Who, exactly, needs to read this book? The veteran whose memory is haunted by grim reminders of battle, who may be comforted to know that someone else remembers and understands; the young, who may harbor false, romantic notions of war as somehow glorious; the old, who may have forgotten the nature of battle and find it too easy to contemplate sending young troops out to new battle fields; those of us who have never experienced warfare, who need to grasp the ungilded reality of sudden death, irreparable wounds, enduring damage to body and soul, even— especially—to those who return alive. In fact, I can’t think of anyone who doesn’t need these poems, in this age of distant wars that touch us, the civilian population, only via electronic media and printed commentary.
As the widow of a World War II veteran, I recognize the narratives conveyed in these compelling poems: they recall incidents my late husband finally—reluctantly—learned to share with me and with our children, complete with unidentifiable able body parts, the death of real buddies with names and families, encounters with the enemy that remain in the memory—and the nightmares—for a lifetime, whether as threats or as reminders of our common humanity and vulnerability, which war wants us to forget.
But there is so much more to this book, so much that anchors it in the universals of human experience outside of war, adding to its weight as lived history and its value as literature. There are civilians who wait and hope, go on with life after unspeakable losses, and themselves die. There are memories of a prairie childhood—the poet’s—that speak for the sweetness of life, the magnitude of the sacrifice made by those who don’t return. There are children and grandchildren whose presence broadens the focus of the book out to the future, raising questions about that future and our impact on it, and hinting at tentative promises.
H. C. Palmer has packed into this slender volume both the cost of war and the boundless beauty of peace on earth. Here is “After Driving Cattle in the Flint Hills,” in its entirety:
Tallgrass tangled in stirrups.
Cowhands leaning on long shadows.
After all these years,
I am still in love.
So should we all be.
Rhina P. Espaillat