Do ask, do tell: Poetry collection about U.S. soldier wins gay literary award

(Courtesy of Main Street Rag)
(Courtesy of Main Street Rag)

Earlier this week, a story in The Washington Post noted that the battle over a gay graphic novel at the College of Charleston, S.C. “serves as a reminder that rapid national shifts on social issues — particularly gay rights — are hardly universal and remain hotly contested.”

But Thursday night we got a small, poetic reminder of just how dramatically attitudes have changed in this country: Charlie Bondhus’s “All the Heat We Could Carry” (Main Street Rag) won the Thom Gunn prize for gay poetry from the Publishing Triangle. His book — with that echo of Tim O’Brien’s Vietnam War classic, “The Things They Carried” — is a collection of poems about a gay soldier in Afghanistan.

Three years after the U.S. military abandoned the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy, Bondhus’s poems aren’t about serving in secret or worrying about being discharged. They don’t concentrate on acts of homophobic prejudice or hazing. Instead, they’re simply about what it means to fight, to watch your friends die and then to come home to a country that can’t understand what you’ve endured.

The collection begins with poems from the perspective of a civilian lover, nervously welcoming a soldier home, trying to say the right thing, trying remake their old lives:

You told me about the sliver

of metal lodged in your right calf,

bone deep, inextractable, that would not

affect your ability to walk or sit

but would always be there, much in the same

way there will always be war

someplace, impinging on our lives.

In later poems, we hear from the vet himself about the strains of being home, about the impossibility of ever returning to the way things were:

I can’t make you understand

that everything is dangerous now;

that you can’t slip your arms around my chest

and pull me to the carpet anymore;

that sex feels like crossing

the Korengal Valley without body armor;

that when you try to pin my arms

my instinct is to kill you.

And then Bondhus takes us to Afghanistan, where scenes of violence and horror play out in short, powerful lines. Here’s the end of “Panjwayi,” about a group of 20 soldiers exacting vengeance on a family for a roadside bomb:

Hours later, after the last body crumpled

like the American tank,

blasted by a roadside bomb,

they doused the corpses with gasoline

and set them aflame;

in the glow, they looked like the youthful gods

of a dead religion, blood and ash-streaked, at rest,

after bringing the indiscriminate justice

gods are known for. 

Bondhus, who teaches at the Raritan Valley Community College in New Jersey and is the poetry editor for the Good Man Project, says he’s drawn to the subject of war because he’s “interested in how gay men — who are, of course, stereotyped even today as sissies — relate to their masculinity.”

But unlike the new war poets Kevin Powers and Brian Turner, Bondhus never served in the military himself, which makes the intimacy and visceral quality of these poems all the more remarkable.

“I had the opportunity to join near the end of high school, and I chickened out,” he says. “Why did I want to join? To prove my manhood as a gay man? To serve my country? To be part of something larger than myself? I’m still figuring out my relationship to issues of masculinity — my staunch support of the idea that gender is a performance and a social construction and yet my undeniable attraction, as a gay guy, to ‘traditional’ acts and representations of manhood. Maybe I’ll never figure it out entirely, and that’s fine, but this book was a way to grapple with some of these questions.”

Responding to the news of Thursday night’s award, Don Share, the editor of Poetry magazine, said, “Charlie Bondhus is a real rarity in present-day American poetry: He thinks his way intensely though his lines, which are hewed from the stone of solid meditation. He’s a learned writer, and unlike most of his contemporaries, doesn’t wear his learning lightly or ironically, which is a true gift to his readers.”

Neither celebrations of battle nor arguments against the Bush administration, the poems in “All the Heat We Could Carry” stay tightly focused on the soldier’s struggle to figure out how to live, to stay alive. “I’m not pro-war — in either Iraq or Afghanistan,” Bondhus says, “but I respect people putting their lives on the line, especially when it’s for an ideal.”

The Publishing Triangle, founded in 1988, presents annual awards for gay fiction, nonfiction and poetry. (For a full list of winners, click here.) Last year, the Thom Gunn prize was won by Richard Blanco, who delivered the inaugural poem at President Obama’s 2013 swearing-in ceremony.

Ron Charles is the editor of The Washington Post's Book World. For a dozen years, he enjoyed teaching American literature and critical theory in the Midwest, but finally switched to journalism when he realized that if he graded one more paper, he'd go crazy.
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