Introduction by John Amen
One of my first & most enduring literary impressions re the catastrophic impact of war, on the individual psyche & society at large, is the example of Septimus in Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway. While S occupies relatively little text compared to narratives related to Clarissa Dalloway & her looming party, he is, I would suggest, the most significant & certainly most haunting character in the novel. S has returned from WWI & is physically & psychologically traumatized. He is paralyzingly unable to navigate relational norms & societal expectations. It is a stroke of authorial mastery that news of Septimus’s suicide disrupts C’s party, at least temporarily; dampening the guests’ celebratory mood & triggering C’s own never-distant sense of desperation & emotional fragility. Quite simply, what S has endured, & been ultimately consumed by, is beyond the comprehension of almost anyone who has not endured similar circumstances. The predictable reaction, in Clarissa Dalloway’s world as well as, quite frequently, our own, is to deflect or minimize the horrors of war & PTSD with overreliance on protocols, clichés, & simplistic explanations.
Other titles that memorably illustrated, for me, the impact of war & PTSD include Celine’s Journey to the End of the Night & Salinger’s work, particularly “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” & “For Esmé—with Love & Squalor,” from his collection Nine Stories. Siegfried Sassoon & Wilfred Owen come to mind, as does Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. Recent works that continue to haunt include sections of Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle & Phil Klay’s Redeployment. Bruce Weigl, whose work is included in this issue, authored a poetic milestone with Song of Napalm as did Yusef Komunyakaa with Dien Cai Dau. My coeditors, too, have released memorable collections that palpably address their experiences of war & its aftermath: William Blackley’s Lingering Fire & Stefan Lovasik’s Persona and Shadow.
& yet, while literature may to some degree invoke the spectacle of war; or, in other cases, & perhaps more importantly, provide a transformative or alchemical process for the author who has in fact experienced it, what is presented in literature is not the same as war itself. Art may be the most apt vehicle to conjure & assuage the nightmares of war, but it is fated, I think, to offer a compressed & singular impression. But perhaps this is true of any art & its subject: art is neither better nor worse than life, it is simply symbiotically different. Still, art, as many have suggested, has the potential to at least graze an ungraspable & essential truth; that has been, & hopefully remains, its transcendent mission.
Reading over 3000 poems & arriving at the 25 or so pieces included in this issue was no easy task. Were it not for certain restraints & limitations, we could have easily published many more poems. I want to thank my fellow editors Stefan Lovasik & Bill Blackley for their integrity, dedication, & thoroughness during this editorial process. It was a pleasure & an honor to discuss these poems with them, to hear their takes & what these many works evoked for them, how the poems landed, what worked, what didn’t, the pieces that lingered with them days & weeks after reading.
So here we are: these poems include literal dealings with war, but they also include, as we had hoped, many other interpretations. Here are memories, dreams, & relational dynamics, as well as realistic & surreal renderings of actual & imagined experiences. In short, the work by these poets exceeded our expectations, as expressed in the original guidelines. It is also worth noting the international nature of this issue—work from poets living in the U.S., Canada, the U.K., Australia, & Japan. War does indeed seem to be an archetypal notion; as humans, we perhaps have an innate sense of what war is, how all-consuming & tragic it can be, & perhaps (I hope) how we might best & most wisely avoid it.
May these poems stun, startle, & delight you, also remind you that it is never naïve or unworldly for us to hope for the end of war, that people might be able to reconcile their differences in creative & peaceful ways; or, even, learn to live with the realities & tensions of difference without having to violently eliminate their sources.
It has been, again, an honor to encounter such meaningful work & to do so while in the company of my coeditors, Stefan & Bill. I thank you, reader, for your interest.
All my best,