The War Makes Everyone Lonely
By: Graham Barnhart
Published: Nov. 2019 (University of Chicago Press)

Kill Class
By:Nomi Stone
Published: Feb. 2019 (Tupelo Press)

Graham Barnhart’s The War Makes Everyone Lonely and Nomi Stone’s Kill Class both meticulously render the experience of witness through language, rhythm, and form—though from two very different perspectives, and, consequently, two very different poetics. Both poetry collections are intimately tied to war and geopolitical violence: Barnhart served as a US Army Special Forces medic; Stone is an anthropologist. These poets’ disparate positions in relation to violent conflict affect not only their subject matter, but also their approach to craft. Stone’s poetics reflect her complex distance from combat as anthropologist and poet. Her collection is alternatingly obscure and accessible, isolating and inviting. Barnhart’s poetics, by contrast, remain consistently vivid, comprehensible, and haunted by the fragility he experienced as a combatant.

Stone wrote her collection, Kill Class, after undertaking two years of ethnographic fieldwork, observing mock villages that the US armed forces use for training before sending soldiers into combat. In these “villages,” people of Middle Eastern descent are hired to act out wartime scenarios for the soldiers. Stone creates both separation and intimacy in the language and form of her poems. Her imagery often slides into the surreal; her syntax is frequently rough, jagged; her diction is visceral, sensory, and strangely abstract; and her forms are often both alienating and fascinating.

In her brief poem “War Game: America,” Stone writes: “With words / Ahmed explains / the holy books / say you can eat / someone alive / the sweet pound / deboned / a butter of what / was beautiful / Chew like a sheep.” Meat, a recurring motif in the collection, is presented here in an almost horror movie setting: the meat is human flesh, blessed for cannibalistic consumption by religion. Even the poem’s first line, “With words”, distances the reader from the speaker by emphasizing the abstract nature of communication. The jump to the imperative in the last line, made more abrupt by the lack of punctuation, further alienates the reader by commanding them to act like mindless livestock. Bouncing off the title, the language of this poem forces its readers to experience the same feelings of alienation and dislocation that Ahmed does as an actor in the war games.

At other times in the collection, the poems invite readers in. In “Love Poem,” the speaker describes how her “best friends laugh” when she makes mistakes in Arabic: “Look at the perfumes shaking the leaves.” The speaker’s “best friends” invite her into their homes, teach her the Arabic word for goosebumps, squeeze her shoulders when she looks stressed, share pistachios and olives in rose gardens, tell her her future in coffee grounds. As the scene grows more domestic, quotidian, and hospitable, the speaker’s idiom becomes far more colloquial, the syntax less fractured, and the diction precise but accessible. In form, content, and tone, this poem welcomes its readers.

This push and pull—of intimacy and alienation, accessibility and denial, realism and abstraction—continues throughout the collection. Perhaps this tension reflects conflict between Stone the anthropologist and Stone the poet. As an anthropologist, she must maintain her objectivity. As a poet, she must illuminate the human condition by giving new life to language, perception, and experience. The former demands restraint; the latter, attentive tenderness. The speaker of these poems must navigate the poet’s dual selves.

As a veteran, Barnhart’s speaker is also torn between two worlds: combat and civilian life, past and present. They intermingle throughout The War Makes Everyone Lonely: threads of one always appear in the other. In the first poem of the collection, “Belated Letter to My Grandmother,” the speaker writes his grandmother back only after returning to the US from his post in Afghanistan. In this poem, there is no separation between the existential threats he faced as a combatant and the quotidian reality he lived through: “I’m sorry / I never wrote while I was away—I thought only tragedy / makes us interesting—but I would have told you / about the black garbage scraps in the barbwire, / brittle, thrumming, always on the verge of flight; / that I saw a few birds there but many hornets; / and when the air moved, I could see it. / And no, I don’t think I was afraid of dying.” Here, the push and pull, the tension of opposing worlds, roles, and experiences, is not between anthropologist and her subjects, but between veteran and himself.

