Above the Dreamless Dead — a book discussion and review

 Above the Dreamless Dead is a book that bleeds together verses of Trench Poets and illustrations of comic artists.  The result is a poignant discussion of war and its numerous casualties and implications.  Edited by Chris Duffy, it is a collection of Trench Poetry, or poetry written mostly by soldier poets who had experienced first-hand the tragedies and travesties of World War I.
It is important to remember that World War I was an extraordinarily formative war as it introduced, for the first time, industrialized warfare.  This modernized war caused what were previously unimaginable numbers of casualties, and ultimately caused the restructuring of world maps, particularly in Europe and the Middle East. Among the most famous of these Trench Poets include Wilfred Owen, Osbert Sitwell and Siegfried Sassoon.  Fittingly, the release of the book in 2014, which marks the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I.

The book arrived bound in a dust jacket bearing a harrowing illustration of a kneeling soldier.  Under his knees, buried in the dirt, there lies a young soldier…eyes closed, quiet in eternal rest.  If you take off the dust jacket, the book is covered with another jolting image–a crowd of skeletons still cloaked in combat gear, standing shoulder to shoulder, as though still fallen into formation, marching into combat.  There stands one lonely soldier at the bottom who appears to still be living.  His uniform is cast in green.  But all the haunting dead eyes and vicious dead mouths gather behind him in an eery horde.

Above the Dreamless Dead

Above the Dreamless Dead

The title Above the Dreamless Dead comes from the last line of Wilfred Wilson Gibson’s poem titled “The Dancers.”  The poem combines imagery of combat, of “hurting shells” and “burning eyes” and juxtaposes it with the whimsy of dancing dragonflies.  As the narrator fights “in France as in a senseless dream,” these fluttering dragonflies “dance” amongst the shattering bombs, “above the dreamless dead.”

The editor, Chris Duffy, divided the book up into three chapters, The Call to War, In the Trenches, and The Aftermath, which stands as a logical progression of war itself—being drawn into the war mentally and ideologically, then physically, and then the destruction left after the war is “over.”

The poems range from quite whimsical and singsongy to extremely eery, heavy, blistering.
For instance, Hunt Emerson’s illustrations of soldier’s songs are uncensored and comical, albeit extremely dark and still twanged with tragedy, in both illustration and verse (“I don’t want to be a solider, I don’t want to go to war! I’d rather hand around piccadilly underground, living off the earnings of a well-paid whore…).

On the other hand, several of Siegfried Sassoon’s poems are utilized throughout the book, and they are all filled with passion, politics, and a vehement call for pacifism.  At one point during Sassoon’s career as a British soldier in World War I, he wrote a letter to Great Britain’s House of Commons stating that he believed that the war was no longer one of “defense and liberation” but had become one of “aggression and conquest.”  Afterwards, he was hospitalized for “shell shock,” better known today as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.  In the third chapter of the book, The Aftermath, James Lloyd illustrates Sassoon’s poem titled “Repression of War Experience,” which discusses living with PTSD after the war was over, how the war is never over, how it lingers, toxic, in the minds of those who experience it.  The poem ends with, “I want to go out, And screech at them to stop—I’m going crazy; I’m going stark, staring mad because of the guns.”
Llloyd includes a note at the end in which he brings the entire Above the Dreamless Dead project into the Here and Now.  He pens an homage to Sassoon and salutes our contemporary veterans who have lived and continue to live with invisible wounds sustained from warfare.  He writes, “And at the bottom of it all remains the resounding alienation suffered by Sassoon and his mates.  They are alone in the rain, and the bombs still fall.”  He then ends with, “With respect for the words of the Iraq and Afghanistan winter soldiers and all veterans who have found the courage to bear witness.”

Each comic artist has such a distinct style so that every poem is illustrated and interpreted in a distinct fashion.  I think that the project was ultimately successful particularly in the way translating each poem into comic cells creates a unique way to read and absorb the poetry.  It puts the poems’ rhythms and tones into visual form.  I found myself meditating on each individual line as I studied the artwork.  Why did the artist illustrate this poem in this particular way?  What does it mean that these specific words are in a cell with this particular image?  Some of the illustrations are so haunting they send shivers down your spine, specifically Eddie Campbell’s adaption of the excerpt from Patrick MacGill’s novel, The Great Push, as well as George Pratt’s interpretation of “Greater Love” by Wilfred Owen.

I do think that it is extremely important Chris Duffy mentions that all the cartoonists are civilians.  This is crucial because most if not all of these poets have experienced the horrors of war directly, and brought this experience out through their art.  These cartoonists do not and cannot have the same perspective that these, or any other, soldiers poets have.  Duffy writes, “That feeling of inadequacy, in the face of warriors’ tales…is hard to dismiss.”  He then concludes that the project is a tribute to these soldiers, an effort to bear witness “to those who bear witness.”  I think that is evident particularly in James Lloyd’s note about Sassoon, PTSD, and present-day soldiers after “Repression of War Experience.”

