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From Pearl Harbor to Nagasaki in Poetry: A Stunning Masterpiece

(Tongue of War, From Pearl Harbor to Nagasaki, Tony Barnstone, BkMk Press, 125 pp, 2009)

Every poem, every story about war is somehow measured in the West against The Iliad. It can't be helped. The Iliad is that compelling, Homer's storytelling that memorable.

Sometimes it is said The Iliad and The Odyssey are the DNA of the novel. I would make the case for Gilgamesh, too. And more recently Beowulf. But whenever this is said the case is also made for the rootedness of the novel in poetry, an idea we studiously ignore.

I had been studying the Robert Fagles translation of The Iliad for almost a year when Tony Barnstone's Tongue of War arrived in the mail. There are no accidents. By the time I had half read Tongue of War I was standing it on my bedside table next to The Iliad. I have read most if not all the English language translations of The Iliad. Unlike the critics, I am loathe to compare them because each sheds a different light on Homer's epic.

What was clear to me by the time I reached "The Island Campaign," the second section of Tongue of War, is that the book has the drive of a linear novel. It is, in fact, linear in its overarching structure, as the subtitle suggests. I needed to contemplate this fact in order to savor the book's full achievement, which is to convince us yet again that poetry is capable of telling the story of great events not only as ably as the novel or nonfiction but better than either. The reason is the same as the argument I have been making lately that poetry more than journalism tells us what is going on. Poetry cuts to the chase. It expresses the emotions other forms merely report or imitate. It turns great issues into elegant algorithms, and these algorithms are then used to unravel the problems we experience fathoming great events.

The constraints of contemporary journalism are imposed by conventions that predate the work of Freud and Jung and other pioneers of the human psyche. Nineteenth Century ideas of journalistic balance are too often at the expense of insight and depth. Worse yet, there is a residue of antagonism towards psychology, antagonism and a fear to accept its invitations lest they disabuse us of our favorite prejudices and ideologies. Under the circumstances, poetry is fleeter than journalism and more to the point, which is human evolution. I believe Tongue of War is a living, towering proof of this thesis. No scholarly study of the Pacific war, no collection of reports is as swift and sharp-just as none of the recent reportage of the Iraq war equals the fiery, tragic poems of Brian Turner's Here, Bullet. Reading either of these books Sunday morning would tell us far more than the usual pundits and preachers do.

It would be hard to imagine a more stunning appearance in the poetry of the last century: The Wasteland by T.S. Eliot in 1922, Harmonium by Wallace Stevens in 1923, The Bridge by Hart Crane in 1930 and the five-book Paterson by William Carlos Williams, 1946 to 1958-and now Tongue of War. Crane had something in common with Eliot, a poet with whom he set himself at odds: they both hankered to empower the epic with the lyrical mode, as Harold Bloom points out in his introduction to the centennial edition of The Complete Poems of Hart Crane. I would like to know if this eminent scholar would invite Tongue of War into the Eliot-Stevens-Williams pantheon. He is, as I am, an ardent admirer of Crane, but I'm not sure how he might feel about this epic; I owe Professor Bloom's writings so much that I would be sad if we disagreed.

Others may propose other books. I posit the caveat that there have been many great war poems outside these books. In his introduction to Tongue of War, B.H. Fairchild, the judge who awarded the book the John Ciardi Prize, remarking that it is a book, not a collection, says that "everything about it cuts against the current fashions." I think he is right but for the exception that there is today a vogue for thematic or sequential poetry. If by current fashions he means namby-pamby and uninquiring, I enthusiastically concur.

Vogue or not, Tongue of War would be a profound achievement in any publishing environment. I can almost relive the excitement that led Fairchild to write that it was one of the most distinctive manuscripts he had ever judged for a prize. I would go beyond that. I have been reading and studying contemporary poetry for more than sixty years and I don't remember anything as exciting. But I have never experienced the forced march of being a judge.

In his introduction, which won't be needed as the book becomes a classic, Barnstone says he has been at work on this project for more than a decade. It shows. It is one thing to read a Pacific war history, another thing entirely to ask for admission into the minds of Korean sex slaves, Japanese and American soldiers, Chinese professors, and victims of nuclear attack. The spirits of these people must have trusted Barnstone's intent, because he sounds authentic. We never doubt who is speaking, and we never suppose it's the poet. This is shapeshifting and time-traveling. It's not so much the telling of a story as the recording of the participants of the war-not spot interviews, but their contemplations of events in their old age, rather like Eliot's poem about the magi and their hard slog to Bethlehem.