Barnhart’s poetics, then, are subject to very different demands than are Stone’s. His task as a veteran-poet is to track the surreal reality he lived (and lives) through with precision. Unlike Stone, who frequently distances herself from her readers, Barnhart’s idiom is usually very accessible; his images are clear, filmic, melancholic; and his syntax, although complex, has a sure, steady rhythm—in stark contrast to Stone’s jagged, fractured sentences.

The realism of Barnhart’s poetics only heightens the surrealism of his experiences. In the collection’s title poem, “The War Makes Everyone Lonely,” the speaker receives a call from his sister while stationed in Afghanistan. Unlike her usual calls, where she updates the speaker about her everyday comings and goings, she has some bizarre news: her number has been listed on an escort site, and men keeping calling her asking for “Elisha.” As he listens to his sister, the speaker observes his own world: “I can hear wind ribboning the concertina / and Allen’s boots the roof as he brushes / snow off the dish, and two privates complaining / about guard shifts, debating the odds of an attack / tonight because nothing ever happens. / It’s already 2 a.m., and cold as shit, and nothing ever happens.” The lack of action, even violence, leaves the speaker bored—of his surroundings, of war, of his sister’s plight—and wondering “what about Elisha? / Home, right now, counting hits / against the number of times the phone hasn’t rung.”

This clash of civilian and combatant life continues after the speaker returns to the US. The final poem of the collection, “Everything in the Sunlight I Can’t Stop Seeing,” follows the speaker’s mind as it wanders between his new and old realities: “Flashbacks / don’t announce themselves. It takes so little.” The speaker tells us that he “want[s] to say the hinged arm / of a driver-side mirror balled with plastic wrap / looks like a reckless stump dressing: feral, / ready to ravel corybantic from an iron sight, / or litter hinge, or protruding bolt pinning / together a cicada husk— // because it does.” But he can’t, because then we might imagine “a casualty’s arm lifted, pointing / smoke-cloud of hand exposed, drawn / dissipating into the rotor wash, // and that never happened to me.” In the end, the speaker achieves some level of separation from his wartime experiences. As he watches “black wrought fences continue / leaning into their rust, rigid and failing,” the speaker realizes that “there is no war in this but me.”

Stone’s speaker never needs to come to such a realization. Her relative distance from conflict allows her a perspective that Barnhart’s veteran-speaker is incapable of. Free of firsthand involvement, Stone’s collection strikes a moral tone that Barnhart’s never pursues, perhaps because of his complex emotions around his own role as a medic and a combatant. The soldiers in Stone’s collection are often the subject of her distancing, while the Middle Eastern actors are treated with warmth, humor, and empathy. The horrific events that the actors, many of whom worked as translators for American troops in Iraq, have lived through are depicted with gritty precision. While never stated explicitly, Kill Class implies an ethical and a rhetorical stance, condemning the United States’ neo-colonial empire, its military-industrial complex, and, to some extent, its soldiers.

As a former soldier himself, Barnhart takes a drastically different approach. His worldview as a medic, combatant, and veteran acts as a prism through which a range of human experiences—humor, empathy, guilt, fear, boredom, unflinching focus, trauma—are filtered. This prism allows his poems to flirt with the sublime, oscillating between an imagistic thirst for the ideal and a jaded rejection of its realization. Both impulses give voice to the lingering trauma war has left in the speaker’s psyche. For those who wish to better understand the far-reaching effects of the American occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, or those of war and geopolitical violence more broadly, both collections provide unique, invaluable insight.

Sam Reichman

Sam is a poet, visual artist, and performer. His work has appeared in ArabLit Quarterly, Rappahannock Review, Sand Hills Literary Magazine, and Cagibi, where he was shortlisted for the 2020 Macaron Prize in Poetry. Sam has also performed and shown his visual work in the United States and India with organizations including the Nuyorican Poets Café, Las Laguna Gallery, Exhibizone, Artefix New York, Bring Back the Poets, and Friends of ART, among others. Sam studied drawing and painting at The Art Students League of New York and received his MFA in poetry from Hunter College. He teaches classes on writing, visual art, and performance to children and adults online and in the Denver metro area.

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