Lingering Fire by William Jackson Blackley (Main Street Rag Publishing, 2015)
With the release of Lingering Fire, William Jackson Blackley adds his voice to the canon of war poetry. His “Foreword” sets the stage: “Some of these poems were written during a very dark chapter in my life when I questioned even the existence of God. They are based on my experiences growing up, with the draft, military training, battlefield action, coming home, talking with veterans and post-traumatic consequences of actions in Vietnam.” In the next paragraph, he elaborates, “[These poems] are, at times, my personal attempts to work through conflicted emotions rising from war experiences.”
Blackley’s narratives, images, and reflections are deeply personal and, while it’s usually risky to associate a poem’s content directly with the poet rather than a possible persona, I think it’s safe to say: these poems ring as audaciously and vulnerably autobiographical. This is confessional verse in the true sense of the term.
The opening poem, “VA Visiting Hours,” relays the story of Dickie, who as a kid did any number of things “better than anyone else,” but who was “paralyzed in a VW wreck.”
…I think of him
when I chug on my mouth harp
the same syncopated rhythm
we knuckle-rapped together on desks
in Miss Grantham’s eighth-grade class.
The playing of the “mouth harp” literalizes Blackley’s survival, his reconnection to life itself, the culmination of his odyssey (speaking Homerically). While his music is an expression of triumph, it also represents a tethering to Dickie, to the past, stands as a sonic acknowledgment of those who died during the war or never fully emerged from the trauma suffered during it (PTSD).
In “Not Born for This,” Blackley writes,
[I]…got used to
hollow points, tumbling,
finger-sized holes in the belly,
fist-size craters out back,
men burned alive, morphine….
Blackley is neither a sensationalist nor a sentimentalist. These lines impact the reader with uncompromised immediacy, in part due to Blackley’s ability to present them neutrally, almost photographically; at the same time, his voice is in no way habitual, but reads as if freshly embraced and still tentative. Neither the content nor the delivery is rehearsed or scripted. He concludes the abovementioned poem,
For ten, twenty, thirty years
I avoided Memorial Day, VFW,
veteran parades, spent nights
reliving hostile gunfire, incoming,
swinging dead dogs by the legs
over a fence, covering men
presumed dead, with a bulldozer
until writing, talking, mending
fences with the past events.
“For the Medic” is a particularly impressive piece, opening and closing with the refrain “Run, brother, run.” The lines, “Whisper,/ You’re going to make it// even when you know it’’s a lie,” occur as strikingly devoid of artifice; this is poetry compacted into unadorned and direct language, the unfiltered transcription of remembered experience. Blackley is not even the poet as much as the witness, who through the process of articulating what he has endured and conveying it to his reader is able to return to the land of the living.
Of course, a recurrent theme in this book is the loss of innocence, explored in various poems, including “Whistling Dixie,” “Imagine,” and “Alchemy,” which opens with an image of Blackley at ten, “with a BB gun,” crying over a “sparrow’s dead body.” The poem closes,
Without a twinge of remorse,
we landed six artillery shells dead center.
A reconnaissance team brought in a single
mangled bike that we nailed over the mess
hall door, and then we paraded in for dinner.
In four short but loaded stanzas, Blackley describes his transition from youthful sensitivity to the disturbing jadedness produced by war. Whereas he once cried over a dead sparrow that he shot with a BB gun, he and others now sport the trophy of a war-torn bicycle—much as a hunter might the head of a kill—hanging it over a door, proceeding without pause to dinner.
Another standout piece is the final poem in the collection, “Moving Finger Having Writ,” which opens,
You can call me stupid
for not dodging the draft,
barbaric for going, brand me
a coward for cringing
during mortar and rocket
attacks, perimeter assaults
and nights lit with tracers.
The poem concludes with a reference to the (DC?) war memorial:
But please could you walk
quietly by when my finger traces
the name of a friend etched
on the long black wall?
It’s valid to compare Blackley to contemporary poets such as Yusef Komunyakaa (whom he mentions in “Captain Crazy”) or Brian Turner, perhaps prose writers such as Phil Klay; however, to my ears, his sources, at least in terms of tone, are more the WWI poets. I thought of the following lines from Wilfred Owens’s “Dulce et Decorum Est”:
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.
I also recalled Virginia Woolf’s Septimus, a WWI survivor and one of western literature’s most memorable characters. While he’s ostensibly a peripheral presence in Mrs Dalloway, he’s also the obvious antagonist to Clarissa; taken together, they constitute the novel’s emotional spectrum.
Blackley concludes his book with a page titled “What is PTSD?” In it, he briefly discusses the nature of trauma and its symptoms. He encourages those suffering with PTSD to take advantage of the help that is available. He concludes the section by writing, “Forgive yourself and become engaged with helping others.”
William Blackley seems to have made it home, in the various senses of the word; there are millions who have not and, unfortunately, will not. Readers will be inspired by Blackley’s bravery, resilience, and unflinching eye: he has translated his own story and some of humanity’s darkest episodes into words that can both shock and heal.
Main Street Rag Publishing