There was a tradition among the bedouins of casting news as poetry. Poets are doing it today in the certain knowledge that what we think of as news on television is blather. Tongue of War, like The Iliad, makes World War II in the Pacific news because it is news, and like the Trojan War, it will always be news because the human race will always be trying to get it right, to get it straight, to understand why we make war and why we seem so inured to consequence. We still think Helen's beauty and the adolescent lust of Paris caused the Trojan War, or at least we enjoy thinking it. But Turner doesn't let us get away with such sappy notions in Here, Bullet, and Barnstone doesn't let us get away with the notion that evil Japan attacked wonderful us out of the blue. Poets often burn the bush historians and journalists beat around.

Barnstone's use of sequential sonnets for narration has antecedents, but as a mature device it comes into its own here and is likely to become a bellwether. He does not use it throughout, but it is the book's dominant prosodic jet. The sonnets are neither Petrarchan nor Shakespearean, although they resemble the latter more closely. They are more comparable to Robert Lowell's not sonnets, as Lowell called them. But in their startling pith they also call to mind Leda and the Swan by William Butler Yeats, which, although cast in quatrains, foreshadowed modernist poetics.

Aristotle distinguished between epic and lyric poetry, probably because the telling of an epic tale is no easy feat in lyric verse. But recruiting the sonnet form to an epic ambition is not without precedent, witness W H. Auden's Sonnets From China. It is a facet of Barnstone's genius that he understood the demotic is best suited to this strategy if the work were not to sound mock-Edwardian. But demotic how? A Manchurian's demotic is not a Korean's, and the task of imagining how each might sound in English is stupefying. I think-perhaps Barnstone will correct me if I'm wrong-that he had to fully imagine each speaker and spend a great deal of time in that speaker's mind. I suspect even that he would have had to imagine the speaker's body language and demeanor. This is the playwright's challenge, and the novelist's; poets only occasionally take it on.

I hope, if they haven't already, that Tony Barnstone and Anna Deavere Smith get together for a long chat. Her one-woman play, Let Me Down Easy, bears some remarkable similarities to Tongue of War. I'll bet they would have a high old time talking about how they conceived their projects. Come to think of it, Barnstone might talk to Ms. Smith about staging Tongue of War.

None of this quite apprehends the demeanor of Barnstone's language. There is a kind of Old English redux in it, and one inevitably thinks of Beowulf and Piers Plowman-the older they get the more modern they sound.

Although the sonnet redoublé, consisting of fifteen sequential sonnets in which each line of the first sonnet becomes the final line of the fourteen succeeding sonnets, is a well known device, it is not a narrative form. The device weaves a thread, but still Barnstone had no exact precedent for his accomplishment. He has so perfectly understood that the sonnet is ideal for a complete thought carried to a telling conclusion that he makes it seem as if epics had always been told in this form. The epic derives from oral tradition, as with Homer, so the sonnet would seem almost too gemlike, too algorithmic to employ for long narratives. But here it works as a kind of calculus. To provide a thread, Barnstone had not only to organize his epic chronologically, he had to add footers at the end of each poem to identify the speaker. It could have proven an awkward device, anti-poetic even. But instead it gave him the opportunity to use titles like "Rosie the Riveter" that conjure memories of recent history and set the scene. In this light, the device is rather like a playwright's notations. The titles are stage instructions. Or the title could be seen and heard as a chorus, so that if the poems are recorded the titles and the footers would be spoken by different voices.

There have been many unforgettable war poems and poets. An Irish Airman Foresees His Death by Yeats and Randall Jarrell's The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner come quickly to mind, both in the first person. More recently, Here, Bullet is a hair-raisingly beautiful and learned evocation of the Iraq war. But for scope, immediacy and seamless art-often conflicting ideals- nothing compares to Tongue of War, except of course The Iliad. The reason is that Barnstone blueprinted for himself an immense undertaking, the human breadth and depth of a great war, a war that dwarfs the Trojan War in its tragedy and destructiveness. And then he executed the blueprint with the competence of a Renaissance architect. Not all architects know their materials well, but if they have an eye for grandeur, others can fill in the blanks, making compromises with materials and costs as they go. This was not for Barnstone. He aimed high and carried through, and that is why the work stuns.

In a time of the private muse Barnstone publicly engages history in the certain knowledge that nothing is past. In the poem "Useless Government" in American Poetry Review (January-February 2010) the poet Edward Hirsch wrote:
I am the mirror to a stubborn republic / where no one wants to compromise.