On that note, I cannot find the adequate words to conclude a discussion about Trench Poets, so it is probably more appropriate to end with their own words.  Here are the last lines of Osbert Sitwell’s “The Next War.”

What more fitting memorial for the fallen

Than that their children

Should fall for the same cause?

Rushing eagerly into the street,

The kindly old gentleman cried

To the young:

“Will you sacrifice

Through your lethargy

What your fathers died to gain?

The world must be made safe for the young!”

And the children

Went…

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The 34th Annual National Veterans Wheelchair Games

This weekend, I had the great honor and the tremendous fortune not only to attend, but also to volunteer at the 34th annual National Veterans Wheelchair Games. Philadelphia hosted the games this year, which ran for 5 days from August 12th to the 17th. More than 500 athletes compete yearly in the National Veterans Wheelchair Games, making it the largest wheelchair sporting event in the world. There are 17 sports, including basketball, rugby, swimming, weight lifting, and softball. While some of the athletes are seasoned, it is also an opportunity for those who are newer to competition to participate. All of the athletes have varying backgrounds and levels of capability including quadriplegics, paraplegics, and amputees. I think it is pertinent and just plain interesting to give a brief history of the event. Wheelchair sports became popular after World War II when young veterans at VA hospitals across the United States started to play wheelchair basketball. In 1980, the VA established Recreational Therapy services, and a year later came the 1st annual NVWG in Richmond, Virginia.  In that first year, 74 vets competed. Shortly after in 1985, the Paralyzed Veterans of America offered to co-sponsor the event with the VA and also offered to recruit corporate sponsors because the event was rapidly increasing in size and popularity. By 1985, there were 280 athletes partaking in the games. Two years later in 1987, 12 British military veterans were invited to participate in the NVWG alongside American vets. Since then, Great Britain has participated every year. I worked specifically at the swimming competition, which took place on August 16th at the Kroc Center on Wissahickon Ave in North Philadelphia. I was not even aware the Kroc Center existed until the Saturday of the competition, when I showed up with my bright orange volunteer shirt. It is an entity of the Salvation Army (which was born in Philadelphia, as a matter of fact), and a remarkably generous gift from Joan Kroc, wife of Ray Kroc—the McDonald’s founder. According to the Salvation Army website, at 130,000 square feet, it is the “newest, largest, most comprehensive community center on the east coast.” And they certainly do have bragging rights because it is the most beautiful community and recreational center I have ever seen. What makes it even more wonderful is the fact that it has been built in a severely underserved part of city. It is nestled in the North Philadelphia industrial landscape, some of which is still in use and some of which is quite blighted. The building is so gorgeous and so salubrious with its modern curvature and its sleek, glistening glass and steel walls through which natural light merrily floods. As a first-time volunteer and spectator of the games, the swimming competition was, for me, an incredible, emotional, almost overwhelming experience.  It seemed to me that everyone’s spirits ran high. There was so much encouragement and positivity. The air was heavy with humidity and thick with cheers and laughter. There was a deep and visible camaraderie that seemed to form amongst the athletes. One of the first things that struck me when the athletes started to roll in was the diversity amongst them. They were older, middle-aged, and very young. They were men and women. They were black, white, Latino, and Asian. They were quadriplegics, paraplegics, amputees, all with varying levels of capabilities. And they were all under this one roof, sitting in groups, catching up or getting to know each other, sharing their experiences as veterans, as athletes, as human beings. Some swimmers were extremely agile and fast.  Others moved at a much slower pace, but swam so steadily that the entire room couldn’t help but scream and cheer as they pushed themselves to finish the race.  One woman finished last place in the 50 meter backstroke, but as everyone cheered mightily for her, you could see her face beaming with pride and joy. After she was lifted out of the pool and back into her chair, she laughed, “I guess I finished last, huh?” to which a volunteer responded emphatically, “But you finished!” I personally became particularly overwhelmed when seeing younger vets competing. One gentleman could not have been older than thirty, with a beard and long hair pulled messily back into a pony tail.  On his forearm he had tattooed the details of his tour in Afghanistan, and under it was written “Purple Heart.” I deduced that meant he was injured in Afghanistan and possibly confined to the wheelchair because of injuries he sustained.  In spite of all the heartache he must have endured, he was in Philadelphia, competing in a huge sporting event. There are so many physical and psychological wounds sustained in war to which so many service members might easily succumb. These vets have found the strength and ability to overcome. It is awe-inspiring and humbling to witness.  When I think about the trials and troubles I will face in my day-to-day, I just need to remember these extraordinary service members who sacrificed for their country and then came out with the boldness and bravery to compete in this huge athletic event. The National Veterans Wheelchair Games have been hosted all across the nation from Wisconsin and Texas to Puerto Rico and  Alaska. Next year, the 35th annual NVWG will be held in Dallas, TX from June 21-26th. All events are FREE and open to the public!  That’s another fantastic thing about them!  If you can, go support the athletes next year! The National Veterans Wheelchair Games is not the only event that the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs sponsors.  There are several others throughout the year, most of which take place during the end of the summer into the fall.  The two that caught my eye were the Warrior Games and the National Veterans Creative Arts Festival. The Warrior Games are compromised of 200 wounded, ill or injured service members and veterans, each representing 1 of 5 different teams—Army, Marine Corps, Navy/Coast Guard, Air Force, and Spec Ops.  There are 7 sports including archery, cycling, shooting, sitting-volleyball, swimming, track & field, and wheelchair basketball.  These 5 teams compete against each other.  All events are free and open to the public.  This year, the 2014 Warrior Games are being hosted in Colorado Springs, CO from September 24 – October 4.  If you are in the area or plan on being in the area, go support them and also enjoy a competitive athletic event. The National Veterans Creative Arts Festival is another annual event hosted by the VA.  About 120 veterans participate, and enter creative pieces including painting, photography, creative writing, dance, and music. It is a festival that recognizes and honors progress and recovery.  If you are a veteran and are interested in submitting work for next year’s event, you can go to the National Veterans Creative Arts Festival website to check out submission guidelines.  This year, the festival is being hosted in Milwaukee, WI from October 27-November 2, 2014.  The events that are open to the public take place on November 2; the art exhibit is from 12:00pm to 1:45pm, and the stage show begins at 2:00pm at the Milwaukee Theater.  Again, if you’re in that general area and want to support the festival, please attend!  I can only imagine how powerful it will be. Thank you to all veterans and service members and thank you to the NVWG for hosting such a remarkable event.  It was truly moving and also fun.

