
      We don't wring him dry but watch him shake
    the ocean out, watch him rub his face across
      the carpet until he falls asleep, sopping,
    curled tightly as a seashell on the floor.


      Montgomery County, Md.

    It's light above. Below,
    inside the red-line metro,

    the evening never sheds itself for day,
    but curves into a passageway,

    a universe of fang and tail.
    We're lit by bulbs whose pale

    fluorescent eyes shine on, unblinkingly.
    The third rail sibilates with electricity.

    And we—alone
    —stand frozen by a sound, the drone

    of trains, sidewinders sliding through
    blue corridors, steel sinew

    stretched to breaking,
    metallic snakes,

    their scales aluminum
    instead of skin.

    Warm-blooded creatures don't belong
    so deeply underground. We aren't strong

    enough to fight the rattlesnake,
    the way it coils into wire, then slowly shakes

    its body as it strikes.
    We wait. The subway hisses like

    a diamondback.
    A shadow-monster slithers down the track.


    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. She's marsh and salt,
    alluvial. She's Tigris and Euphrates.

    He never finds an answer for her sleep,
    more sudden than shrapnel, or for her waking,

    sharper than a dust storm in the desert. She's dry
    instead, made empty as a wadi,

    waiting for rainfall to fill her watercourse
    and for the nights to carve a temporary truce.


    Imagine this: salt water scrubbing sand
    into my husband's skin,
    his fingers pale anemones, his hands
    turned coral reef, and in
    his eyes the nacreous pearls of Ariel.
    This could be my husband, drowning in the swell.

    A sea change means a shift, a change of heart,
    and how the oceans turn
    glass shards into a jewel, rip apart
    familiar things. Waves churn.
    The surf is a liquid body that peels
    a carrier from bow to stern, the keel

    bent back, steel bands pliable as kelp.
    And long before I wake,
    the sailors drown. No point in calling help.
    Each night, my husband shakes
    me out of sleep. I cannot reach for him
    or drag him to the surface so he'll swim.


      what the fuck?

    Foxtrot the Navy, I yell into the phone,
    the first time that my husband groans deployed,
    a word we've waited for since war began
    four years ago.

    [Let whiskey slide as slow
    as bullets down my throat. Let foxtrot be
    both verb and noun.]

    Foxtrot the Navy,
    I say again but softer than before,
    as if the whisper of a dance could keep
    him here.

    [I need a shot of whiskey just
    to take the news, a song in 2/4 time
    and rhinestone shoes.]

    Foxtrot, I sigh—
    third time's the charm in everything but war,
    oh ugly, big sublime. I'm buzzing with
    white noise.

    [Call in the dancing girls,
    the boys who swallow slugs from jerricans,
    moonshine sloshed to the brim of each canteen.
    Let whiskey taste toxic as benzene.]


    The dog and I are first among those things
    that will not be deployed with him. Forget
    civilian clothes as well. He shouldn't bring
    too many photographs, which might get wet,
    the faces blurred. He only needs a set
    of uniforms. Even his wedding ring
    gives pause (what if it fell?—he'd be upset
    to dent or scratch away the gold engraving).
    The seabag must be light enough to sling
    across his shoulder, weigh almost nothing,
    each canvas pocket emptied of regret.
    The trick is packing less. No wife, no pet,
    no perfumed letters dabbed with I-love-yous,
    or anything he can't afford to lose.


    In the swimming pool, my husband is a stone
    that cannot float—he's made for running
    through our neighborhood, which leads him down

    to where the concrete goes to gravel, then turns
    to harrowed fields at the edge of town,
    where wind pushes through the corn,

    and the crow that drags itself up sounds like a man
    drowning. All things sound like drowning if you listen.
    There are other guys who sink, the ones grown

    up in cinder-block cities who have never seen
    the beach, or the ones like my husband, too thin
    for buoyancy. They have learned to inflate their own

    shirts, blow bubbles of air in the sleeves, fasten
    the limbs together, a raft that holds them on
    the surface long enough. After a deepwater jump, then

    a fifty-yard swim, the sailors lie prone.
    They're flotsam drifting in the ocean.
    The hardest part is playing dead, to be broken,

    inert, when what the body wants is motion,
    to kick like a sprinter toward the finish line,
    at least to tread water, not to breathe it in.


    We're arguing about his death again.
    Because all men are fools, he swears

    I won't be anywhere near the fighting.
    I try to laugh but can't, imagining

    the photographs of Humvees overturned
    like dead roaches, so burned their shells curl back

    to show the offal packed inside. Guys die
    just driving from the base. The fucking place

    is cursed
, I say. It's hard remaining calm.
    Each conversation holds a roadside bomb,

    a sniper in the window, insurgents on
    the ground below. Tell me. How did the Greeks

    learn beauty from that sudden turn we call
    catastrophe?—the king disposed with three

    quick blows, the wailing child, the wife,
    and always then the falling falling knife.


    I see my husband shooting in Platoon,
    and there he is again in M*A*S*H (how weird
    to hear him talk like Hawkeye Pierce), and soon
    I spot him everywhere, his body smeared
    with mud, his face bloodied. He's now the star
    of every ship blockade and battle scene—
    The Fighting 69th, A Bridge Too Far,
    Three Kings, Das Boot
, and Stalag 17.
    In Stalingrad he's killed, and then
    he's killed in Midway and A Few Good Men.
    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.


    He kisses me before he goes. While I,
    still dozing, half-asleep, laugh and rub my face

    against the sueded surface of the sheets,
    thinking it's him I touch, his skin beneath

    my hands, my body curving in to meet
    his body there. I never hear him leave.

    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.


    I packed your seabag
    today: six pairs
    of pants, shirts folded in
    their rigid squares,

    your socks balled up
    like tan grenades.
    I put my photo in
    as well, laid

    it there between
    the Kevlar vest and heap
    of clothes. Don't weep,
    the poet warns, don't weep.

    On 60 Minutes,
    a soldier turns
    his face toward us, shows
    the camera his burns,

    small metal slivers still
    embedded in
    the skin, his mouth a scrap
    of ragged tin.

    The young man's face
    was beautiful before,
    smooth, unblemished as
    my own. For war

    is kind
, I read. Great is
    the battle-god

    and great the auguries,
    the firing squad,


Excerpted from STATESIDE by Jehanne Dubrow Copyright © 2010 by Jehanne Dubrow. Excerpted by permission of NORTHWESTERN UNIVERSITY PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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