I wasn’t thinking about the Syrian Civil War and the US’s possible involvement in it when I chose Kerry James Evans’s debut collection, Bangalore, for the Rumpus Poetry Book Club, but you would be forgiven for thinking that had something to do with it, given the subject matter of many of the poems. Evans served six years in the Army National Guard as a combat engineer, and though he was never sent to Iraq or Afghanistan, the violence of combat—and just as important, its aftermath—runs through this book. For instance, consider this passage from the poem “Volcano”:
I’ve seen the Mojave, but I’ve never seen the desert.
In training, I swept for mines, but I’ve never seen
my brother’s leg destroyed after detonation;
I’ve seen the legless soldier walking with a prosthetic
across town, through the grocery store, at drill,
trying to hold on for one more year, for pension.
But while the violence made corporeal in that soldier’s prosthetic leg is only one potential outcome (and it’s far from the worst possibility), that’s not where the violence starts. In the poem “Blanket Party,” Evans’s speaker details an incident where an entire platoon exacts revenge on one member, “Private Shit-bird Jenkins.” Armed with a pillowcase filled with bars of soap,
We strapped Jenkins to his bed
by the four corners of his blanket
and we beat his body.
I rammed a sock in his mouth.
The poem ends with the ominous line “We’d killed our own.”
I went to college with a lot of guys who joined the National Guard to get through school. I went so far as to take the physical myself, and only backed out of going to Basic Training when I didn’t like any of the positions left open to me afterward. That was 1998, before 9/11 and the resultant hysteria that led the US into the places many of the people who populate Evans’s book came back from damaged, if at all. A number of the guys I went to college with finished their Guard tours in Bagram and Kandahar and the Green Zone. We haven’t talked much about it, but the few stories I’ve heard parallel the ones Evans tells with such power and detail.
This is not just a book of poems about foreign wars, though. There’s plenty of brutality back home, in the Alabama of his youth, in the Missouri of his adulthood, but it’s paired with tenderness and a complex, difficult affection for place. From “Elegy for the Kudzu Vine”:
We throw darts. We drink cheap beer from small glasses,
stumbling over the line. We hold God in one hand and swear wiith the other.
We’d give anything to forget
about the one-stoplight towns, Piggly-Wigglys, the BP station
where we bought Mountain Dews after football practice
and a Snickers for the road. We’d give anything to understand
what you have done for our lives, how you hold dead trees
from falling after an ice storm,
how you keep red clay from washing into our veins—
all that iron and blood. There is no forgetting when raised the grandchild
of the Ku Klux Klan. And you, old vine,
tied like a noose as a reminder, blooming your purple flower
so that every hanged soul might find a voice.
Perhaps it’s because I share so many similar feelings about my native South—until I was thirty-four, I never lived outside of it—with Evans that I am so taken by this book, or because I recognize in my own small-town upbringing the aches he so artfully evokes, but I think there’s more to it than that. Evans spares nothing and no one in his poems, and yet he still finds a way to celebrate what deserves celebrating, and in the end, we’re left with hope. Read the last line of this book, and you’ll see what I mean.
You can still join the Rumpus Poetry Book Club in time to receive this book and take part in the chat we’ll have with Evans near the end of the month! Sign up here.