Review: Camouflage for the Neighborhood

Unlike most books of poetry, which are collections of separate poems ignoring each other like subway commuters, Lorene Delany-Ullman’s Camouflage for the Neighborhood is better understood, in fact only understood, as a single coherent work, the whole being far greater than the sum of its parts.

Collectively the 71 prose poems (or paragraphs) form a collage of anecdotal memories and asides expressed by a woman, 55 or so years old, whose life in Southern California was touched, quietly and softly, and continually, by America’s wars, by our preparations for wars, and by our anodyne acceptance of wars.

In addition to this war theme, Camouflage for the Neighborhood quietly addresses generational conflict, the often puzzling relationships of men and women, and the grim discovery of our bodies’ built-in obsolescence.

This is not a book about war as suffered by combatants or as fantasized by Hollywood’s audiences. It is a book about the militarization of ordinary individuals, arguably about the militarization of the United States. This militarization has gone unnoticed by most people, has been camouflaged, I believe, not that Camouflage for the Neighborhood tips into polemic or politics. Lorene Delany-Ullman might not agree with my observation at all.

But showing a playground with a Navy jet for children to climb on is a clue. Reading this book, I recalled being in a JC Penney store during the Gulf War, and seeing a tall decorative Santa figure dressed not in red but in camouflage. The store also had toddlers’ pajamas in camouflage patterns, a perfect gift to accidentally predispose your child to feel comfortable with war.

Most of Delany-Ullman’s references to war are reportorial and unemotional, so the reader is not told what to think. Both Medea Benjamin and Sarah Palin might enjoy reading most of this this book, neither one offended by the author’s recollections. I trust Medea Benjamin to suss out and agree with more meaning by the final pages.

Sometime towards the last years of the poems’ speaker’s life, perhaps partially in response to the intimations of mortality delivered by heart and cancer physicians, and by the loss of internal organs and teeth, the speaker comes to articulate what was probably a very slowly developing overt rejection of violence and war.

The speaker visits war memorials, Ford Theater, and the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D. C. Those visits help the poet’s understanding, and ours.
Were the question to arise now, the speaker says, she would send a son to Canada rather than let him be drafted, but the speaker watched the Viet Nam war go by without apparent objection. Reading this, I was reminded of my own mother’s never forgiving herself for driving me to report to Atlanta’s draft induction center in 1966, rather than spiriting me away.

The speaker does not announce her stance with a screed. It is a grandmother’s quiet response to a two year old pretending to have a gun, a soft push back to the boy’s play. The grandmother knows where all of this play ends up.
Like all good biographies rooted in a place and a time, the life we learn about is at once unique and representative.

Poetry or creative non-fiction?

Camouflage for the Neighborhood is offered as a collection of prose poems, but my sense is that this book might better be called creative non-fiction. There is a lot here to please readers of memoirs and meditative writing, and nothing to frighten off readers who dislike poetry.

The life of the speaker, which presumably is the life of the poet, has been fictionalized by some changes in actual events (e.g. details of the father’s Navy service), and by having the speaker report taking part in at least one event that Lorene Delany-Ullman read about in a newspaper. The welcome notes at the end suggest that Lorene Delany-Ullman is scrupulous about acknowledging her few non-historical additions. This care suggests that the poet and the speaker are one, and supports thinking of this book as more memoir than poetic invention.

While the similes and other poetic devices are few, Lorene Delany-Ullman does rely on imagery (like that Navy jet playground) and on juxtaposition, the fundamental principle of so much poetry, especially Chinese and Japanese. As an example, she shows the abandoned munitions bunkers of the Seal Beach Navy Station — a paradoxical juxtaposition all by itself — next to an estuary that is home to endangered species.

But my observation about form is unimportant. Camouflage for the Neighborhood rewards not just reading but re-reading. Readers should enjoy and profit from piecing together the fragments of autobiography to better understand the military commonalities of four generations of this family.

Camouflage for the Neighborhood is published by Firewheel Editions (2012)


This review first appeared on in 2014.

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