Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Check Points By Michael Casey

Check Points

By Michael Casey

ISBN: 978-0-9838238-1-0

Adastra Press

16 Reservation Road

Easthampton, MA 01027


Review by Dennis Daly

At its core black humor usually camouflages a tragic reality. These poems by Michael Casey effectively make use of this type of humor, but do more than just camouflage. They provide a serious tool with which one can confront the horror of war, in this case the ill-conceived Vietnam War. The author’s technique allows us to see the logic of madness from inside out. The poem, bolo, cleverly explains,

the captain asks me

were you aiming to shoot

the pistol out of that guy’s hand?

And I said

fuck no, sir

I was aiming

for the finger I shot off.

In another poem entitled Chicom a demolition expert is asked for a favor—to defuse a grenade so that it could be used as a souvenir. The ordinance guy

.. said sure

and tried to pull

the bamboo tube

out of the serrated metal cone

it didn’t work

so he started banging the grenade

viciously against the corner of the jeep.

Fragging, the killing of your own officers, is poetically dealt with here by infusing this definition with an outrageous potion of black humor. The logic in this humor is as inescapable as it is bizarre. The cause of this phenomenon is blurted out in the poem of the same name, Fragging:

…it’s entirely

from electromagnetic disturbances

in the atmosphere

like I’m dumb he yells out

sunspots sunspots.

Makes absolute sense, doesn’t it? Especially since the alternative reality makes no sense at all.

The gravitas of the book in total far outweighs the poignancy of any individual poems. In fact most of the poems need one another and become much better pieces in this context. A good example of this is the obvious character development of the narrator’s fellow MP, John Bagley. Each succeeding poem seems to color him in with more detail. In the title poem, Check Point, Bagley is no more than a punch line. He is a rule breaking MP, who gives the narrator a ration,

Bagley starts the shit

how he’s an MP too

what right I have

tell him what to do.

Then the narrator pounces,

the Captain ask me

make a head count of pees

leaving the LZ

so I point to Bagley

and say


The poem, John John At Chu Lai Airport, paints more endearing qualities onto Bagley’s personality, as he deftly deals with the military bureaucracy using not a little wit,

so I wrote down

the reason I came to Bangkok


not the bus tours.

In Turnkey Bagley, Bagley brags how he caught US troops breaking into, not out of, POW security,

I caught them almost right away

from their laughing

which woke me up

just as soon as I heard it

if not earlier

The culmination of all of Bagley’s antics is reached in the poem, Army Commendation, when his character becomes an anti-hero of mythological proportions,

I was in country six months

when the entire unit

everyone in it received

an Army Commendation Medal

everyone but Bagley.

Of course a poetic character of this stature must accomplish some impossible deed with his super powers. Bagley does this by saving the narrator’s life in his own unique way. Says the poet,

… I was gonna go

I arrange for Bagley to wake me up

Bagley forgets all about me

and the theater is blown up

two separate charges

within fifteen minutes

I talk to Bagley at the hospital about it

he says

how’d that gook know

it was such a lousy movie.

Notice that the fact that Bagley is indeed in the hospital as a result of the bombing is glossed over as not worthy of mention, but is consistent with war-logic as portrayed by Casey.

After one of their comrades is killed (Cenerizio’s Service), Bagley copies the technique of another soldier to remove that thought from his head. The scene is both affecting and ironic at once. He hits his ear with a hand

slapping himself hard

and you know

I knew right away exactly

what he wasn’t thinking of.

In the same way we know all too well what Michael Casey is not saying about war’s unspeakable nature in this remarkable book of poems.

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