Poetry Sunday: “Driving,” by Jenny Linn Loveland

Commentary by Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor

To find a poem commemorating Veterans Day, I checked the American Academy of Poets and Poetry Foundation websites and found many on point—mostly written by men. Of the poems written by women, more than a few were pro-conscription propaganda, notably those of Jessie Pope, the target of Winifred Owen’s famous anti-war poem “Dulce et Decorum Est.” When that poem was first published, it was with a dedication to Jessie Pope, and several sources identify her as the “you” and “my friend” attacked with such fury in the second stanza of the poem. If you don’t know “Dulce et Decorum Est,” I highly recommend it as a staple of pacifist literature and powerful poem that is, unconventional spacing and all, also a terrific example of double sonnet form. Read it here.

For a time, I considered featuring an excerpt from Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf, a passage about the unforgettable character Septimus Warren Smith, whose shell shock slowly corrodes his own and his wife’s lives before he finally commits suicide by throwing himself from a window. That may have been my first formal introduction to war-related PTSD, though after the condition became better understood and widely discussed in this country, I recognized its virulent symptomology in my father, a WWII army medic in many battles, including the Battle of the Bulge.

While searching for the right poem, I found myself in a dilemma: how to honor our veterans without condoning war, and most especially this war, the one we’ve been in for as long as some of my children have been alive. I didn’t have that dilemma with my father, at least not openly, for he never discussed the war or his role in it. The conflict was faced squarely by a poem previously featured in this column, and poet Dorianne Laux handled it by expressing her reservations about war but at the same time remembering with regret how our generation treated Vietnam vets and also by focusing on one particular soldier—Staff Sargent Metz—with luminous tenderness, particularity, and fear for his safety.

I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised to find so few poems about or by women veterans in the poetry archives, since women have only recently been permitted to serve in the military. Well, women are there in numbers now, at least one and a half million by one count, and I expect that the poems will come.

When I broadened my Google search to “women veteran poems” I found today’s poem, written by Jenny Linn Loveland. It treats Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD, a scourge of veterans and topic addressed in a poem written by a Dawn Maguire and featured in this column. Maguire is a neurologist treating veterans with PTSD, substance abuse, and addiction disorders, and vets often make their way into her poems.

But today’s column is the first time I am featuring a poem written by a woman who is also herself a combat veteran. “Driving” is such a powerful, painful, visceral piece of work that I don’t want to spend too much time dissecting its mechanics. But I do want to point out that one of its strongest elements is its use of line breaks and choice of end words. Among those end words, you’ll find “fire-red,” “scythes,” “mowed,” “hoses,” “flotsam,” “molten,” “F-16’s,” “unfenced,” “shadows,” and “past,” “past,” “past.” That is quite a list, words whose connotations range from merely uncomfortable to downright dangerous, and it proves a point I’ve heard made in more than one poetry workshop: well-chosen end words taken out of context are reflective of the poem as a whole and, in the best cases, can make up a poem in and of themselves. These end words are frightening and aggressive, and they express the PTSD feelings of this speaker for whom the civilian world has become a hostile place, merged in her subconscious with the terrible danger of the war she experienced.

The imagery is stunning and likewise supports Loveland’s theme. Just look at that fire hydrant, “fire-red” and “with talons outstretched.” That most innocuous of suburban symbols, a green lawn, becomes a source of menace—its grass is “sliced,” its sprinklers are armed with whirling blades. Part of the horrific power of these images is the juxtaposition of words of war and violence with everyday domestic things. Part of this poem’s power is the way it holds oppositions together in suspension, a strategy that in an example of what T. S. Eliot called the “objective correlative” ends up enacting what the speaker feels.

Near the end of the poem, the speaker says, “I succumb” and for a moment drops wholly back into memory of her time in war:

to scalding air-soaked deserts, molten
carpets of tar and dark odors where F-16’s
metal blades blasting night, shift orange
flicking Bedouin shadows

The end of the poem returns to its beginning, to the event that triggered the PTSD episode, the speaker driving past an “unfenced” yard. This ring construction is another literary device that enacts the speaker’s predicament—trapped in a never-ending cycle of reliving the horrors of a war she perhaps thought she’d left behind. The poem closes with three lines ending with the word “past,” a species of repetition that is anaphora’s cousin and is called epiphora. That repetition is affecting and evocative of many levels of meaning. One is the speaker reminding herself that the terror she experienced in war is in the past, repeated as a kind of litany or mantra to help her regain a grip. It could also be a statement about all that has been lost—for example, the ability to be like everyone else, just enjoying life in this pretty suburban haven. I believe it is ultimately meant to underscore the speaker’s essential isolation, a condition caused by PTSD. Doomed to just—drive past—these scenes of domestic contentment and safety, she exists somewhere apart from them. Ordinary people drinking beer on the porches on a warm summer night don’t want to hear about this stuff, and even if we did, how could we possibly begin to understand?

Many veterans, it seems, come home to fight another war, sometimes their own demons in the form of PTSD and other health problems, sometimes in the form of civilian indifference or downright hostility. This last point was very painfully brought home to us in Ken Burns’ new documentary on the Vietnam War, a series that seemed intent on making the point that we can regret our country’s decision to enter a war while at the same time honoring our veterans for their willingness to fight in it. When I think of the vets in my family—my soul-destroyed Dad, an uncle whose lifelong M.S. came from mustard gas, a brother-in-law whose desire to live in service to others seems as ingrained as the shape of his face, a nephew who uncomplainingly served six tours as a helicopter pilot in the Middle East, a cousin who survived combat duty to die violently at home in the U.S., and others—I am reminded of it again: The sacrifices of our vets do not end with their tours of duty, but continue for their entire lives. So, thank you Jenny Loveland and all vets for your service to our country, and thank you, Jenny Loveland for writing this powerful, eloquent poem.

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  • bev November 19, 2017 at 7:32 am

    A beautiful poem that lets us who have never been to war, see what that does to people who have…it also lets us see how it is for other people with PTSD… the mind never rests, it is always vigilant because it needed to be but once the danger is over, this vigilance is no longer appropriate and victims don’t know how or are just too scarred to ever feel safe without it. Yes – the bright red hydrant is always there for some. Thank you for sharing this.

  • Izzie November 12, 2017 at 7:35 am

    Liked this poem a lot.


    • bev November 19, 2017 at 7:33 am

      Yes Izzy, it was so appropriate for Remembrance Day. It was powerful.