#Reviewing Hugging This Rock

Hugging This Rock: Poems of Earth & Sky, Love & War. Eric Chandler. Johnston, IA: Middle West Press, 2017.

The author Charles Bukowski once said that “poetry is what happens when nothing else can.” Hugging This Rock: Poems of Earth & Sky, Love & War, by retired United States Air Force officer and veteran writer Eric Chandler, is a powerful and personal account of life that embodies Bukowski’s assertion. A father and husband, Chandler explores hopes, fears, and truths that might otherwise be incommunicable, at times even be incomprehensible, yet feel strangely right when told in verse. And like a lot of poetry, Chandler’s work does not focus on telling any one story. Rather, it captures the the human impact of things like growing up, fathering a child, and surveying a country at war from the air. That last part is perhaps the most important. Chandler is through and through a pilot, and that experience is the binding thread of this collection.

Not a flyer myself, I have only experienced the world he describes from a passenger’s seat, somewhere well behind the cockpit. By increments, though, I felt as I read as if I were approaching his world at the front of the plane. In an excerpt from one of my favorites (for a personal reason you will see in a moment), “View-Master,” Chandler paints this scene:

When you pull down on the lever,
the surface of the Salt Lake
mimics the clouds.

Notice what Chandler is doing here. He’s placing us in an experience with which many of us can relate, being in an airplane. Then he follows with:

A new picture snaps into place
and you look down at Fremont Peak
where you stood with your friend.

Now we’ve moved on. We are no longer merely in an airplane; we have entered Chandler’s life. And then he takes us further:

You see the glittering arc
of mortar shells over the Tigris
into Sadr City at night.

Sadr City at night (Michael J. Totten)

At this last line, readers will diverge. Those who have not flown over Sadr City at night will enter the realm of imagination, appreciating (but not knowing) what the author must have seen. I, however, was instantly transported to my last flight home from Iraq, passing high over that very Baghdad slum. Even now, I recall the flood of emotions that overcame me, seeing the lights of the city where I and so many of my friends and our enemies fought.

This poem, like the structure of the book itself, echoes the strangely episodic nature of military life. A year of combat, a year of yard work, a year of isolation, a year of bedtime stories. Seasons of life and death progressed throughout the book and culminated with the author’s own stories of war.

Perhaps counter-intuitively, considering Chandler’s career as an Air Force officer, his strongest work was not in his war chapter. In fact, the decidedly unmilitary “Moving Stuff Around” was perhaps the best of this collection, capturing the intangible qualities of man’s life in the deceptive simplicity of physical movement:

You move the petroleum into the tank
And you move tons of metal and rubber and glass
Down the highway.
You’re lucky and
You get a job as a train engineer or a truck driver or an airline pilot.
You’re really moving stuff around now.
Millions of tons that you move and move and move.
You move her body.
Her body moves iron and oxygen and nutrients into the new part
   of her body.
You move your kids into the car and move them to piano and karate
   and to school.

“Moving Stuff Around” is an example of Chandler’s free-form work, having no discernible meter, parallelism, or rhyming scheme. He achieves his best in this piece and others like it. However, he does toy with what my baby-boomer mother would have considered more familiar forms of poetry, notably the rhyming schemes in “What Do You Do?” and “Bed Socks.” In the latter, Chandler writes:

But change is so hard.
My wife is so sweet,
but she cannot stand
no socks on her feet.

Note the parallel sounds of the last word in each second line. Also, consider how you can almost tap a beat while reciting the words, a sharp contrast to “Moving Stuff Around.”

Cougar was hit in Al Anbar, Iraq by a directed charge IED approximately 300-500 lbs in size. All crew members survived the blast and went out the next day. (DoD Photo)

One of his more interesting uses of both meter and rhyme is “Spark,” where meter cleverly matches subject, particularly in the recurrence of the number three:

There were three
Planting an

Three men, three letters in IED.

He fell down
in a ditch
near the town.

Three lines per stanza and three stressed syllables per line.

All alone
with us two
and the drone.

All alone—just those three.

Subjectively, though, I still believe Chandler’s best work foregoes rhyme and traditional meter altogether. My favorite example of this is the titular “Hugging This Rock.” Told as a single, run-on sentence without punctuation or any line breaks other than those forced by the physical dimensions of the page, its form thrilled me the most out of the collection:

I’ve seen a bunch of cool things up there but unfortunately there’s a price because as I get farther from the rock and experience less gravity Einstein’s general theory of relativity says that my time is actually going faster than the people that are driving down the highway to jobs in cubicles on the rock and I wonder whether I’m younger from flinging myself through the sky at high speed or maybe I’m older because I was vertically separated from my home for three hundred days

I love its boldness in rejecting what many might think poetry is: rhyme, repetition, rhythm. Instead, he creates something that seems formless, yet is beautiful.

F-16 Fighting Falcon (Military.com)

While I have spent much of this review talking about Chandler’s use of form, which I greatly enjoyed, it was his subject matter that held my attention. I was not moved by every poem, however. In a few, such as “Buddhist, My Ass,” the subject matter is so personal to the author that his telling of it lost the ability to connect with me, and as such became a one-sided conversation:

If all things are one, then
it should also be true
you feel all emotions
at once, too.
So, when they crack her skull
to rip the tumors out,
you should still find things to
laugh about.
But since you’re a coward,
when they lower her down,
you’ll weep. You’ll cry. You’ll feel
like you drown.

While I can clearly see this as an important event in the writer’s life, I confess I have no idea what it is about other than a woman with brain cancer. This unapproachability, which happens several times in the book, is my only real disappointment in an otherwise outstanding tome. While all his works are polished and well-crafted, I fell that these few lack the timeless quality of great poetry and are instead either very esoteric, like his “It’s Only Light Chop,” or speak only to a small group of people from a specific time, as in the comical but unenduring chastisement of the military’s athletic reflective belt in “Slipping the Surlies.” However, these are not the norm, and indeed other readers may connect with them better than I did.

Eric Chandler, Author of Hugging this Rock (Middle West Press)

Chandler, former F-16 pilot, takes his place among other Forever War poets, as I have heard them called, as our aerial observer. Like Randy “Charlie Sherpa” Brown, he entertains the analytical halves our mind with his use of form. Like Randall Jarrell, a poet from the Second World War, he moves us with the humanity of what a father, a husband, and an aviator experience when he goes to war. I return to one of my favorites, “Spark,” to illustrate this:

There were three
Planting an
Two were dead.
The third man
ran and fled.

I now skip to the middle.

He went to
the town. What
did he do?
To the first
house to tell
them the worst.
Then to see
the next guy’s

If there is nothing else I have learned from my own time at war it is that combat has brought each warrior face-to-face with his or her own humanity and that of the enemy. And that, I assert, is Chandler’s true contribution to the poetry of the Global War on Terror, his honest and beautiful portrayal of what it was like to be alive in the conflict of our generation.

In 106 pages, Eric Chandler presents what it is to know the good of the earth and the freedom of the sky, the joy of love and the trial of war. I highly recommend this moving and poignant read.

L. Burton Brender is a US Army officer, an Active Member of the Military Writers Guild, and the coauthor of In Cadence, a book of poetry. Follow his blog at Swords & Pens. The opinions expressed here are his alone and do not reflect those of the United States Army, the Department of Defense, or the United States Government.

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Header Image: "Spitfire High Flight" (J.N. Carter/Deviant Art)