Letter from Dhahran
January 15, 1990
You learn to live on the back of a snake
that's always shedding its skin.
When you hike out, you can't
navigate by distance or by dunes.
Sand walks through tent walls.
The grains dance on wires. Wind
is a visible darkness. You don't recognize
duffle bags crumpled on your jeep.
You look as grey and as flat
as a plastic tarp.
* * *
You move with the two-beat undulation
of hands entrenching shovels.
When it feels like you're staying on
at a campsite you don't like anymore,
you argue over the size of city blocks
pace off remembered lots and back yards,
recall the green penetration of oleander,
how you worked to make hedges civilized.
In uniform, it's the same push and pull,
the same heartbeat of sweat.
Like following a lawnmower,
blades shearing down grass, the world
through a haze of clippings, the slashed
green scent in your nostrils, the whir
inside you. Like the time you mowed clean
into the garden and butchered the spinach.
* * *
Only when you stop to eat, do you slow
enough to start seeing behind the wind.
You pop open a can of pudding and lick off
the lid, making trails in the vanilla.
Ever notice how sugar sears
your mouth when it dissolves?
How your jaw aches? Almost wounded.
As if tears bled from your tongue.
Copyright 2004 by Heather McGehee
Critique by Jendi Reiter
This month's critique poem, "Letter From Dhahran" by Heather McGehee, depicts the cognitive dislocation of a soldier beginning a tour of duty in the Saudi Arabian desert. Dhahran is the site of a US military base where troops were stationed during the 1991 Persian Gulf War. The poem captures the obstacles that the soldier must surmount before even seeing battle: homesickness, fatigue, and a punishing environment that adds risk to the simplest tasks.
The ever-shifting desert sands contribute to the dissolution and re-formation of the soldier's identity, as he struggles to integrate his old self, with a home and personal memories, and his new role as a more impersonal unit of military force. (In order to avoid repeating "he or she" throughout the critique, I am assuming the soldier to be male, but the poem could just as well be about a female soldier.) To adapt, he must become as mutable as the landscape, "a snake/that's always shedding its skin."
The personal and the impersonal change places in McGehee's imagery, creating a sense that the soldier is fighting to maintain his psychic boundaries against a landscape filled with invisible enemies. Sand "walks through tent walls" like a sinister spirit, while the soldier feels like he has turned into an object, "as gray and as flat/as a plastic tarp."
One way that the soldier stays centered is to map memories from his old life onto his new one, sometimes in an absurdly literal way, as he plots out familiar streets and backyards on the grounds of his base camp. Digging ditches, he remembers happier exertions, "how you worked to make hedges civilized."
This last word, "civilized," is the closest the poem gets to noticing the ironic contrast between the two types of work, cultivating a garden and digging trenches in preparation for killing other people. His ultimate mission seems absent from the soldier's mind, not even as a repressed source of tension. Is it because he's sure that his work here is also on the side of "civilization"? Or is he just so preoccupied with his daily physical and mental hardships that he cannot look that far ahead? "Like the time you mowed clean/into the garden and butchered the spinach." The poem here hints at the dangers of focusing too narrowly.
The last section, indeed, shows the soldier beginning to reach for a fuller emotional perspective. "Only when you stop to eat, do you slow/enough to start seeing behind the wind." Nurturing himself with food, he discovers the sadness concealed in the sweetness, as the poem returns to its opening themes of hidden perils and complex identities. Still, one senses that the sadness is primarily for himself, not for the larger conflict in which he plays a part. Does he realize that he is like the sugar, able to wound as well as nourish? Paradoxically, the poem raises this question most effectively by leaving it unsaid.
Where could a poem like "Letter from Dhahran" be submitted? The following contests, sponsored by journals that favor narrative free verse, may be of interest:
Arts & Letters Prize in Poetry
Postmark Deadline: April 15
Florida Review Editors' Awards
Postmark Deadline: April 2
Marlboro Review Poetry Prize
Postmark Deadline: April 30
Greensboro Review Literary Awards
Postmark Deadline: September 15
This poem and critique appeared in the February 2004 issue of Winning Writers Newsletter (subscribe free).
Categories: Poetry Critiques