Reviewed by Raquel Thorne
What I Learned at the War
Paperback: 80 pages
Publisher: West End Press (2016)
War is defined as a state of open and armed conflict between two parties, but has typically been reserved to describe a declared and systematic campaign, such as one country warring on another or a country divided between two parties in a prolonged civil armed struggle. But what about the other, often unspoken of, and yet as systematic, wars? What about the war on women? The war on children? The war on ethnicity and heritage? The war on the mentally ill? And, the survivor’s war on self?
Jeanette Calhoun Mish’s What I Learned at the War tethers our nationally recognized wars, such as the civil war and the war on Native Americans, by way of her own personal heritage to these other less-acknowledged wars. What she learned at the war, Mish tells us, is that:
tells her story
through the mouths
of the winners
those who don’t win, lose. (“The Quah Effect”)
In “Literacy Autobiography 1961-1992” Mish considers her personal experiences with the war on children, the war on the mentally ill, and the war on women. She begins by writing of her stepfather and how “Fear, too, has its own register/…This language I have tried to forget, so as not to/confuse an arm reaching out in comfort with one poised to/choke.” Proceeding chronologically, she discusses her own usage of language from childhood through womanhood. In the sixth part, “A Short Glossary of Useful Acronyms” the reader is presented with a list of seven acronyms from Mish’s mental illness history, including BAD (Bipolar Affective Disorder), PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), and BPD (Borderline Personality Disorder):
…Another diagnosis you get
when they think you’re lying about the abuse and the
suspicion of others’ motives, no matter how well-founded,
is pathological. Keep this in mind when seeking help.
The war on mental illness becomes a campaign of suppression and disbelief wherein the victim’s experience is dismissed as unreliable or fabricated; “S/he might say… [that] you are malingering or pleaing (sic.) for help.” The seventh and final section, “What I Learned at the War” speaks, like many of the poems in this collection, of domestic violence:
The price of your body is directly inverse to whatever is
Kidney shots hurt worse than cracked ribs hurt worse than
black eyes hurt worse than clumps of hair pulled out hurt
worse than taking out a restraining order.
A restraining order is more dangerous than leaving town, even
if you have nowhere to go and have to sleep in a shelter in a
strange city. Sometimes he’ll mistake it for a hunting license.
This war on women weaves itself throughout the collection, but perhaps is most acute in “Thirst” by way of the poem’s subtle reminder of what womanhood is often reduced to: silence. A love poem, it does not speak of rape or physical violence, but instead, ends with a lover who praises a woman for her “restraint in all things emotional”:
and I would not want to disappoint
or disquiet you. Instead, I’ll hide these
words in my body…
As alarming is the survivor’s war on self, presented here as alcoholism and addiction, self-harm and risk, and ultimately recovery and poetry of recognition—how these wars feed upon the self, and how these wars are often familial. In “Holding the Unspeakable,” Mish recounts how, after “fleeing [a] lover who tried to kill her,” her experience was silenced as “just a psychotic break.” and how “death-of-choice/was once methamphetamine.” Later, in “1977, Seminole County,” she moves back in time to her young adulthood with best friend K.T:
our hysterical laughter counter-pointed by the crash
of glass on rural mailboxes, my aim truer
after killing a bottle of Night Train Express
that all the crank in the world could
not give us the escape velocity we needed
A recovering addict and alcoholic, other poems drive home her survival against the juxtaposition of her brother and Aunt Pearl, neither of whom made it through this war on self.
Family runs deep in this collection. Like many in The United States, Mish has a mixed, and often conflicting, heritage, of survivors, “the crackers and the/others—the music makers, the poets,/the artists, the medicine people.” She speaks of her ancestor Sterling Price, of Cherokee and Ulster Scot decent, stricken in poverty in the South, who “swore out an affidavit declaring/his ancestors were pure anglo-saxon” and “Those/brothers and their ilk who removed/their Indian in-laws. Who burned out/their Black neighbors’ homes”—the pain of her own mutiethnic mother, “spitting the [N] word” in her final days battling cancer. (“A Letter to My Cousin, Janna Little Ryan”) War, Mish tells us, takes place on ancestry.
The losers are recognized and given voice here, but not appeased. Perhaps, as Mish’s volume suggests, they cannot be—their stories too valid to remain hidden, too painful to be atoned by the victors. What I Learned at the War reminds the reader that war is timeless, that time
…never disappears behind
the last decade.
It’s always lurking around
the corner (“The Quah Effect”)
That the path forward is remembrance, is acknowledgment—is not laying these wars aside, but from discontinuing the current battles.
What I Learned at the War contains many potential triggers for its readers and should be approached slowly and in a safe space where it can be given the time require to have its stories and Mish’s soldiery and survival properly honored.
Poems from What I Learned at the War were previously showcased in The Wardrobe on the Sundress Publications blog. Read “For the American Dead” “#2 Proper Punctuation” “Honed” “That Summer…” & “Elegy for My First Boyfriend“.
Jeanetta Calhoun Mish is a poet, writer and literary scholar with a PhD in American Studies from the University of Oklahoma. Mish’s most recent books are a poetry collection, What I Learned at the War (West End Press, 2016) and Oklahomeland: Essays (Lamar University Press, 2015). Her first poetry book, Tongue Tied Woman, won the Edda Poetry Chapbook Competition for Women in 2002. Her second poetry collection, Work Is Love Made Visible (West End Press, 2009), won the 2010 Oklahoma Book Award for Poetry, the 2010 Western Heritage Award for Poetry from the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum, and the 2010 WILLA Award for Poetry from Women Writing the West. Her poetry has recently appeared in The Fiddleback, This Land, Naugatuck River Review, Concho River Review, LABOR: Studies in Working Class History of the Americas, and more. Dr. Mish is the Director of The Red Earth Creative Writing MFA program at Oklahoma City University where she also serves as a faculty member in poetry and writing pedagogy.