Permanent Change of Station. Lisa Stice. Johnstown IA: Middlewest Press, 2018.
Lisa Stice, poet and military spouse, draws from real-life experience in her new book that is searing with the invisible suffering that a modern military family endures. Stice’s second collection of poetry, Permanent Change of Station depicts a military deployment from the vantage point of the home front. Unapologetic in its humor and pain, Stice’s work investigates the void left by a loved one when they are away.
The title, though usually reserved for a soldier’s relocation to different military base, elevates the collection. Drawing on the notion that nothing is permanent, Stice questions the very use of the word permanent in the opening poem, “PCS.” Though calm and steady in its pacing, Stice’s poems open up to a much larger and deep-seated revelation—that it is not the duty station that is permanent, but the state of mind that a military family must resolve themselves to in order to withstand and survive the rest of their soldier’s career.
In the section titled “Half-Known Roads,” Stice’s poem “Our Nine Situations” uses juxtaposition in each stanza to show the reader the difference between what is wanted and what is given, “where we want to be forever waits until retirement.” Every box then becomes vacations never taken, relatives become voices on a phone who visit only twice a year, and the negotiation of conversations about how Daddy won’t be there again even though they were sure he would be. Even the simple things like unpacking boxes show the uncertainty, instability, and uprooting that occurs while being a military family as “all unpacked boxes remain stacked in the garage.”
While Permanent Change of Station speaks to the unstable ground that must be trod as a spouse and caregiver, there is an underlying maternal theme that strikes at the core of this collection. A mother-daughter dynamic seems to be intertwined with the military spouse narrative throughout the collection, adding a touch of realism that forces your heart to twinge with empathy. In the first section of the book, the poem “The Box Maze Swallows a Birthday” portrays a mother watching her daughter sit on the lawn with the family dog in front of their new military housing, while the daughter and the dog watch “the maze grow box by box.” The daughter is mute as she watches strange men unload boxes from a large truck, building a “boxwall” with “narrow paths” that the family will have to walk for months while trying to situate themselves to the unfamiliar, uprooted as they are, like nomads in slow-motion. Too often this is the sad state military families endure. For all of their sacrifice while being married to both the military service member and the vocation itself, Stice writes in “Reduction” about how the military family is as fragile as the contents in bubble-wrapped boxes:
system of reliability of
expectation and memory
legs once strongpoints
now leave nothing left
to stand on a memory
to throw away and forget
In the mundane rootlessness of it all, Stice seems to define what a marriage and a family must become to survive while the soldier is away, the family living in slow motion in the hopes the soldier will not miss too much at home. But as the book progresses, we see the daughter growing up before her mother’s eyes. In section titled “The In-Between,” the poem “Learning to Speak” drives home the reality that time does not stop; the line “Dada gone” repeated over again in each stanza, implies in its simplicity that the daughter’s first words and the absence of her father are the truth of her upbringing.
Stice’s style of writing, which is quite accessible, seems to draw at the same conclusion every time: war is hell for everyone. And while Stice’s simplistic style is relatable to the everyday reader, the overall theme does at times become slightly overused throughout the book. For instance, in the second section of the book, the poem “Fix, Mommy” discusses the toll of the spouse, “Some things just never / go back to the way they were,” and then, in the section titled “Bedtime Stories,” in the poem “Blue Girl,” we see again the strain Stice endures while watching her daughter color with crayons: “daily struggles and sacrifices unnoticed / drawn out in crayon on white paper.” However, though there is repetitiveness in the thematic structure, the way in which Stice approaches the topic of spousal difficulties is unique and refreshing every time, allowing the reader to peel back the drywall and stucco and enter a world that thrashes with uncertainty and, at times, regret.
The only thing that seems permanent is the uncertainty of what will be sacrificed next to keep the illusion that nothing has changed in the time away.
With every poem, Stice dismantles the notion that military families are accustomed to absence; that it’s easy to make do without the other parent; that the empty side of the bed isn’t cold; that missed dance recitals and holidays are replaceable. She refutes the unspoken military rules that all can be said to a loved one within a five minute phone conversation inside an Morale, Welfare, and Recreation center, and that loneliness is just a phase that each family member will get over. Stice shows it is a bitter pill to swallow when the military tells a spouse that in another six months their soldier will return...and that after the reintegration period, the cycle of military family life will start over again with more packing, another duty station, and another deployment. The only thing that seems permanent is the uncertainty of what will be sacrificed next to keep the illusion that nothing has changed in the time away. And while these poems delve deep into the realities of military family life, Stice offers a solemn antidote to the quiet suffering, a bit of hope for the reader in the final poem: “sometimes what lies in our hands / leaves us.”
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Header Image: Moving boxes (Military.com)