When the Men Go Off to War by Victoria Kelly (Naval Institute Press, 2015)
Victoria Kelly's first published volume of poetry, When the Men Go Off to War, is a wonder in that poems can be written so beautifully about the subject of war. Each poem is a jewel, polished and colorful, glittering with elegant imagery, and rich in emotional wallop. The book, divided into three sections, Departure, Absence, and Homecoming, are the reflections of a wife who is dealing with her husband's deployment to Afghanistan. What are her thoughts as she prepares for his leave-taking? What does she do during the time that he is gone? What are the range of emotions that each of them feel upon being reunited? Kelly looks at war from the perspective of the one who is left behind.
The beauty of Kelly's poems is in their simplicity as well as in the course of the narrative. Clearly Kelly is an artist who polishes every word of a piece to perfect the imagery, much of which is repeated throughout the work, as are the themes of loneliness, and coping with the mundane during stressful separation, and loss.
Who is there to keep company with the one who is left behind when a husband is deployed to war? Kelly tells us that is the memories of the past and the ghosts who live with us. The poem “Ghosts” is a perfect example of this repeated theme. The poem begins:
All through the pregnancy she is like a ghost,
half in this world and half in some other
her body pale and shimmering as an oyster.
The speaker imagines that through the woman's pregnancy she is visited by the spirits of others who have been in her life; grandmothers and soldiers.
We can't see them but we know
they are there, dancing through the living room.
I imagine they can talk to her
These are the thoughts and memories that when left alone for months and months that a woman fills the hours with so that she will not be alone.
In another poem about memory, “Hotel,” the speaker recalls an old hotel located near the ocean, where “we” once lived. She tells us:
years ago a rich man jumped from a sixth-floor
window; now there are rumors of ghosts, of bellhops
who appear in the stairwell, warning guests away.
The speaker recalls a night when she meandered the halls of the deserted hotel and imagined what it was like in its hayday:
How magnificent it must have been
to have waltzed with Fitzgerald past the gift shop,
the barber shop, the radio station broadcasting Lindbergh
as he flew by.
The ruin of a once proud edifice is now a symbol of an elegant time past, just like this life with its tribulations will once be a memory.
The spectral imagery is continued throughout the beautiful volume, as is the appearance of dogs as the symbol of hearth and home. Dogs appear is quite a few of the pieces, starting with the first poem, “When the Men Go Off to War.” The speaker is contemplating what it is like to be a military wife, constantly on the move. She tells us:
What happens when they leave
is that the houses fold up like paper dolls,
the children roll up their socks and sweaters
and tuck the dogs into little black suitcases.
No matter where one goes, the dog must come too. After all, dogs are our comfort; they need us, but we need them more. When we come home to a lonely house, the welcome we get from the dog is beyond any human hug and kiss. With their jumping and delicious kisses, they leap and say, “I missed you,” (even if you have been gone for twenty minutes). One can never be truly lonely if there is a dog in the house; they are our true companions. Dogs represent fun and freedom as well as the responsibility of a home. Dogs fill in the cracks of loneliness while one is waiting at home for a triumphant return of a soldier.
Many of Kelly's poems touched a personal nerve for me as they will for any reader who has had a loved one in the war. One of my most prized possessions is the stack of letters that my father wrote to my mother during World War II. They didn't know each other very well when they began corresponding, but their relationship blossomed through their written words as my father marched through France, Belgium, and ultimately Germany.
In “Love Letters” Kelly pens:
For hundreds of years women have been writing to men
at war; our grandfathers kept letter inside combat boots,
wearing them thin as insect wings between fingertips,
The persona notes the women who have written those letters, like Jospehine and the belles of Georgia, who told tales of Sherman's march. The speaker of the piece tells us that she has written two hundred letters (they were not sad or long, pg.40) but they are stories of the mundane life that her soldier husband has left behind. These are the precious words that keep the military man mindful of home. They are his connection to his loved ones and shield against fear and loneliness while he is away.
In Part III of Kelly's volume, she questions what her husband will be like when he returns from war, and how will their relationship be changed by the experiences that he has had. She answers this question in “Heroes:”
But when you talk about wartime, what you tell me
is how many stars there were, and how
some boys flew a kite on the mountain.
What you don't talk about
is huddling with a group of soldiers in a bunker
while the rockets come over the walls, how
most of you by chance came out, but two did not.
My father-in-law, who lived with us for several years at the end of his life, was a young seaman when he served in the Pacific during World War II. He never spoke of his exploits during the war, except to tell us that once he met his brother, who served on a different ship, while they were in the Pacific, and what a thrill that was for him. However, he kept a photograph album that held one photo of a dismembered enemy soldier; a photo that belied the words that my father-in-law could not. The first night after he moved in with us, we were alarmed when we heard him screaming in his sleep. “Night terrors” often plague the brave men who keep the worst of war to themselves when they come home, to forget and to protect those of us who didn't have to experience what they did.
I have so many more notes about Kelly's slim volume of verse that I wanted to share with my readers. The jewel imagery that appears throughout twinkles against the filth of violence; the theme of loneliness and struggle appears on nearly every page. The nostalgiac pieces, such as “Patuxent River,” are poignant and reminiscent of most family life. Victoria Kelly is a gifted poetic genius, and I look forward to her next volume to savor. This slim volume of poetry is one which you will return to often.