The Latitude of a Mercy
By: Stefan Lovasik
Published: April 2020 (The New York Quarterly Foundation)

With his new book, The Latitude of a Mercy, Stefan Lovasik confronts the nightmarish realities of combat and lingering effects of combat-induced trauma. In poem after poem, Lovasik, who served with the US Army Special Forces during the Vietnam war, hones a multifaceted voice, reshaping his experiences into a transpersonal and redemptive manifesto.

In “Hand to Hand,” Lovasik writes:

I wish I knew less about killing
without a bullet. Where to strike
to make the body crumble and seize
with a finger,
a stick,
a fist,
so your legs won’t work
and your eyes bleed.
I can do this in the time
it takes you to draw one more
breath before your last,
and there’s no other way to say this.

Though the speaker emanates a muted bravado, his tone is also indicative of grief, regret, perhaps shame. This is one of the riveting tensions that runs through Mercy. For while on one hand debilitating and toxic, war can also provide the soldier purpose and identity, even a sense of sustained aliveness. Yet the drastic mindset required to withstand such an ordeal is not easily shifted or modified post-deployment, making social reentry arduous at best. Additionally, while the discipline and durability of the soldier are abstractly lauded, the truths of post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSS) are customarily misunderstood or, if addressed, grossly homogenized to fit stock templates, whether filmscripts, PR, or other media platforms.

In “Falling,” when Lovasik proclaims, “Years ago, I tried to tell you / That there were ghosts in me, / Beside me,” he spotlights the enduring effects of war and how the “ghosts” of Vietnam haunt him. If we’re inclined to heed the Greeks, along with Shakespeare and the Western analysts who elaborated on their conceits, Eros (life force) and Thanatos (the death impulse or, more precisely, the impulse to cease being) function naturally in the human psyche, producing what most people encounter as a navigable ambivalence. But interviews with and statements by veterans tell us that in the case of the combat survivor, a circumstantially prompted fight-or-flight orientation in many instances further charges the cognitive-emotional scape. The ensuing syndrome, which may persist long after the veteran’s return, is accompanied by an urgent reconfiguration of the life force and a hyper-elevation of the death impulse, often resulting in isolationist and/or self-destructive tendencies. Lovasik concludes the verse: “Attachments gone, I was alien / To our species, / Falling back into the jungle,” evoking a condition in which he is severed from quotidian activities, “falling” into a dissociative trance he broadly associates with the “jungle.”

Indeed, Lovasik employs the image of the “jungle” throughout Mercy. It serves as a metonymic reference to the battle zones of Vietnam as well as a metaphor for a detached, atavistic, and reflexly driven state, what Jung (and Conrad) might have regarded as a bardic condition ungoverned by social contracts. Lovasik’s potent closing line, “I live in two worlds,” juxtaposes dwelling psychologically in the “jungle” while also operating behaviorally in the domain of houses, jobs, money, and normative relationships. As Lovasik implies, however, when one lives in two worlds, one frequently doesn’t belong in either.

This notion of limbo is one of Mercy’s central motifs. In “Returning to the World,” Lovasik addresses readjustment following his return from Vietnam:

Returning to the world in seventy-three,
Jim and I walked
The Narragansett beach;
Tried to feel the clams with our feet,
Tried to feel here.

The speaker and Jim struggle to reset their bearings, no longer in Vietnam but also not entirely able to align themselves with the present. Lovasik proceeds to depict “friends” who “rolled joints in multi-colored papers” while he and Jim still “smell … the bloated bodies” and “bits of skull that shot / Backward onto our lips.” The contrast points vividly to the alienation of the veteran suffering from PTSS. In “Letter #1,” Lovasik daydreams, “… today I’ll trip off to somewhere in my head, like Abyssinia, to discuss poetry with Art Rimbaud or imagine starting a band back in Cleveland.” Retreating into thought-fantasies constitutes, in this context, a proliferative form of distraction by which the psyche suspends ongoing trauma. The speaker is, as he says earlier in the piece, “nowhere.”

While Mercy undoubtedly deserves a prominent slot in the “war verse” canon, Lovasik’s chief success may be that he has articulated, alongside devastating descriptions of bloodshed and trauma, a noble resilience. His life, despite its tragedies, does in fact proffer moments of beauty and undeniable interconnectedness. In “The Foundry, 1960,” Lovasik pays tribute to the generation that preceded his own, expressing gratitude that “they stood with us in the heat / as they do now in cold wind.” In “First Sight,” dedicated to his son, Lovasik offers, “And we will always meet / In that light that lingers above / The waters of our birth.” With his closing title poem, written for his wife, he offers an emotionally complex and shimmeringly paradoxical testament to adversity.  He shows how one’s brokenness may, over years or decades, cease to be a source of rage and withdrawal, instead rendering one better able to empathize with others and make peace with what he dubs “the impossibility of reason”:

For that time lived among strange flowers,
Baptized in red. Warm water
Where no god would go …
I thought in grids and lines—

Who held me
To the latitude of a mercy,
A way to get home
To that summer when we kissed hard …

Lovasik offers an imagistic summary of his war experience and a vision of life-affirming romance, blending these seemingly unrelated moments into an all-encompassing and supra-temporal present. The suffering that occurred is in no way denied; it is, however, textured by a hard-won wisdom. Grief and budding joy are interwoven into a single, indivisible sense of being “beyond hope and those nights, / … To now—along one, impossible line.” Lovasik points to the interdependency of existence; alter one moment of anguish, one moment of bliss, and one’s entire trajectory is affected. Change one thing, Lovasik reminds us, and one’s “impossible” life ceases to be.

What is the relationship between Lovasik’s persona and who “he” is as a person? How much of Mercy is documentation? How much is aesthetic enhancement? Depending on the intent of the inquiry, and given the nature of Lovasik’s poems, these questions are not entirely irrelevant. Mercy, though, is not a memoir. It is, rather, an autobiographically-informed yet alchemical work of art, in which Lovasik directs us like a modern-day Virgil through the hell of war and PTSS, the purgatory of post-combat, and the intermittent paradise of a life ultimately defined by the presence of love. One of contemporary literature’s more vivid, balanced, and audacious collections, The Latitude of a Mercy shows Stefan Lovasik—the poet and perhaps the man—embracing the full mystery of what was, what is, and what may come to be.

John Amen

John is the author of several collections of poetry, including Illusion of an Overwhelm (New York Quarterly Books), a finalist for the 2018 Brockman-Campbell Award, and work from which was chosen as a finalist for the Dana Award. He founded and continues to edit The Pedestal Magazine.

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