Tuesday, October 20, 2009

To Bedlam and Back

By Brian Turner


Even before I reached the Imperial War Museum in London I was reminded of war.

I was on the underground — what the Brits call their subway system — when the emergency alarm sounded in the car I was riding in, just as we’d pulled into a station. No one jumped up and ran for safety. No one seemed to move. Still, I could see the anxiety on the faces of those sitting and standing around me. Our thoughts were of the 7/7 terror attacks on the subway system four years ago. And though I wasn’t sure yet if there was reason to be alarmed, I could feel the anxiety registering on my own face as I quickly tried to plot out escape routes, possible threats and so on. And though it turned out that the emergency switch was accidentally pulled by a schoolchild, I was again reminded that even in places of relative peace, we live in a time of war.

How should our veterans rejoin the life waiting for them back home? How do they rejoin the tribe once they’ve been to Bedlam?

The Imperial War Museum has two enormous cannons on its front lawn, apparently aimed at Soho (where artists and musicians predominate). The museum itself is located on the grounds of the old Bethlem Royal Hospital (which has been around since about 1247 and started out as the priory of St. Mary of Bethlehem). During the 1300’s it began to treat and house the mentally ill. This is where we get the word Bedlam: A scene or state of wild uproar or confusion; an insane asylum or madhouse. These are the grounds that serve as the foundation for the Imperial War Museum. As it says in the museum guidebook: “Until 1770 there were no restrictions on visitors, and the patients, who were often manacled or chained to the walls, were a public attraction.”

Today, the seemingly endless rooms of war exhibits somehow create a continuum, passageway by passageway, from one war to another.

While studying the glass-encased uniforms and love letters written home in 1917 or 1943, I thought about my grandfather’s Marine Corps uniform and the letters he wrote home from the Pacific. I thought about my dad flying from the Eniwetok Atoll during the Cold War of the mid-1960’s. I began to think about my own uniform and the letters I wrote home while serving in Iraq. And I was reminded of how it felt walking through the airport in Dallas when I returned mid-deployment on leave — a surreal experience. (I was also reminded of this by Hugh Martin, another veteran and poet, who has written a poem about this very thing.)

I began to think that my experience in the Dallas airport, with its glass enclosures and static furniture, shared some strange parallel to the museum exhibits before me. Do other veterans feel like this? Do they sometimes feel like specimens in a museum — when civilians lean in to catch a conversation between two veterans sharing war stories; when they walk through the airport in their desert fatigues, catching sideways glances from passersby who seem curious about those who have returned from what seems like another world; when they look out to see the everyday life they may no longer feel a part of anymore?

I think we’re all aware of the shameful treatment our Vietnam War veterans experienced when they returned home. To compound that cruelty, their returns were often abrupt and unceremonious. I once heard the amazing poet (and veteran of the Vietnam War) Bruce Weigl speaking about Vietnamese culture. As I recalled, he explained that when warriors returned from battle ages ago, they were not allowed to immediately re-enter the village; they were met outside the village by all who lived there so they might take part in a cleansing ceremony. To make sure I got it right, I recently wrote an e-mail to Bruce and he elaborated:

What you say is pretty accurate. What I said was that going all the way back through the history of our wars it’s possible to see that practically every culture going back at least as far as Homer’s understood somehow that it was necessary to make a gesture to invite the warrior back into the non-warrior culture. It’s a simple idea. After World War II, most of the troops returned by ship and so had this nice, three- or four- week downtime, debriefing time. The problem with Vietnam was that on Monday night you could be hiding out from a rocket attack and some sorry ass LZ, and then on Tuesday night, be in your mommy’s living room. No time to make that transition.

In a similar vein — when my unit returned from Iraq, we had to land in Maine and clear customs (which made no sense to a grunt sergeant like me). Before walking through the metal detector to get back on the bird that would take us the last leg home — holding M-4 carbines and strapped down with knives as we did so — we had to loiter around in one of the wings of the terminal. I distinctly remember the feel of the carpet as I walked on it with my boots — it felt like civilization. It must have been an hour or more after midnight. Still, even at that late hour, old veterans and their spouses were waiting there to greet us (wearing hats with pins from World War II and Korea, mostly). They didn’t say anything about the mission. They didn’t say anything about the war, or about war at all. All they said was, “Welcome home” and “Do you want some coffee?”

I guess what I’m wondering most is, as a country that is currently at war, how do our veterans rejoin the life waiting for them back home? How do they rejoin the tribe once they’ve been to Bedlam? How do we help them so that they don’t feel as if they’re encased in glass, pinned to the walls as specimens in some museum-house of culture? It’s a difficult question to answer. I have trouble answering it myself. I think there’s a kind of medicine needed, not only for the veteran, but for all — even if we’re not aware of this need. Even if we’re not aware of the wound. I think we need to walk out beyond the lights of the village. We need to walk far beyond the trajectories of cannons, to take part in a ceremony capable of expressing what it is that war does to us all.

It is a conversation we need to be engaged in — one that will sadly last the remainder of our lives. I apologize if I’ve muddled it here. But if any of you have ideas toward this end — how we receive the warrior and how we apply healing to the larger community, I am very interested in what you have to say.

I will sign off here with a prose poem I wrote after the museum visit.

Call It Leaves and Rain

I was walking through the middle of my life. Walking down Divisadero Street wearing old desert combat fatigues, listening to the antifreeze boil over. I was listening to the antifreeze boil over in conversations on the street, that dead end steaming hiss of radiators run a hundred thousand miles and more. The radiators boiled over in fatigue while I was walking a hundred thousand miles down Divisadero Street in Fresno, and it was July, and the asphalt was speaking its vapor, and I was wearing combat boots and walking through the middle of my life.

I was listening to WAR. I was listening to WAR on Divisadero Street and learning how to ride low through the rest of my life, learning how to walk the blocks in tighter and tighter circles, the way the lost do. In tighter and tighter circles I was lost to the WAR on Divisadero Street. I was circling the WAR the way vapor curls from the steaming hiss of dead radiators in Fresno. I was circling the lost in Fresno, wearing my combat boots worn down a hundred thousand miles and counting.

And I was counting. I counted each dying face passing by. I counted the birds with their exhausted voices. I counted the sentinel birds perched silent in the eucalyptus trees above. I circled the eucalyptus birds and listened for their medicine, the way the lost do in Fresno, wearing combat boots and speaking in vapor. I was circling through the middle of my life, right there under the medicine trees, listening to the silence of the sentinel birds and waiting for them to boil over in steam. But that’s not what medicine birds do.

Medicine birds break open in orange and red. Medicine birds have eucalyptus leaves for feathers and bandage the air when they fly. Medicine birds fly through the windows in the head, impervious to glass. They are impervious to WAR and hiss and steam and vapor and combat and the circling lost. Medicine birds fly through the windows to land in our beds when we’re dreaming our circling dream of Divisadero and Fresno with its lost and circling WAR. Medicine birds have eucalyptus wings and when they fly in our beds they transform themselves into leaves and rain and lovers. The lovers in our beds are eucalyptus birds flying medicine through the windows in our heads. The lovers in our medicine beds fly eucalyptus through the circling loss. The lovers in our beds bring medicine to our lips and call it eucalyptus, call it love, call it leaves and rain for our exhausted souls.

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