Hirsch could have been talking about the eve of the Pacific war. They could have given it to us / but they kept every drop of oil, says a Japanese naval officer who became a Buddhist monk after the war. Hirsch's stubborn republic, too, keeps every drop of oil. History is never behind us. It's under our noses, it stares at us in the mirror. It mocks us when we're stupid, guides us when we are awake.
The theatrical intransigence and mock self-righteousness of a government for sale-the spectacle to which we are today both witness and participant-is hardly new to history. The demonization to which both Japan and America resorted is now played out between Muslim and American fanatics. Barnstone's reanimation of the Pacific war and its victims, soldier and civilian alike, recalls the poet C.P. Cavafy's grasp of Hellenic history and his insistence that history always throws off its own dust cover to bonk us on the head from its forgotten shelves.
Tongue of War is more current than today's news because yesterday's follies are prologue.

It would be hard to find a more brute confrontation with history and with truth than the sonnet "Revenant," which concludes with these horrific lines:
My men became like me, dead cold. / And then we burned the houses, raped the women. / Other men couldn't kill like that, were a disgrace, / but I would not be shamed. I saved my face.

The speaker is a Japanese officer at Nanjing,1937. He is speaking of the infamous rape of Nanjing and how it made of him a revenant, a punishment no court and no prison could equal. More stark than anything in The Iliad, this poem and others like it revisit the sonnet in ways as bright as Van Gogh's revisitation of plein-air painting. And then, a line ends, bringing the reader to a cliff and gut-punching him. Then what? We burned the houses, raped the women. And as if that's not uncompromising enough, the last word of the line, Other, opens the gate of hell. Other is the password of infinite possibility for good or ill. Other / men couldn't kill like that. Not other men who couldn't kill like that, but all other men. The statement is so bleak, so flat and arrogant that even in the absence of the title you would know a revenant is the speaker. But in the arrogant recollection is remorse.

This man saved his face. It sounds sickeningly familiar, so like our own recent history, that we wince to read it. He had to rape and to kill to save his own face. There is no way we cannot get it. There is no escape from this poem, just as there was no escape from his deed for that enemy officer. Tell me what in the nightly news is more important than that?

Tongue of War blows open the gate of hell. The fires lit in our intransigence in the 1930s and in the Japanese response lick at us today, because in all the clamor and turmoil of our current crisis we so steadfastly refuse to inquire into the roots, which lie in poverty, corruption and the desperation they inevitably breed. And when occasionally we touch a root, we see the corruption in others, not ourselves.

There are many parallels between The Iliad and Tongue of War, but the differences are as significant. Barnstone does not give voice to the warlord Tojo or Franklin Roosevelt or Chester Nimitz or Douglas MacArthur in the way the The Iliad memorializes Agamemnon, Achilles, Hector and Priam. Barnstone is not interested in heroes or heroics. His war is a tragedy of such immense proportion that only plain speech and demotic bite are respectful. I began to wonder towards the end of my first reading of the book how he would have treated the European war.

There is a telling foreshadowing of Barnstone's uncompromising poems in his introduction: "The man who was a hero at Iwo Jima was a scared teenager and a high school bully who came home and fought his memories and alcoholism." I first read the passage to say he fought his memories with alcoholism, but alcoholism is another war and there is no victory, and my misreading is typical of the way we easily misread events. Here is no flag-waving. Heroes are often bullies and in my experience they are quite often the victims of bullies. War is nothing to be jubilant about. It is a disgrace.

There is a strain of aikido in Tongue of War. Aikido is the Japanese martial art that uses an opponent's movements to offset his attack. It turns ill intent into advantage. In this instance the attacker is the idea of war and its glorification and the poems use war's gravity and thrust to flatten that attack. The poems have aikido's elegance and austerity. And in their austerity and severity they resemble Japanese gardens.

I showered, shaved, and slid down to the mess. That's the first line of the first sonnet, "Angel of Death." The angel is about to deliver a catastrophe. The speaker is a radioman on Ford Island, Pearl Harbor. This is the way it's going to be, as hard, pointed and terse as Old English. Like a Norseman saying, I stole his wife and sailed away. You could win a handful of Pulitzers and not top that. These voices are not going to mess you around. They're not out to impress you. This is the demeanor of great poetry: blazing immediacy. Homer had the whimsical and terrible gods to reckon with, and he himself chose to deal with the fame of his characters. Barnstone sweeps all that aside and lets the broken speak. Homer sang of Hector and Achilles, but he hardly mentions the hoplites. In Tongue of War it is the hoplites, the foot soldiers, who matter. And in their plain speech they are more capable of great song than the high and mighty, because we expect much of the high and mighty and are always disappointed.

