In Welcome to FOB Haiku (Middle West Press, 2015), Randy Brown has written some of the best poetry that I know of to come out of our war in Afghanistan.
Most poets surely hope that their books of poetry will last, but most books of poetry end up as ephemera headed for the cultural landfill. Their styles and language become dated, and their perceptions seem more commonplace as the years go by.
This is especially true of poems that are not rooted in some historical circumstance. A mediocre 1932 poem about the Dust Bowl will last longer than a good 1932 poem about flowers. Poems about quotidian experiences, generic forests, and other commonplaces need very special insights, images, or language if they are to last.
Randy Brown writes well enough to not need that historical-context boost, but it won’t hurt. My bet is that as many as half a dozen of his poems in Welcome to FOB Haiku will be widely read and remembered for a long time, after most other contemporary war poems have been forgotten. Maybe one will eventually become the go-to poem for anthologies and school curricula about Afghanistan.
A journalist and non-fiction writer by trade, Randy Brown should know his way around words, and he does. Perhaps his journalism background, or those personal characteristics that drew him to journalism, contribute to his balanced attitude towards the military: he writes honestly about his experiences, without glorifying military service or attacking it.
Brown writes in the ironic tradition of WWII and late WWI soldier poets, not with the high rhetoric of early WWI poetry, or the mostly humorless and dysphemistic poetry of the Viet Nam War. Irony, of course, creates a distance between the observer and what is observed, favoring insight over emotion.
Everyone in the military confronts ironies, absurdities, disjunction between language and reality, comic cluster-fluffs (I paraphrase here), and contradictions. Military slang and humor are immensely rich because of these disparities, and a lot is based on mockery and parody of official language. Randy Brown adds to this tradition, and he does it with good taste rather than vulgarity.
Sometime after the 9/11 attacks, the language used to describe military matters changed dramatically. The high rhetoric, platitudes, and abstractions of early WWI have been revived in a lot of American political speech, blog rants, and war poetry.
The dead became again the fallen. An infantrymen in the Viet Nam War was just a grunt, and now everyone in the military is a warrior. Describing American responses to 9/11 as a “crusade” seemed like a good idea to George W. Bush for a while, and is still used on some fringe websites.
Randy Brown shows no interest in such manipulative rhetoric. He prefers to manipulate readers the old fashioned way, by writing good and honest poems.
“Humor is a combat multiplier,” Randy “Sherpa” Brown says, in one of his 26 Sherpatudes that parody the already parodic rules of combat around the internet in various versions (rules like “Friendly fire isn’t” and “Never share a foxhole with someone braver than you.”).
Quite a few of the poems here are light verse, or poems that trade consistently in puns, or comically juxtapose half lines from disparate sources, like “Give us this day, some shelf-stable bread.” I am less taken with Randy Brown’s humorous poems than with his more serious ones, but other readers will have their own favorites.
The best poems here?
We readers will not agree on which poems here are most memorable, because this collection ranges from light verse to serious, has poems in various forms and styles, and expresses a variety of reactions to military service in general and Afghanistan in particular.
For my tastes, here are five poems that will reward you for reading this book.
“suburbistan” might be the best poem I have read expressing the uneasy nostalgia many veterans feel for war and military routine, tempered by a sense of ridiculousness.
“here and theirs” expresses a veteran’s understanding that it all went wrong. Is he bitter or is he just realistic? The poem is nicely ambiguous about that. It seems to be one of the few poems in the book that might be interpreted as political, whether intended as such or not (and I think not). The poem has the clarity, repetition, and aphoristic brevity to make it appropriate for recitation at some public occasions, but probably not for VFW picnics.
“drops in the funnel” is spoken by a veteran watching recruiters at work at an Iowa state fair. This fine poem precariously balances the speaker’s fatalism, his understanding of young men’s expectations and reality, the carnival atmosphere and its cool simulacrum of serious military matters, and the cold sales-quota seriousness behind the hot summer fun. The poem has a killer last line to go along with its meme-worthy title.
“dust bunnies and combat boots” seems destined to be a classic poem from our war in Afghanistan, about the existential situation of the individual soldier in any war.
“night vision” demonstrates the cultural, linguistic, and technological misfit between American and Afghan soldiers, and, I think, the impossibility of the mission.
You want to support a veteran? Discover a worthy poet? Buy this book.