Poetry Sunday: ‘Staff Sgt. Metz,’ by Dorianne Laux

Today’s poem, though, is very carefully constructed with five irregular stanzas that alternate between observational and reflective modes, the speaker sometimes looking at and describing Metz, and other times remembering herself as she was in the sixties during the Vietnam War, with tension maintained throughout. The flash point for the contrast between the speaker’s past and present selves is how she views the soldiers fighting the two wars. Where the younger hippie-activist reflexively hated U.S. soldiers (and even burned letters from a brother and a boyfriend who’d been drafted), the present-day speaker finds herself less willing to see things as absolutes and unable to overlook the value of even one soldier’s life.

Another important craft choice contributing to the power of this political poem is its putative subject. Rather than focusing on War or The War, the lens is trained on Staff Sgt. Metz, a US infantryman the speaker happens upon in an airport. Stanza one gives us his portrait without the filter of who is doing the looking. It appears to be objective, but as we will see, there are clues even this early about the direction the poem will take. The first stanza supplies details about Metz’s physical appearance: his “camo gear / and buzz cut,” his “beautiful new / camel-colored suede boots,” his thick-veined hands, and the Starbucks coffee he is sipping. More ominously, it also tells us that he is “alive for now,” with the “good blood / still flow[ing] through.” Those last details, especially that tiny word “still,” put us on alert that Metz is about to go into life-threatening combat, and they make us pay more attention than we otherwise might to another detail that makes him seem vulnerable and almost childlike, “a fleck of foam / caught on his bottom lip.”

Stanza two, consisting of just one sentence in four lines, is very different. It presents the first-person speaker for the first time, and we understand what we are seeing is not an objective portrait but Metz as seen by the speaker. And instead of focusing on details of his outward appearance, this speaker does something shockingly intimate, looking straight into Metz’s right ear:

a narrow darkness spiraling deep inside his head
toward the place of dreaming and fractions,
ponds of quiet thought.

The shift in diction away from vernacular (“Starbucks” and “camo”) and into poetry and metaphor (“darkness spiraling”) signals our entry into the realm of the speaker’s imagination. She looks into Metz’s brain, and what she sees there (dreaming, fractions, ponds) renders him even more vulnerable and childlike. This stanza tells us that the speaker sympathizes with, values, and is deeply afraid for Metz, and so lays the bricks of reader empathy for him.

The third stanza time-travels back to the sixties, the speaker recalling herself burning the letters she received from a brother and a boyfriend who fought in Vietnam. It was the “Summer of Love,” she tells us, a time when she was able to adopt a more simplistic stance of opposition that included hostility to the soldiers drafted to fight it. We are meant to see the contrast between that hippie girl “caught between love and the idea of love” and the older and wiser present-day speaker narrating the poem. Tone is made more complicated here; to the speaker’s fear for and sympathy with Metz is added neutrality and tolerance in the way she views her former self, without judgment or regret.

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  • Mickey June 19, 2016 at 12:36 pm

    Excellent poem; I was there watching, feeling, seeing with the poet. Thank you so much. My library has a copy of this book. I’ll put it on hold. I want to read more. More thanks.