#Reviewing Welcome to FOB Haiku

Welcome to FOB Haiku: War Poems from Inside the Wire. Randy Brown. Johnston, Iowa: Middle West Press, 2015.


It seems that everyone is writing war poetry and memoirs lately. As is the case with any topical genre, the quality is as uneven as the quantity is overwhelming. Brian Turner, whose poetry and prose is full of imagery and emotion, and accessible to anyone—whether or not they are in the military—is one of the best out there (see 2000 Lbs).

When I received the offer to review Welcome to FOB Haiku: War Poems from Inside the Wire by Randy Brown, I was excited to put my love of poetry and my professional knowledge as a literature professor together with my military experience. To prepare for the review, I first brushed up on my haiku knowledge. Haiku is a traditional form of Japanese poetry that follows a strict syllabic format that roughly translates into 17 English syllables, usually divided into three unrhymed lines, the first of 5 syllables, the second with 7 syllables, and ending with 5-syllable line.[1] While traditional haiku focuses on images of nature, modern versions cover many different subjects.

Haiku can be a beautiful, meditative art form at its best, or it can be clunky, silly doggerel. Despite the elegant haiku series on the back cover, my first indication the collection would not likely be the artistic form was the text “A.K.A. ‘Charlie Sherpa’” on the front cover. I have nothing against doggerel. It is fun to write and read. However, Brown’s haiku poems are often closer to inside jokes than a comment on military life in general, and they are not always easily understood across the services. To combat this divide, and to clearly communicate his message, Brown adds a six-page “Notes” section at the end of the book with the definitions of terms.[2] I found it disruptive to have to flip back and forth between the notes and the poems, which definitely interfered with my enjoyment of the work. I believe a short intro to each section of poems that included the notes would make them more accessible. I also believe poetry aimed at the general public, as Brown claims to be writing, should speak to the general public; many of these poems do not.

The book is divided into five short collections of poems which roughly follow the process of a deployment, beginning with “Basic Issue” and ending with “Home Coming.” The first section is the most difficult to decipher, but one can compare it to a young person’s introduction to military terminology and the overwhelming use of acronyms that military personnel forget are not commonly used until we spend time with civilians.

The first poem in the book, “fragments,” is a parody of the Code of Conduct and the Oaths of Enlistment/Commissioning and works fairly well. It is perhaps uneven in tempo—closer to the uneven quality of the Airman's Creed than the Code of Conduct—but it works right up until the last lines:

Do not call me ‘sir’ –
I work for a living
So help me God
Amen.

Brown seems to like this drastic change at the end and uses it as a stylistic marker in many poems, but it is often more disruptive and distracting than a comment—sarcastic or otherwise—on the preceding lines.

There are some poignant and wonderful moments in the collection that are also the poems that speak to a broader audience. In the “Getting Embed” section, two poems stand out: “Carry on” and “Mare Nostrum (‘Our Sea’).” Both of these poems focus on the lasting repercussions of war and the fluid history of soldiers in the United States who fight on foreign soil. They are beautifully constructed with vibrant images; such as corpse flowers in the former and a wonderful transition from graves in the desert to the pristine white gravestones in Arlington Cemetery in the latter.[3]

“There is as much beauty in the shuffle
as there is in the march.”

Some of the poems in the collection are thoughtful, such as “route step, march,” which uses the physics of feet marching across a bridge to muse “There is as much beauty in the shuffle / as there is in the march.” In “Kintsugi,” the flak helmet that protected a soldier is compared to an artfully restored bowl where “Lacquered gold now fills its cracks / it is stronger in the broken places.” The first poem in the “Home Coming” section, “what sacrifice has been,” is the most compelling poem in the collection. This poem addresses that awkward moment in the airport when someone buys a coffee or sandwich for a servicemember and says, “Thank you for your service.” The well-intentioned stranger often incites a visceral emotional response from the servicemember who has lost friends:

they elevate our routine dead
with casual regard and separate
us from them
with unsustaining praise.

The line breaks in this poem help illustrate the chasm that separates the remark from the experiences that garner the thanks.

An unexpected move in the collection is Brown’s incorporation of Norse mythology. This shift fits well with the subject, but it clashes with expectations set by the title. “Café Sessrúmnir” compares Valhalla, the warrior’s version of both Groundhog Day and paradise, with the small coffee shops found at every small base in the Middle East. “Huginn and Muninn start a blog” uses interesting combination of Norse mythology with modern technology. Huginn and Muninn are the ravens named thought and/or mind—though Brown translates it as memory in his notes.[4] The ravens travel the world to bring Odin the latest news in Norse Mythology. In this poem, the strange cadence of the last lines works:

“tell us what you make of them—
click and like, or subscribe.

In this poem, the humor is easily accessible to all readers and is, forgive the pun, caws for celebration.

"Charge of the Light Brigade" by Richard Caton Woodville, Jr. (Wikimedia)

Overall, the rhythm of the book is awkward and uneven; haiku series that are mostly irreverent and often hard to decipher are followed by more elegant poems. This seems an intentional choice of the author, because Brown shows a depth of knowledge of both poetic form and classic poetry throughout the collection—using Hamlet and Tennyson’s Charge of the Light Brigade in “Hamlet in Afghanistan,” Dulce et Decorum est (one of the most famous World War I poems by Wilfred Owens) in “‘Dulce et Decorum est’ Redux,” and classical sonnet forms in a few other poems. Perhaps the discordance is meant to mimic the feeling of being deployed and then coming back home.

In short, the book is an interesting read, but it will not be sharing space on my shelf of favorites...

In short, the book is an interesting read, but it will not be sharing space on my shelf of favorites, alongside other war poets such as Brian Turner, Marvin Bell, and Wilfred Owens. The book may, however,  appeal to the casual poetry reader or to those trying a cross sample of the writing generated by individuals who fought this century’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.


Karalyne Lowery earned her PhD in Literature from the University of Nebraska in 2013, taught at the United States Air Force Academy, and is currently the Associate Dean of Student Operations for Air War College at Air University, Maxwell AFB Alabama. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Air Force, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.


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Header Image: A U.S. soldier patrols outside FOB Shank In Afghanistan. (CNN.com)


Notes:

[1] Haiku Society of America. “Official Definitions of Haiku and Related Terms.” http://www.hsa-haiku.org/archives/HSA_Definitions_2004.html (Accessed May 29, 2018).

[2] Randy Brown, Welcome to FOB Haiku: War Poems from Inside the Wire (Johnston, Iowa: Middle West Press, 2015), 72.

[3] Lindow, John, Norse Mythology: A Guide to the Gods, Heroes, Rituals, and Beliefs, (Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 2001), 186.

[4] Randy Brown, Welcome to FOB Haiku: War Poems from Inside the Wire (Johnston, Iowa: Middle West Press, 2015), 77.