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Welcome to FOB Haiku: War Poems from Inside the Wire Paperback – November 13, 2015
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"Brown has a good ear for military life, especially for what is significant and how it is conveyed, sometimes in subtle ways."--Tom Ricks, Foreign Policy magazine's "The Best Defense" blog
"Sherpa does a great job blending the world of combat with the civilian world back home. He's good at contrasting the foreign with the familiar. [...] The poems range from the outright humorous to the dark."--Eric "Shmo" Chandler, the "Shmotown" blog
"Unlike in previous wars, the best telling of the soldiers' stories has come from the soldiers themselves, and not from traditional journalists. Many of these books add to our understanding of people at war, while a few are just macho battle stories. Some seek to reach into a war's soul. 'Welcome to FOB Haiku' [...] is one from the latter category."--Peter Van Buren, author of "We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People"
"An important collection for anyone who wants to know the warrior's story in ways the TV newscaster and the politician cannot show."--D.A. Gray, author of the 2011 war poetry collection "Overwatch."
"The Iowans I knew were congenial, but also quiet and serious, guarded I felt about their emotions and true thoughts, their humor manifesting itself in acerbic wit aimed at absurdity of circumstance. No Iowa soldiers I knew were poets, but now Brown's new volume of verse [...] puts the Midwestern blend of earnestness and cleverness I saw in Afghanistan to work on behalf of poetry about service, deployment, and war."--Peter Molin, the "Time Now" military literature blog
About the Author
Freelance writer and citizen-soldier by day, and secret (writing as "Charlie Sherpa") blogger by night, Randy Brown was preparing in 2010 to deploy as the sole "knowledge manager" for an Iowa National Guard unit of 3,000 soldiers. ("Historian, librarian, lessons-learned reporter—it was sexier to say my job was 'Brigade Staff Jester,'" he jokes.) After a paperwork snafu dropped him off the list, he retired with 20 years of military service and a previous overseas deployment. He then went to Afghanistan anyway, embedding with his former colleagues as a civilian journalist. Brown's often-humorous military-themed poetry and non-fiction have appeared widely in literary journals and anthologies. He was the 2015 winner of the inaugural Madigan Award for humorous military-themed writing, presented by Negative Capability Press, Mobile, Ala. Brown was the 2012 winner of the Military Reporters and Editors' (M.R.E.) independent-blogging category, and a past finalist in the Milblogging.com awards' reporter (2011) and veteran (2012) categories. He is the current poetry editor of Military Experience & the Arts’ literary journal As You Were.
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As the name of the book implies, much of his work takes the form of haikus, though the author also delves into longer poetry that, both in its free meter and rhyme, often reminds me of Randall Jarrell’s The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner. The brevity of the haiku, perhaps the form’s greatest strength, speaks to my own love of short poetry. In just 17 syllables, Brown’s pieces capture a year’s worth of moments in Afghanistan.
That is what I identified with the most: those word images that remind me of the unbearable, yet cherished, memories that make up a combat deployment. Though I have never been to Afghanistan, reading his work stirred deep, emotional memories of my own time in Iraq. The first time I read his poem night vision, which recounts a patrol between American soldiers and their Afghan counterparts, it seemed to rip me from the comfort of my living room back to the worst—and best—memories of my adult life.
Like any good soldier, of course, the author often recounts the incomprehensibility of combat with a healthy dose of humor. I found myself grinning unconsciously while reading “your convoy leader writes haiku,” picturing any number of grizzled non-commissioned officers specifying road speed and following distance in classical Japanese form. Moreover, I could not help but enjoy the author’s use of the Army’s famously esoteric jargon to make beautifully original poems. The author uses the Army’s acronyms and pidgin English felt like he was winking knowingly at me and the other the veterans who will read the book.
As you can probably tell, I greatly enjoyed Randy Brown’s Welcome to FOB Haiku. My dog-eared copy proudly sits on my shelf—when I am not taking packing it off to the couch to read again. His well-written, beautiful, funny, and jarringly honest portrayal of a Global War on Terrorism deployment exemplifies what I believe poetry was made for: saying that which will never be able to be said in any other way.
L. Burton Brender is an associate member of the Military Writers Guild and the coauthor of In Cadence, a book of poetry from two Army officers. Follow his blog, Swords & Pens, at yobousensou.blogspot.com.
I have experience with vacations to the Middle East. So, when I read Charlie Sherpa’s poem “Laundry List” where he mentions “Embraced the Suck” as something that he did downrange, it rings true. Whenever somebody complained near my squadron weapons officer in Iraq in 2005, he’d cradle his arms and pretend he was kissing a baby and say, “Embrace it!” I smirked and read on, knowing this stuff was worthy.
But you don’t have to be a military person to get wrapped up here. Sherpa does a great job blending the world of combat with the civilian world back home. He’s good at contrasting the foreign with the familiar. And for you civilians out there, there are a bunch of notes at the end explaining some of the terms and acronyms that might have you stumped.
The poems range from the outright humorous to the dark. Sometimes just lines apart. In “wait for it” he sandwiches the following between two funny sections:
War also is often more boring than not.
Then, it is scalding. Do not covet action.
And in “Hamlet in Afghanistan”:
So make a choice, and remember:
Over-thinking makes cowards of us all.
After you’ve been in a couple of scrapes, you realize the truth of what Sherpa is saying.
The poem “what sacrifice has been” does an excellent job of portraying the anguish military folks feel at being thanked. You wouldn’t think that would be a problem, but it is. I think this is where civilians and members of the armed services are trying to reach out to each other and not quite connecting. I read this at least ten times. Maybe someday we’ll realize we’re all on the same team. That there is no “other” to be thanked. Until then, poets like Sherpa need to keep writing bits like this one.
Read “Dulce et Decorum est, Redux.” You may remember the original from school. You may want body armor before reading this one. Sherpa says, “You were not there to sniff the air with us,…” and I find myself nodding.
He ends with “Suburbistan.” He perfectly captured the feelings of someone who has escaped into the safety of the future and, for some reason, still looks back fondly on the scary past.
I liked Charlie Sherpa’s book of poetry. So, now, let us reference “The Sherpatudes.” This is a list of 26 of his maxims. Let us now turn to Sherpatude #21 to explain Randy Brown’s book:
Knowing how it works is more powerful than knowing how it’s supposed to work.
Charlie Sherpa’s poetry works. I don’t know how. I’m not a trained writer, so I don’t even know how it’s supposed to work.
I can tell you this: It does NOT suck. But you should embrace his book anyway.
Welcome to FOB Haiku is not quite Rudyard Kipling's "Tommy" or other classic war poems. It doesn't take itself that seriously, but it reflects our time at war, which included as boredom and levity as well as fear, courage, and pain.
The poems capture the full breadth of the experience: grief for lost comrades; the gallows humor that helps us get through stressful situations (if you've ever wondered why the sanitation ponds on big FOBs like Victory Base Complex and Bagram didn't get hit with more mortar rounds, this book has the answer!): the strange, perhaps never complete, process of readjusting to "normal" life; and the near-constant draw that many of us feel to return to a singular time in our lives and a fight that is still far from finished.
I think it is healthy and necessary to reflect on such a life-altering experience as war. Welcome to FOB Haiku is a thoughtful and friendly companion to such reflection.
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very all of the above in 17 syllable bytes