A Book of Absences: Jehanne Dubrow’s Dots & Dashes

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I’m trying to concentrate on this book, but my husband is snoring loudly beside me in bed. I’m irritated—I want quiet and solitude—so I escape to the empty bed in the guestroom.

I’m reading Dots & Dashes, Jehanne Dubrow’s sixth poetry collection and a thematic successor to 2010’s Stateside. Fraught with empty beds, and describing a long marriage characterized by constant military deployments, Dots & Dashes is a book of absences. The title, a form of military communication sent over distances, transmits itself throughout this collection: in the couple’s correspondence, in what’s left unsaid between them, and in the whitespace in such formal elements as Sapphic fragments and medial caesuras. It’s in a letter mailed early in their relationship: “I’ve always been skilled in the strike // that language makes on sentiment”…“how you loved that dispatch for the precision // of its cruelty, my words and their marching / orders to leave me the fuck alone” (“Officer Candidate School”); as well as in the news of war in “Casualty Notification,” a riff on Auden’s elegy for Yeats:

Switch channels, stop
________the breaking news,
press mute to hush
________the anchorman’s reviews
of war, his litany
________of each device
and bomb gone off today.

Morse code also is a coded language that stands in for absence, much as the poems Dubrow writes to represent these deployments: “And what are words? /—prosthetics made // to bear the weight / of what is lost”; “when I say vessels // I mean boats and bodies, / that there’s no more imperfect union / than marriage / or the marrying of words”; or “Reading Sappho in Pensacola,” “his absence like the space / a translator leaves / when only parts of the poem remain.”

Absence is everywhere present in this collection, in the still-life composition of “A Catalogue of the Contents of His Nightstand,” and in the scent of him left behind in “The Long Deployment”:

For weeks, I breathe his body in the sheet
________and pillow. I lift a blanket to my face.
There’s bitter incense paired with something sweet.

There are absences that unexpectedly assert themselves even when the speaker’s husband is present: “Come home, // he would no matter what be strange.” In “Homeport,” a clever and cruel reworking of Hayden’s “Those Winter Sundays” and their lonely offices, Dubrow’s speaker recounts a middle-of-the-night summons of her husband by his captain:

_______my husband would yessir to him
who was steamingmad on the ship,
before slipping into the chill of coveralls,

the blueblack uniform of service,
________which in a certain light
_______________had the confining fit of love.

Sometimes it is the husband himself who deploys the distancing language of deployment, as in “My Husband Calls Me Shipmate”: “that language / of the engine / room has no / shut-off.”

Like the engine room language, there are other small betrayals. In “What We Talk About When We Talk About Deployment,” all the “wives” (Mary, Jane, Beth, and the speaker) are versions of the author. While most of the “wives” characterize their suffering in various ways, “Mary” finds some private relief in the deployment, “a vacation from desire”: “one enormous couch… where she can stretch her legs forever and never touch another body.” (In the guestroom bed I have fled to, I uneasily recognize my own relief, away from my snoring bedmate upstairs.) She acknowledges that the poems she writes about her experience, “those tiny detonations made of words,” often hurt the servicemen who hear them. And she is hurt when she does not hear from her husband for months, then finds,

______________…a year from now,
that phones were possible, that any time
________he could have dialed me from the ship,
________________I understand
distance is a place
_________________________________some people love.

At such distances, small betrayals may grow into something larger. Dubrow warns us, in [If You Are Squeamish], “Don’t scroll / his phone’s green messages. The ocean is another // water of forgetfulness.” Betrayal may even extend to matters of national security, as in “Photograph of General Petraeus with Paula Broadwell,” with its caption-like epigraph that adds the comment “later revealed to be his mistress,” an incident so fraught that it led us to the popular joke of rhyming “Petraeus” with “betray us.”

Beyond national security, Dubrow’s poems remind the reader of those in peril on the sea, that real lives are at stake. In accordance with the titular theme, some of those dangers are semiotic, as in “The Signal Flag”: “For every flag, a threat / that’s near—steer clear of me. So many ways / to warn of danger in the world,” or the poem title taken from words on a sign: “CAUTION: HOLE IN SHIP.” Because the speaker has internalized the saying that “loose lips sink ships,” she’s careful not to reveal her husband’s ship’s location in a radio interview:

Right now, I’m trying not to answer when
I’m asked about my husband’s latitude
_______and longitude,
_______________________because I can’t recall
what the Navy thinks
_______________________________is need-to-know.

