Reviewed by Raquel Thorne
Poetry & Short Story Anthology
Print: 180 pages
Verto Publishing (2015)
Available for 7.99 on Amazon
“The dead have forgotten us,/but we cannot forget them,” begins Eric Paul Shaffer’s “Voice of Stone: June 16, 1996, Peace Day on Okinawa.” Dedicated to #30571, Shaffer describes as Okinawa recalls the death of more than 200,000 people—the last major campaign of World War II—by constructing a memorial:
I picture one whose number I am
writing on rock: 30571.
With a single feature, a scent, one syllable
of a name now lost
I want to say I remember
one I never knew…
This is where the experience of reading In the Trenches: The Psychological Impact of War really begins, with a “searing day of peace,/grief at the immutable,” engraving black granite slabs with the names of the war dead. While “Voice of Stone” is proceeded by “April Fool: A Minor Event on L-Day, April 1, 1945, Okinawa, with no apologies to history,” a smart play on April Fools and also originally published in Shaffer’s collection Portable Planet (Leaping Dog Press 2000), it is the haunting bridging between the past and our efforts not to repeat it in “Voice of Stone” which shows the reader this anthology will set out to meet its claims—to span wars and history, to “peer into the heart, mind, and soul of a soldier during active duty and beyond.” Shaffer’s persona, struggling to remember and honor one of thousands:
On a horizon receding only from us,
the lost remain, changeless,
faceless, diminished in a distance of days,
named now only with a number.
is the “beyond” of this collection.
In the Trenches: The Psychological Impact of War is an ambitious anthology; striving to illustrate how “war forever changes men and women, and impacts everyone around them,” distilled down to under 200 pages, is a lot of ground to cover with very little real estate. It is readily apparent that editor Krista Clark Grabowski tried to round the collection by selecting an eclectic mix of styles. For each of those with interest in war as a literary subject, there is a short story or poem in this collection. Grabowski’s tastes and appreciation of work are broad; she would fit well as an editor of cahoodaloodaling.
Unfortunately, the collection’s voices, and cover, are predominantly Anglo. While the works included treat the subject matter tactfully, a follow-up anthology would do well with more diversity. In the Trenches has all the usual suspects: WWI, WWII, Vietnam, 9/11 and its aftermath, and a few delightful surprises, such as Neil Davie’s “The Ten-Year Anniversary” which takes place ten years after the Zulu War, and “In Gaza” by Strider Marcus Jones. These surprises, however, are more the exception than the rule—Africa and South America are largely absent. Likewise, Verto Publishing is an American publisher, and it shows: the majority of pieces are from American authors and poets.
Still, there are refreshing perspectives on old wars. “Viet Nam Draft Lottery, Cumberland Island, August 5, 1971” by Jodie English presents a young lover’s perspective as they laid “cocooned… after making love”:
kept singing, but then
the date you were born,
then silence struck,
the final echo
of a bell long rung.
When the beloved is drafted.
Eve Gaal’s piece, “Wife on the Front/PTSD,” acts as a good follow-up read, comparing the speaker’s husband to a “four-year-old/who can’t get past the impassable” and gives voice to a wife who battles with her husband’s PTSD. Gaal, who grew up around her parents’ PTSD from WWII, has a self-professed “serious emotional connection with those who have suffered from war.” One gets the sense that she’s speaking from personal experience when her poem vows:
Let him howl.
Let him roar.
I am the only one left
I will kiss all his boo-boos.
Likewise, Tom Nolan’s “If a Picture,” tells the mostly unsung story of Johannes Mattheus Koelz, a Bavarian born World War I veteran. While decorated with the Iron Cross for bravery, during the 30s Koelz secretly painted a large anti-war triptych. Nolan’s short story re-imagines history from the painter’s perspective as he looks back at WWI, “Soon we learned the reality of our mission was to turn countryside into mud and human beings into blood.”; creation of his 3-panel anti-war propaganda—which involves God bestowing Koelz with “the ability by means of the visual arts to portray the true essence of whatever you see…then perhaps, if they choose, they will influence destiny and improve the world. Who knows?”; to finally dismantling and distributing the fragments of his masterpiece to friends for safekeeping. The catalyst for why Koelz spirited away from Germany, a punchline in and of itself for anyone not familiar with the story, is only the backdrop of Nolan’s retelling. Beyond its pacifist message, this is a reminder of how “the artist in all of us must persevere and record and hope.”
Just a couple pieces ahead of Nolan’s tale is a similar short story by Alexis Liosatos, not to be missed, titled, “The Man Who Collected Dali.” Deeply entrenched in the end of the war, the Führer again rears his head as an ugly art curator, and Liosatos does a wonderful job of presenting us with The Face of War—Dali’s own interpretation of the trauma of war. His first published story, “The Man Who Collected Dali” displays a promising show of wit, “Art criticism had rarely been so swift and incisive – Drescher clubbed Veron to the floor with a whipping backhand.”
While In the Trenches does not exactly cover new ground, nor does it quite live up to its full potential, it walks a very human line, neither all out praising nor condemning war—all are affected, and effects are as diverse as the horrors. Evan Guildford-Blake brings that reminder chillingly home in “The Invasion”:
We watched them dying and we were happy. We threw our grenades and fired our bazookas. The tanks exploded. The ones who lived crawled out, their uniforms brown with sweat and red with blood; we shot at them and, as we hit them, we cheered…. We lived here, they did not. We wanted our homeland, they were invaders.
What would you do to protect your way of life?