Sunday, June 24, 2012
Two Star General By Grey Held
Two Star General
By Grey Held
Brick Road Poetry Press
Review by Dennis Daly
In the best of circumstances the relationship between father and son tends towards complexity. Even a game of catch, the American emblem of that relationship, often devolves into rebellion when the boy tests his new found adolescent freedom against fatherly restraints and concerns. Now add to this paradigm a father who doubles as a military man, a leader who gives orders and expects immediate obedience. And finally add to this mix the rank of general; the father and leader now becomes a strategist who often must, and certainly should, sacrifice individual compassion for long term outcomes. Now we have an interesting and combustible consociation of dependency and paternal kinship.
In Two Star General Grey Held’s persona confronts his father and commanding general at odd angles and with the sensitivity and transcendence of a new-found understanding of human decency. The poem Under his Command gets right to the point,
We go to the Commissary
Drug Store so he can buy me
aviator sunglasses, though
what I want is the Elvis Presley kind,
but he says, not
for a two star general’s son!
He takes me to Uncle Sam’s Barbecue,
which I’ve never liked,
so he can get his favorite ribs.
In the same poem he puts his fathers’ serf-absorption in its proper military context. He relates a very telling story how his dad
...once drank scotch with McArthur
and told him, I know you and I will get along just fine.
He just took it when McArthur answered,
if there’s any getting along to do, Sir,
you’d better be the one to do it.
If your well-respected superiors have a way of making you feel small, it is only natural that those under your command, including a son, will get at least a taste of similar treatment.
The poet divides his book into two sections. The first sees life through a general’s eyes. In the second section the son of the general becomes the poet’s persona.
In the poem Fort Benning , Georgia 1942 the callous but sensible general describes his technique of training raw recruits how to kill using a bayonet. He says,
… I make them practice
sticking their weapons between the vivid
ribs of Savannah’s put-down
dogs I have them hang by rope
from branches of the drill field’s oaks.
I want them to feel resistance and retraction,
to witness the propulsion of sudden
blood—so much the better…
This hardened man knows how to save lives and in his own way—once you get by the stabbing of the dog’s bodies—cares profoundly and imaginatively for the humanity of his charges.
To be hard is one thing but to be totally aware of it is quite another. Awareness after all leads to consideration of feelings and all around sappiness. The general explains in a poem entitled Sleepless,
On the army cot, I kiss the palm
of my own hand, wishing it were
my sweetheart. I miss the way
her instinctive fingers could amaze
her Steinway, one note rising, one note
kneeling. I have been 2 years 5 months
Back to the father and son relationship. Being a tough-ass dad is bad enough, but being an absentee dad easily trumps other short comings. And absentee-ness very often begins in the beginning.
The opening of the poem entitled Day My Son Is Born puts you inside the general’s conflicted head and it’s not pretty,
My son reports for duty
as the cord gets cut.
And where am I?
off somewhere buffing
Two silver stars…
On the battlefield numbers rise in importance beyond the personalities and flesh and blood they represent. In the poem Spit the general makes this clear,
More men arrive, enough to plug
the holes in three battalions.
They are just rounds of ammunition,
replaceable parts in the Machine.
The poem Landmines also gives us scary insight into this general’s mind. The general explains,
If you were to dismantle a bomb,
ask the right question of the fuse.
Rely on tweezer-work to negate
the panic side. Remember
every overtaken village must be dissected
into friend or thin transparency.
Don’t assume the innocence of the nameless
Good generals never assume innocence.
In the poem, Home of the Brave, the poet’s persona, now the son, observes closely as his mother tapes up the general’s broken toe and fuels a precious moment of family happiness as she
starts to laugh
until tears drag rivulets
of eyeliner down her cheeks.
And my father, who rarely
seems happy, seems happy’
In Skeet Shooting the poet back up a bit and accepts some of the blame for the strained relationship. He says,
Marry within the faith,
be a soldier, not a poet.
And why didn’t I scream, I’m not you!
but blamed him instead.
Lately, he’s stopped playing
the part of gunpowder to my trigger.
In fact the poet had become just like his father, but without the military necessity. He confesses in the poem After All:
Didn’t I have to convince you
when I left to start college
you needed a new typewriter,
so I could take your old one with me
determined as I was to be a poet, just
because you were not.
In the poem, Balance is the Riddle the general now becomes the child and the poet kneels to tie his shoes. In Veterans’ Day Parade the poet steadies him during the festivities. And finally in Death of a General the respectful and dutiful poet-son says,
I take off his false coat,
put on this shroud, stitched from thunder,
buttoned into mud.
These are honest poems not easily written by a poet who comes to terms with a decent man in a difficult but necessary profession. Both father and son deserve our admiration.