For the brief span of six pages toward the end, Dubrow’s speaker allows herself to directly address a military spouse’s worst fears, in the most familiar dots-and-dashes message of “SOS,” or in envisioning “Ares a toddler,” splashing in the tub of the ocean that contains her husband’s ship, concluding, “What little brunt / it takes to sink a floating thing” ([Then the God of War]. The husband’s ribbons arranged in rows suggests military dead; the speaker imagines the ribbons framed beside a folded flag:

Suppose for some there’s peace
________in these rows,

citations fit each to each,
________how every sacrifice already
________________knows its place.

In this collection, there are the expected gestures towards Greek literature: the foundational literature of war, the long deployments at sea of the Iliad and Odyssey. But what’s so startling about these poems is how Dubrow spends her poetic energies grappling with the classical treatments of the past to thrilling and unexpected effects. For instance, in Stateside, the precursor to this volume, there’s a single late poem titled “On the Erotics of Deployment.” In Dots & Dashes, she expands and reinvigorates this classical tradition:

________________I say whatever
can come home will be the vessel

of desire. Is not the Aegis
Combat System—a warning made
of electricity, tined waves of sound—

named for a shield Athena wore
when she was angriest, and therefore
beautiful, the golden scales of it

like snakes writhing?

Dubrow makes savvy use of Sappho’s fragments—erotic poems that have only partially survived time, their missing lines and phrases represented as white space—a form, therefore, imbued with both yearning and absence. Like some translations of Sappho, Dubrow’s versions are titled in brackets, including “[When I Marry Eros]:: “He’s dressed in the uniform / of war,” later revealing “I met my husband in a class / on Ovid where we learned longing / changes us.” In “Asking and Telling,” below an epigraph from Ovid, she describes the unspoken policy of “it’s not gay if you’re underway,” the confessions that spill out during a drunken Navy cocktail party: “sailors pried open of their secrets / like unsealing a box that’s rusted shut.”

Another element that makes this collection so notable is Dubrow’s masterful use of received forms. In addition to the Sapphic fragments and riffs on well-known poems, there are several sonnets (to a husband whose love, while not unrequited, is removed), and an unobtrusive sestina, “USS Ronald Reagan,” among others. But I want to call attention to three particularly brilliant marriages of form. (Hang on, y’all—this is about to get extremely inside baseball, but necessary in order for you to see what she’s doing here.)

“CAUTION: HOLE IN SHIP” takes its title from a sign “to stop workers falling / the way children / used to fall down wells.” With its medial caesuras represented by typographical blank space, and with the last half of each line dropped down so it’s not on the same horizontal—the poem concretely mimics the hole running through the decks of the ship, but also visually resembles the Anglo-Saxon poetry of Beowulf—more on this in a moment. “A Global Force for Good™,” which uses the language of the patriotic propaganda of enlistment pitches, is written in heroic couplets, but breaks each pair into four lines that alternate dimeter / trimeter and rhyming (2a/3b/2x/3b) to disguise it, much the way the recruiters’ language disguises their purposes. What’s fantastic about these two poems is how their forms—conventionally employed to elevate heroic subjects—undercut and expose flaws. But it’s “The Long Deployment”—a quiet poem about searching for her husband’s scent in their sheets, and whose first stanza is quoted above—that’s the main stunner here. The title of “The Long Deployment” could just as easily describe its form: a villanelle whose pattern is extended by two stanzas (six lines) before the inevitable, four-line concluding stanza, as if the form itself is conspiring to make his scent, and the ritual of smelling it, last longer.

Before I go crawl back in bed with my snorer, grateful for his body beside me, his scent I can smell skin-to-skin, I need to say, very plainly: this book matters. Dots & Dashes, and its thematic predecessor Stateside, are important collections, engaging honestly and thoughtfully with the lives of “dependents”—those who hang on, are left hanging, during deployments—and who usually get represented only as stoic, patriotic, self-sacrificing cardboard cutouts. This book is necessary, even crucial: As the little brunt Toddler-in-Chief threatens war or gaffes his way into it, Dubrow deploys the classics of literature as she frames our contemporary moment.

Heidi Czerwiec is a poet and essayist and serves as Poetry Editor at North Dakota Quarterly. She is the author of two recent chapbooks—A Is For A-ké, The Chinese Monster, and Sweet/Crude: A Bakken Boom Cycle—and of the forthcoming collection Conjoining with Sable Books, and the editor of North Dakota Is Everywhere: An Anthology of Contemporary North Dakota Poets. She lives in Minneapolis, where she teaches with the Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop and works with Motionpoems. Visit her at heidiczerwiec.com. More from this author →