Poetry

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

Stanza four returns to Metz and the scene that opened the poem. At first we see him in a less attractive light, “hunched over a cigarette, mumbling / into his cell phone.” Even so, the speaker tells us, he is still “more real” to her now than her brother was 60 years ago. Once again, her tone is neutral, reporting but not passing judgment on facts, even though they are facts someone less wise might criticize: what, a stranger is more real to you than your own brother was? The admission reveals a speaker willing to be frank and honest about her own failings, and readers experience the voice as authentic and brave. The rest of the stanza supplies more details supporting reader empathy for Metz: his eyes are “big” and he “breathe[s] into his hands.”

The last stanza opens squarely in the speaker’s present-day point of view: “I don’t believe in anything anymore: / god, country, money or love.” The word “anymore” signals what we already can guess, that there was a time when she very much did believe in at least one of these ideals. It’s a sobering statement and one that takes guts to admit. And is, I suspect, true for many of us alive in the Vietnam War era, perhaps even something close to a universal for the baby-boomer generation.

What is left, once one has repudiated god, country, money or love? Fortunately for us and for the poem, the speaker refuses to conclude in nihilism and despair. What is left to believe in is the sacrament and miracle of every single human life. Here and through the end of the poem, the diction once again elevates, communicating beauty, mystery, and awe:

                        the body so perfectly made,
mysterious in its workings, its oiled
and moving parts, the whole of him
standing up and raising one arm
to hail a bus, his legs pulling him forward,
all the muscle and sinew and living gristle,
the countless bones of his foot trapped in his boot,
stepping off the red curb.

The language here reminds me of the biblical phrase from Psalms 139:14: “fearsomely and wondrously made.” In it we see and feel the marvel that is each human body, with its “countless bones” and infinitely small universes of cells and synapses. Instead of ranting about cannon fodder and the waste of humanity, the speaker artfully leads us to a place where we find ourselves saying these phrases, or others like them, in our own minds. Imagining that miraculously articulated foot smashed in its boot and “red” with blood, we feel the sentiments that originally gave rise to these clichés: grief and loss, Aristotle’s cathartic pity and terror, the necessary ingredients of a Greek tragedy. In the end we stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the speaker, horrified, and understanding that tragedy is exactly what we are witnessing.

 

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Paradise Drive book coverRebecca Foust’s fifth book, “Paradise Drive,” won the 2015 Press 53 Award for Poetry and was reviewed in the Georgia Review, Hudson Review, Huffington Post, Philadelphia Inquirer, San Francisco Chronicle, Washington Review of Books, and elsewhere. Recognitions include the 2015 American Literary Review Award for Fiction, the 2015 James Hearst Poetry Prize, the 2014 Constance Rook Creative Nonfiction Award, and fellowships from the Frost Place, MacDowell Colony, Sewanee Writer’s Conference, and West Chester Poetry Conference. “Paradise Drive” can be ordered at www.press53.com. For more information visit rebeccafoust.com.

 

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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.

    Reply