We listen to so much television and see so many movies that we think a Yiddish accent either has to be emulated or subtitles have to be used. Consequently we get bad East European or French or Italian or Arab accents, and they in turn contribute to unfortunate stereotypes. We don't know how Alexander the Great, a Macedonian, sounded in Greek. We don't really know how Demosthenes sounded. But we can tell by the demeanor of the Greeks' writing how their own language might have sounded in their minds. We can't even be sure how the Elizabethans sounded, but their written words tell us much about the dialogue in their minds. We think when we listen to the great Shakespearean actors that we are hearing the Elizabethans, but what we are hearing is their minds at work. And that being so, it doesn't really matter if their written words are now spoken in English or American.

I set this down because Barnstone is not imitating a Korean woman speaking of her enslavement and ruin at the hands of the Japanese, nor is he imitating a Japanese soldier, as so many war movies have done. Rather he has spent so much time contemplating their lives and studying what they wrote that he has turned his own English into a universal language in which we never doubt that we are hearing that Korean woman, that soldier, that professor, that sailor. This is Zen concentration. And if we read enough and consider enough we can almost hear Alexander issuing orders at Gaugamela. It would be ridiculous to make him sound like Zorba, because sound is a facet of the emotions and thinking from which it originates. That is why the breathlessness of the Book of Revelation comes through to us in translation.

This is why the muezzin's call to prayer electrifies even the American soldier in Iraq or Afghanistan. We are hearing the very cast of the Prophet Mohammed's mind, the way he spoke to himself and to his followers. We have a better idea of how his Arabic sounded than how Alexander's Greek sounded, but in both instances the demeanor of the language, not the timbre of the original speaker, is speaking to us. It is in this sense that film so often misleads, while poetry, even in translation, does not.

A written language has a look. The shape of its letters and the displacements of its various prosodic forms all tell us something about the sensiblity of the people who spoke it. We can see from the Greek alphabet that the Greeks cared about logic, about geometry, about things making sense, just as we can see from Arabic script that the Arabs cared about fluidity, sonority, space and infinity. Modern English script in its myriad type faces speaks of competence and universality. If Al Kwarizmi, the 11th Century Arab mathematician, didn't have Arabic numerals available to him he would have had to invent them, because their athleticism is required of modern mathematics.

The placement of words and sentences on paper or in cyberspace leads us into the mind of the writer. In this way Barnstone's poems, their form and placement, say, Look at this, this happened, never mind the palaver surrounding it, this is what happened and this is how it happened. They have the authority of Jesus saying, I am the way and the truth and the life, or the muezzin crying, God is great and Mohammed is his prophet. Contest the words if we choose-and wars have been fought in contest of them-but they remain electric. We no longer believe in Homer's gods, but in The Iliad they have more authority than the Supreme Court. We can't contest the language in which they live.

As I approached the end of Tongue of War I began to fret that the end might be flat-footed, because its scope was from the outset so far beyond anything I could have imagined for myself. But the final poem, a sonnet called "At The Retirement Home" left me gasping because Barnstone breaks his promise to stop at Nagasaki. He breaks it because the magnificence of his project demands it. History does not stop. It does not pigeonhole itself. We try to stop it, we try to pigeonhole it, because we do not wish to confront its consequences. But here Barnstone forces us to. An old soldier is talking to a younger man. He asks for an iron and his shirts. And then he asks the question that is going to go on flabbergasting Barnstone's readers for as long as his epic is read: How would you feel, son, if you had survived the Bataan Death March only to live long enough to see your own beloved country engage in torture? You can't ring down the curtain on that, can you?

There is the last measure of Tony Barnstone's achievement.

Djelloul (jeh-lool) Marbrook was born in 1934 in Algiers to a Bedouin father and an American painter. He grew up in Brooklyn, West Islip and Manhattan, New York, where he attended Dwight Preparatory School and Columbia. He then served in the U.S. Navy.

Djelloul Marbrook
Djelloul Marbrook

His book of poems, Far From Algiers, won the Stan and Tom Wick Poetry Prize from Kent State University in 2007 and was published in 2008. His story, Artists Hill, adapted from the second novel of an unpublished trilogy, won the Literal Latté first prize in fiction in 2008. His poems have been published in The American Poetry Review, Barrow Street, poemeleon, The Same, and other journals. The pioneering e-book publisher, Online Originals (UK), published his novella, Alice MIller's Room, in 1999.

He worked as a reporter for The Providence Journal and as an editor for The Elmira (NY) Star-Gazette, The Baltimore Sun, The Winston-Salem Journal & Sentinel and The Washington Star. Later he worked as executive editor of four small dailies in northeast Ohio and two medium-size dailies in northern New Jersey.


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