Excerpts from a short story, “Death of Jesse James”

by Ariel

Bob Ford is nineteen-years-old and he fancies himself an authority on the James brothers.  He stashes James gang memorabilia in a box that he hides under his bed.  Every so often, he takes it out and gingerly arranges the books. He feels the swashbuckling tales of heroism surge through his fingertips.
In the books, Jesse and Frank always win.  Those who cross them die because they deserve to, and Jesse and Frank always come home safely.  In those pages, there is black, and there is white, and there is nothing else.
All the guys make fun of Bob for collecting the stories.  But, any teenage boy could fall for those simplified picture-book versions of grand American adventures.  It’s easier to believe and better to hope that life could be that ideal and illusory.  If you give a nineteen-year-old a gun and say it will be easy and exciting, he might romp around on steeds and try to fight a noble fight.

Bob pouts when the world doesn’t fall into place around him.  He watches as his boyhood idol, who he always imagined was a demigod, becomes unhinged and despondent, racked with pain from battle wounds and congested lungs.  Jesse James becomes human and Bob’s universe crumbles.
He doesn’t understand how anything works.  He only knows that he wants to be something bigger.  He wants to turn heads and collect easy-earned money and have something profound to write on his epitaph.  It’s so simple to hop on board—all it takes is a flick of the wrist and the cock of a gun.

 

When he turned seventeen, Sammy joined the Air Force.  Most of the extreme optimism had faded from him.  Only very young children seem to possess it. But, the desire for greatness still lingered.  He needed a way to reach it, and the military was the perfect vessel.  It was just one long obstacle course and once you came out at the other end, you were officially a man.

We graduated high school, stretched out our arms and begged for a piece of the pie.   We sat in the woods, still thinking we were wild like old Western outlaws.  Instead of soda we sipped beer and talked a lot about getting laid and Sammy would quietly tell me that he had never had the pleasure and that he was still afraid of the dark.
Bob Ford would flip eagerly through nickel books full of adventure and American idealism, and Sammy would come home after school and sit at his computer, clicking his mouse and tapping his keyboard, bombing entire cities, acquiring high scores.”

——————————————————————————————————————————————————————-

“How is America?” Sammy asks.

I tell him it’s dark and cold because a snowstorm destroyed the power lines. He replies and writes fondly about the wondrous mountains he has seen and the interesting people and the afternoon storms.
He sits in a wide-open field, alone, only four bullets for his gun. He is scared, but nothing happens.
I read his letters and imagine Jesse standing stoically on those mountaintops, gazing over the land, calculating and admiring. I imagine him lifting his gun and aiming it at Sammy, who is tiny and exposed in that strange landscape.

