Written with searing clarity and massive heart, Slow War is narrative poetry at its best. The first collection from Benjamin Hertwig, a veteran of Afghanistan, it chronicles the experiences of an unnamed soldier. We follow this soldier as he’s primed for war, plunged into war’s mundane chaos, and abandoned, scarred in its aftermath.
slow war opens with the astonishing poem, “Genesis.” Because it is so critical to this collection, I include it here in full:
behind the elementary school
and the great wooden structure
that looks like Noah’s ark
I watch you kick
the dark-haired boy
in the stomach.
you kick him more than once.
you are familiar with violence.
he started it, you say
his spit and blood are on my cheeks,
wet sand and afternoon rain. (3)
The images of sand, rain, and bodily fluid; spare, tactile language; biblical allusions; and violence introduced in “Genesis” persist throughout Slow War. Besides providing a thematic and stylistic foundation for the collection, “Genesis” also does the important work of establishing point of view. After “Genesis” that I disappears for most of the collection and the you remains. Hertwig’s decision to tell this soldier’s story in the second-person voice is a masterstroke. Beyond making slow war immediate and potent, it implicates the reader in the violence. Reading it, you, the reader, a citizen, lose the convenient distance you’ve always had from the front lines and face the horrific sensory realities of war and life after war.
slow war’s unnamed soldier is baffled and haunted by the violence he witnesses and enacts. He lacks the confidence other characters have both in the inevitability and virtues of violence. His devout grandfather says, “I want you to see this,” (4) before cutting the throat of an injured deer and afterwards explains: “it had to be this way” (5). A corporal “sips / coke and spits / certainty / gravel theodicies – / he loves his god / as he loves his family / this war” (33). Unlike the unnamed soldier, who feels, once drawn to the stories and imagery of Christianity and horrified by the reality of his experiences, these characters don’t struggle to reconcile the world’s violent reality with the idea of a loving God. This strained reconciliation resonates throughout the collection.
Hertwig is at his best when he lets the reader experience the mind of the unnamed soldier and the associations it makes. While at war, the horrific sensory details he encounters often transport him to tranquil, comforting memories from his past, leaving those moments corrupted. As he patrols Afghan market stalls lit up at night they become the nativity displays of his youth (18). The pockmarked surface of an Afghan road moments before he first fires his weapon in combat becomes the acned face of his teenage best friend (25). “somewhere in helmud” contains the most striking example of this kind of association: “face bleeding, / flap of skin / size of a communion wafer” (27). Handled by a lesser poet, these associative jumps could feel jarring and unnatural, but with Hertwig they feel both inevitable and surprising.
Once home, the associations flip; he can’t escape the war. War, as Hertwig so devastatingly puts it at the end of “young soldier:”
The returned soldier struggles to cope with the new, disturbing geography of his mind. These struggles manifest in everyday moments like making break (“fold in the dead / with flour and / yeast” (56)) and trying to fall asleep (“try to convince yourself that the smell / of bodies in your bed / comes from meat cooking / in the room above” (59)). Is this new geography permanent? Can the soldier ever be free from the past? Is there room for hope?
These questions haunt slow war into the final, and perhaps most elusive, poem in the collection, “Exodus,” which I also include in full:
I did not always hate.
I rub a ball of beeswax
between my hands
that hope is not
byproduct or waste,
but deep synteresis,
new words springing
from raw soil
after rain. (123)
slow war provides no neat resolution, but it does leave the reader with elemental images of hope. The title refers to the Israelite escape from oppression, and beeswax is the cradle of life in the hive. The dry sand that blows through the collection is now soil; the rain, that consistently keeps the soldier from sleep, has stopped. There is hope in “new words springing,” the human drive to express. Slow War is itself an artifact of hope—a soldier returned from war and words sprang forth.
In “somewhere in Flanders/Afghanistan,” what I consider the most compelling and important poem in slow war, Hertwig challenges John McCrae’s romantic view of war and its dead with the cold reality of his experiences: “the dead do not speak John. // sometimes they leave letters / sometimes they leave a room full / of porn and candy wrappers / that someone else has to clean” (101). Taking on McCrae like this is a political act. “In Flanders Fields” is on our currency, it is recited and memorized in schools across our nation. Focusing on singing larks and sunsets creates a barrier between citizens and the realities of war. Imploring us to hold high the torch, promotes war’s continuation.
Hertwig’s mission is the opposite: “tell // the truth. tales of how stupid and shitty / war is” (69). In Slow War, Hertwig doesn’t need to proselytize on the mind-rearranging horrors of violence. His brutally-rendered sensory details, the truth, clearly get his point across. When it comes to Canadian war literature, Slow War is the new required reading.
by Benjamin Hertwig
McGill-Queen’s University Press
$16.95, 134 pp., August 2017
Noah Cain teaches high school English, coaches hockey, and writes in Winnipeg. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in various publications including CV2, The Windsor Review, and carte-blanche.