Poetry Sunday: “American Dream with Exit Wound,” by Dawn McGuire

The poem opens in the second person, with someone identified as a “she” who “looks at belts differently now.” I first read the poem assuming the “she” was the speaker and likely also the author. In other words, I assumed the “she” was the doctor treating the addict/patient. One reason for this assumption was the somewhat erudite medical term “cubital vein,” though I did wonder what a doctor was doing examining a patient’s belt collection. Then I realized that there is nothing in the poem to tell us that the speaker is a doctor; I was making the mistake known as intentional fallacy and importing what I knew about McGuire into my reading of the poem. After seeing the author’s note, I understood the “she” to be the patient’s wife or lover, the one McGuire likens to Briseis, Achilles’s paramour. Briseis was also Achilles’s wife and, significantly, not just his wife but his captive wife, taken as a slave after Achilles killed the rest of her family in a raid. The more I read about Briseis, the more apt I find McGuire’s comparison.

So, the speaker is imagining the wife or lover of the patient, seeing belts “differently now” that she’s aware of their common use as tourniquets in shooting up. She scans the belts she sees for “[a] hole too close to the buckle,” a phrase that comprises the only single-line stanza in the poem. It’s repeated a stanza later when we learn the wife not only sees belts in a new way but also must very specifically examine “his”—her husband’s—belts for such holes. Readers not clear on the significance of those extra belt holes are educated in stanza 7’s remarkable, powerful series, “Belt, tourniquet, cinch,” and by the last seven stanzas, which describe in detail the act of shooting up (“the cubital vein pops up,” and “The sting is brief”) and the oblivion after when “all that is unendurable / melts into air.”

In the last three stanzas, the poem comes into its full flowering, and through them we understand that what’s “unendurable” for this addict are the memories of combat in, we know from the title, an American war. The enlargement in meaning is accomplished through an allusion to the Odyssey, first in a pun on the warrior Hector (“[h]ectoring voices stilled”) and then in a direct reference to “Achilles.” Something else remarkable is communicated as well: real empathy for the patient. Before this, we feel sad for the addict’s wife and understand the allure of the needle and its ability to neuter pain, but in these rending lines McGuire generates deep empathy for the addict himself, equating him with Achilles:

Achilles at last asleep in his tent
His Pillow wet

What a beautiful, sad poem. It treats an issue with high contemporary stakes—drug addiction among traumatized combat veterans—and also delivers a subtle and intelligent critique of war. I appreciate that the wound to the American Dream, while serious, is not necessarily fatal. But what I like best is that today’s poem is utterly without judgment and manages to create empathy not just for the beleaguered families of addicted vets, but also for the vets themselves.



POETRY EVENT NOTE: In 2015, I was honored to be the Dartmouth Poet in Residence at The Frost Place in Franconia, NH, the farmhouse where Frost spend many of his most productive writing years. The Frost Place is celebrating its 40th Anniversary this year with a weekend July 21-23 of events free and open to the public. Friday Night, Charles Simic and Nikky Finney will read in the Henry Holt Barn, followed by cake and champagne. Saturday afternoon TFP will host a wine and cheese reception and a reading of the [email protected] and Gregory Pardlo Scholars, Diana Delgado, Gerardo Pacheco Matus, William Palomo, Charif Shanahan, and Javier Zamora. Saturday Night Gordon Clapp will star in performance of This Verse Business, a play based on Frost’s work. On Sunday, the public is invited to attend and read a favorite Frost poem at an all-day Read-A-Thon. For more information, visit http://frostplace.org/anniversary-events-list/

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  • Jennifer Soule July 8, 2018 at 11:56 am

    Important work