It must be something to be a teenager and stuck in a foreign place, your gun perpetually cocked. It must be something to eagerly follow great men into battles. And then once you’re there to discover that your heroes and idols aren’t actually made of steel or gold. They’re just blood and guts and bone.
Sammy must have been stricken and perplexed when he arrived at this realization. He wrote to me about his reverence for his Colonel. This man had a face full of hair and would recount dangerous and exciting tales from his past, which had left him scarred and feeling old. Then, he would sigh and talk about retiring, going back to his homeland and seeing his family. Sammy’s green eyes would be as wide as saucers as this man rolled up his sleeves and revealed scars from knife fights and gun-shot wounds.
Sammy taps on his keyboard and maneuvers his mouse. He recalls picture books and computer generated versions of hardened military leaders. He thinks about how strange it is to finally be in those places with those people that had once just been pixels on a screen.
His mustache is starting to grow back. His upper lip itches. He wipes the sweat from his face and stares at his computer, watching the geography of Afghanistan fly across the screen. He knows he has power over that land, more than anyone could ever imagine, and it’s resting right beneath his fingertips.
The aircraft is slick as it slithers through the clouds. It is blind. He tells it where to go and what to consume. He watches the countryside, admires the way the sun falls behind the mountains, the way it ignites the horizon.
Villages disappear in flame and smoke. Burning and looting and smoldering skin.
Jesse James always comes home safely.

 

Jesse James takes off the belt that cradles his guns and lays it gently down. He is calm at the end, prepared to face death with the utmost dignity. He turns his eyes, as though in a trance, to a picture of a dark horse that hangs above his mantle. He remarks on how dusty it is. He climbs onto a chair, faces the wall, and lowers his eyes as though in prayer. He’s been waiting, always waiting, for this moment.
Bob cocks his gun and points it at the back of Jesse’s head. Jesse gazes at Bob’s reflection in the picture frame.
Jesse James falls heavily to the floor like a sack full of bricks. His wound gapes and he bleeds and bleeds and bleeds.

 

A teenage boy sits on his the edge of his bed and stairs deep into the wrong end of a rifle. He sees that it’s still smoking from the previous days of firing across the mountains and deserts. He wonders if he’ll ever see the end.

“Government Property” – a spoken word poem

By Kira

When I kiss my lovers or my friends, see my brothers off to soar,

I forget for a second that their lives are put on the line or that Arlington is filling up to the brim with teenage boys that fought in this fucked up war.  It’s only a matter of time until more officers show up at my door, for America, you whore.  But don’t get me wrong, I support our troops, but I do not support this sell-out bureaucratic brainwashed bully that this nation is.  I do not support an America that is founded on the lust for blood and dollar bills.  That gets its fix from far-fetched fantasies of national security and bringing home pieces of mutilated soldiers full of bullet holes from their own guns with eyes so full of truths that nineteen year-olds should never know.  I knew you would be a casualty even if you didn’t come home in a body bag.

If you want revolution,

Give me hope.

You might not see that I have cancer in these bones.  This skeletal system is rotting from the inside out from doubt.  This foundation is gone, integrity intact, but mere patchwork.  That could have been me; just one more hick lost overseas.

You want revolution,

stand in the street and declare it so.  Pound your fists until they bleed on the pavement and the doors of politicians.  America, support our troops and bring them home.  Bring them home and massage respect into their tired strung out shoulders.

Because mainstream media packed with body counts, infomercials, bombings, celebrity diet secrets unveiled, civilians slaughtered, reality television, secret Swiss bank accounts, toothpaste.  We have become complacent.  Our eyes are unable to see.  The headlines in the newspapers blur and our hearts are heavy and numb.  Now a days, I’ve got my chest bound, wound real tight.  Cause I’m gonna fight the fight of my life.  Contra la corriente.  Yo digo, Choose peace again!

I can feel it in my core; I can feel it in my marrow,

That we’ve gotta kick this habit of flapping our fucking lips and backing it up with tanks about matters that we don’t understand, that we can’t begin to comprehend.  We’ve stepped on other countries and trampled over our brothers’ boundaries—all in the name of justice.  America, she has a sickness and it ain’t free.

Four Years

Today I launch my site, The Beginning After Project, symbolically on May 3, 2010.  It has been exactly four years since my dear friend, Austin, took his own life in Afghanistan.  

It has taken me four years to come out from under the weight of my own grief to do something productive, and here it is.  My hope is that others will submit their work to be posted as original content.  But, after four years, I am just so proud and satisfied to finally create something in honor of Austin. This is also in honor of all the people who loved him greatly, who felt the enormous emptiness after losing him, who continue to power through those feelings every day to see the sun rise and set, to create beautiful and meaningful lives for themselves.  There is life after death, although it is sometimes difficult to realize it.  There is the beginning after the end.