Sunday, June 24, 2012

Two Star General By Grey Held

Two Star General

By Grey Held

Brick Road Poetry Press

ISBN-13: 978-0-9841005-8-3

ISBN-10: 0-9841005-8-X

57 Pages


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

huge laughter,

until tears drag rivulets

of eyeliner down her cheeks.

And my father, who rarely

seems happy, seems happy’

almost proud…

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.


  1. And to add to the complexity, we live in a society in which the very concept of authority is viewed with suspicion.

  2. Poetry relies on visual and oral communication to express one’s feeling.

  3. Grey's beautiful, evocative poems make me cry for the distance fathers and sons, of which I am both, yearn to close.