Reviewed by William Aarnes
For me at least, as someone who knows few people involved in the armed forces, one striking bit of news in Bill Glose’s Half a Man comes in the poem “Invisible.” The poem relates how, after a soldier dies in conflict, the spouse loses housing privileges. We are all familiar with the ceremony in which the bereaved receives a flag. But most of us know little about what happens next:
From this moment on
she is invisible, cast out
from the base housing
before her shadow
can creep across
The banished family is replaced by a “new” one that is “greeted with smiles // and pies.” There are perhaps purportedly reasonable justifications for such quick “erasures,” but the poem leaves us worried why we had not known about these evictions before reading the poem. This poem, as the entire collection does, asks us to worry that our thinking about military matters is not fully informed.
Some of the poems in Half a Man are particular to Bill Glose’s experiences. He was a paratrooper who served in the Iraq war. Because of his “poor vision,” becoming a paratrooper was as close as Glose “could come to being” like his father, who flew an F-4 during the Vietnam War. “Paratroopers,” he tells us, “are meant to fall.” But readers will be familiar with many of the themes treated in the collection. War is an ordeal where soldiers come across “empty / eye sockets, flies skittering / in and out of the nose,” where children may be endearing but still need to be patted down, where the landscape is “pockmarked with craters” and the roadside litter might explode. These soldiers are trained “To turn a life / Into meat.” They are resentful of the “brass” and suspicious of “fat politicians sheathed in Armani.” They see each other as comrades, “war buddies,” brothers who “stand for one another.” They pass their time vigilantly cleaning their weapons. They collect keepsakes from the debris and store mental snapshots of the more comforting moments. They are used to hearing “antiseptic terms”—like “clear a room” or “collateral damage”—that do not “fool” anyone. The soldiers are willing to agree that their mothers should perhaps be protected from the truth. Their “not-quite-love” with girls back home can “die.” For them, to return home from war is to be greeted by welcoming ceremonies, parades, and parties that remind them of ambushes. Back home, they want to learn “How to Disappear.”
Certainly, one conclusion to draw from all these familiar claims is that soldiers and veterans deserve appreciation for all that they “have seen. And done.” But this collection is less an appeal for such appreciation than it is a testimony that asks readers to understand why soldiers, on returning home, might want to disappear. The poems in this collection worry about how a soldier is turned into a “foreign version” of the person his families and friends know. After being allowed “No time / for reflection” while at war, being taught “To keep / [his] mouth shut,” and having learned to “Bury thoughts,” Glose seems to write these poems to record accurately some of what happened while conveying the events themselves as part of a seemingly inevitable, demoralizing mistake:
Tiny mouths throw shrieks at us.
I want to rain comfort
Upon them like candy from
A parade float, want them
to stop and wave. But
I never lower my weapon.
Half a Man consists of accessible, at times telling poems that “massage” the “knotted knowledge” of a service man who feels estranged from the person his unthinking country has asked him to become.