Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Keith Moul’s The Journal

Keith Moul’s The Journal, published by Duck Lake Books, reviewed by Gregory J. Wolos

            “Like so many other men of his generation, the war was transformative, making him almost mute on the subject,” writes Keith Moul of his father, a veteran of World War II, in Moul’s foreword to his poetry chapbook The Journal. My own father was of this generation, and, like Moul and many other children of these soldiers, my brothers and I grew up in an atmosphere largely defined by his silence. We the nearness of history—the war was less than a decade distant. We played with our toy guns and plastic soldiers, fought backyard battles, and vanquished imaginary enemies. But though we were aware that our parent was a human artifact of that “transformative” time, something about the cocoon of silence around my father, a silence that seemed nurtured by our mother, kept us from satisfying our curiosities about the war. Passively, we concluded that this was what all men—all fathers—were like. We saw so many of them at family and social gatherings, at church, working on our cars and plumbing, standing behind the counters of our hardware and shoe stores.

            The thing about monuments is that it becomes easy to believe that they are stone all the way through, and so my brothers remained distant from my father until his death. As the youngest, maybe because I was furthest from the defining conflict, maybe because something in my own personality allowed me to see through the chinks in my father’s rusting armor, I found a softer parent. Maybe I created him myself. We became friends, my father and I, but never companions—I learned no more about the war and what it had done to him than had my siblings.    

            Keith Moul, a fellow child of a soldier, was gifted late in life with a chance to peek into the inner life of a man whose life experiences had made him hard to know. His father, he discovers, had kept a journal for a short time while serving as a radar man on an aircraft carrier in the South Pacific at the height of the war. Moul’s mother had held onto that diary for years after his father’s death, passed the journal on to Moul’s brother shortly before her own, and his brother gave it to him. As Moul writes in “Silent Man,” “His silence lasted emptied almost fifty years . . . / I got the journal on her death. I never knew/ his eloquence, his effort to write to her his love,/ his sifting of boogies through tedium, the carrier/ tracing burial sites over the ever-swirling waves.”

            And thus, in this chapbook, The Journal, the reader participates in Moul’s creation of links to a man long dead, to an experience his father kept to himself for “almost fifty years.” Like an archaeologist, the poet uses the fragments his father leaves to reconstruct an inner life that, had they not been discovered, would have remained forever buried: Moul provides, in each of his pieces, first his father’s journal entry, followed by a poem extrapolated from the detailed experience. For example, in “The Axis,” we learn from the senior Moul’s entry of March 26, 1944, this seemingly mundane fact: “Crossed the equator again yesterday. This makes it about 15 times I have been across it.” From this information son Keith hypothesizes about the inventorying—of trips, of planes, of mines and bombs—that fill his father’s journal: “As it happened, even if asleep at the crossing, he counted it;/ he captured it as an electric surge, extending life, running life/ as if attached to a long umbilical, as if overruling death’s generator.”

            In “Darling Honey,” Moul quotes an entry from his father’s journal intended to explain to the poet’s mother why there may have been a lapse in his letters home: “I was scared a few days, and when you get that way, you just can’t write, honey.” The son’s poem intuits his father’s feelings: “Fear in battle . . . the momentary scare of known death/ on the deck, or unknown death waiting for its moment/ . . . that reaper hanging above every breath . . ./ This is why, dear, another letter may have failed,/ may have given you the wrong impression of both me, now, and my universe of war.”

            But Keith Moul’s poems in The Journal are more than an explanation or expansion of his father’s wartime journal entries; they are also more than simple acts of ventriloquism. Because of the son’s enrichment of the journal through his poetry, the father is both memorialized and resurrected. The relationship between entry and poem is both symbiotic and synergistic: the pair becomes a unit that not only recreates the father’s past war experience, but fills a void in the poet’s understanding of his father’s silence. The poem “The Fact of Circling Light,” poses the question, “And what of coming generations amassing questions,/some risking long stifled memory?” The answers to Moul writes are “too often wide of the grisly mark, too grisly to confront.” The truth, however, is that by inhabiting his father’s wartime experience, the son has forged both a truce and truth from that silence. As Wordsworth states in the opening lines of his “Ode on the Intimations of Immortality,” “the child is father of the man.” In a very real sense, Moul himself in his poems has created the father he needed and missed from his father’s brief journal entries. And through these poems, I find that I myself gain insight into my own soldier-father’s silences.