Friday, February 22, 2008

James Bishop's "Basic Training"/What it Looks Like from Inside

I received a call the other day from Lt. Col. Jim Bishop, who happened to be in the thick of a review of Behind the Lines (the book) for War, Literature & the Arts, a journal located at the Air Force Academy, and we had a good conversation about the book and the issues at stake in my arguments about poetry and war. As soon as I learned who he was, and that he was a member of the Armed Services, I immediately anticipated a harsh critique of any number of aspects of the book (the lack of discussion of soldier and veteran poets, the persistent critiques of the U.S. conduct of war, etc.), but Jim was gracious in ways that surprised me. It is amazing how different his perspective was from what I imagined, given his profession and his institutional affiliations. Oddly enough, he quoted passages and cited ideas that, if I were in his boots, might irk or outrage me. Jim's demeanor and outlook demonstrated to me how easily my essentializing fantasy of what a soldier "must" think. His poem, "Basic Training," extends this complex portrait of how military people face their fates and the fantasies of others like Langston Hughes' portrait of African-American life...

"Basic Training" by James Bishop

See the colonel.
See the colonel lead the troops.
Call the area to attention when
He walks by, and the dirt
And grass stand tall.
He was going to retire and hike
The Pacific Crest Trail last year.
Maybe next year.
That’s what happens
To a dream deferred.

See the captain.
See the captain yell two inches
From the face of a recruit.
We hear her 100 yards away.
The captain bakes pound cake
With white confectioners glaze
For the staff. She is loud
And harsh and kind
Mixed into one.
That’s what happens
With so many ingredients.

See the lieutenant.
See the lieutenant watching the recruits
Stand where he stood five years ago.
His arms are bigger than my calves
His voice, a paradox of gentle loudness.
When he called a civilian to ask
If she might sponsor a recruit,
He mentioned he played
Football at the Air Force Academy.
“Did you rape anyone?” she asked.
Stunned, he said, “No, I did not.”
That’s what happens
When civilians go to war.

See the recruit.
See the recruit rise at 0500,
Shower in 30 seconds, squeeze in time
To memorize Schofield’s quote,
To hold a thousand details in panicked
Suspension. Curl your fingers at attention,
Touch your middle finger to your eyebrow
When you salute. Promise to die for your
Country if necessary. Lying on concrete,
His legs lifted six inches off the ground
For the last three minutes until he can’t stop
Shaking, the recruit wonders about the violence
That attaches to dreams.
That’s what happens
To the Basics.

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