Mark Allen Jenkins
Review of Seeds of the Pomegranate by David Allen Sullivan
Tebot Bach, 116pp, $16, Paper.
I recently visited a war photography exhibit at the Houston Museum of Fine Arts. As a history buff, I thought it might be interesting and it seemed an unusual exhibit for an art museum. Some photos were typical war photos, like nineteenth century daguerreotype portraits of men in full dress uniforms, soldiers trying to pass the time playing cards, or recent soldiers in Afghanistan wrestling to release tension. Others, though, were difficult to see, such as a bus ravaged by a suicide bomb's blast or child soldiers in Africa. Sorted by theme, these photos created a powerful exhibit about war. It also reflected a bias of war coverage to distort conflicts by not always equally covering both sides of a conflict and by sometimes censoring disturbing events.
It's uncommon to see an entire poetry collection devoted to the Second Iraq War. A few veteran poets come to mind: Brian Turner, Hugh Martin, Seth Brady Tucker, and Martin Ott. There is then, room for second-hand experience to try to capture some sense of the thing that is modern warfare. David Allen Sullivan's Every Seed of the Pomegranate is an attempt to try to give voice to soldiers, civilians, and others affected by this war and occupation. Together these serve as a kind of poetic gallery to bring much needed attention to a conflict that is fading from our cultural memory.
The opening poem, "Night Visions I" questions the poet's ability to handle such a complex, heartbreaking, and divisive topic as the second Iraq War: "Who am I to write/these words?" he asks, but another voice asks too: "Who are you to turn/ from these words and rest?" He calls this book his "nightmared child" then mentions that "In Iraq fires burn/ that never go out" as a metaphor for destruction and wounds that will never fully heal. The poem then mentions different people he researched and wrote poems about "as if the sounds [of their names]/ might help me know them."
The book's two longest sections are bookended with angel or devil poems: "Angel Jibril (Gabriel), the Messenger;" "The Obedience of Iblis, the Devil." Jibril is one of many religious figures that overlap between Christianity and Islam. This inclusion, along with Arabic words, seems to takes a cue from Brian Turner's Here, Bullet which also includes poems about the history and culture of Iraq. Translation of words, cultures, and even experiences is another theme in the book, such as "Can Be Translated as Juice," which uses the image and metaphor of a eating a pomegranate to religious faith: "Sulaf pools inside/ the pomegranate's bright skin/ when two palms mash it," which suggests the image of hands in prayer. The poems ends with "Faith begins each time/ his words spring from new mouths,/ lips burned red by juice." As the faith in this poem seems most likely Islam, the "his" in this poem is most likely Allah.
Many poems in Every Seed of the Pomegranate are persona poems: "Leila Hussein, Housewife;" "Army Specialist Jonathan Cheatham;" "Staff Sergeant Alex Lemons, From His Wheelchair" and "George Bush Eats Shoe (In My Dreams)." In the collection's preface, Sullivan notes these poems are based on interviews with soldiers and Iraqis, leaving room for him to combine and select different events and figures to suit a particular poem. Most of the soldiers sound like soldiers. However, each soldier's experience is different, either because some served on the front line ("Lieutenant Colby Buzzel, Sniper, Styker Brigade;" "Army Specialist Dexter Pitts") while others served as medics and doctors treating wounded soldiers and civilians ("Doc Washington, USNS Comfort;" "Combat Medic Jaeson ‘Doc' Parsons'"). In "Lieutenant Colby Buzzel, Sniper, Styker Brigade" a sniper recounts the process of taking out a target: "When someone runs/ you want to lead ‘em/ so you can take ‘em down clean." When his spotter, Hondo, is shot by another sniper, the narrator sees "blood filling his boot treads/ where he'd been talking//trash a nod earlier." This poem provides insight into both how a sniper operates, but also how he is mentally able to kill those that he doesn't see in person until after they're dead. He admits that he "never liked to see//‘em up close" but his spotter, Hondo, photographed each target, and Buzzel chose to "stash ‘em/someplace special. No one else/ would be my witness." He admits in the moment of shooting Hondo's killer, that "[I] Don't care if he was// just an Iraqi/kid, I felt nothin' but glad/ when I stood over// his, body crumpled/ like he was hugging his rifle." It is an interesting close to the poem when, after he shoots Hondo's killer and finds his body, he thinks, "Take a picture, dick." This poem captures the contradictory emotions that Buzzel experienced this day and later besides feeling "nothin' but glad.": anger, detachment, guilt or at least some amount of self-loathing.
Other poems in Every Seed consider veterans adjusting to civilian life ("Staff Sergeant Alex Lemons, From His Wheelchair") and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder ("Army Specialist Jonathan Cheatham"). In Alex Lemons's poem, he begins "My dreams grow heavy/ with daily fuck-ups. I trudge back up garage ramps// having forgotten where I parked and what the damn/ Impala looks like." He struggles with alcoholism and wonders if any woman might like him out of genuine attraction and not because "Some chicks pity crips." He recounts a reoccurring dream, one part a memory of losing his legs, "The dream always starts/ with me flying, pushed up by/that bouncing-betty" but "sometimes I keep/ rising over the desert/ into white-hot air// that's a swirl of sand/funneling me up until/ I'm screaming for joy." These images of escape implies at least some resentment that the blast didn't outright kill him, but instead left him disabled and disillusioned.
This collection sometimes feels like a poetic version of Studs Terkel's Working, especially when many titles list the speaker's name and occupation. Though the voices between many of these characters are not considerably different, I could attribute the sameness of poems in this collection to the poet's own voice and even claim that voice isn't the point of this book. Still, I can't help but think of a poet like Maurice Manning who creates a unique voice for an entire collection (A Companion for Owls or Bucolic), or a multitude of voices (The Common Man) might have given these poems more individual depth. Sullivan does occasionally interweave different voices ("Swirling Sand," "The Black Camel"), which heightens the contrast between them, something I wish happened more in this collection.
Mark Allen Jenkins is currently a PhD in Humanities student at the University of Texas at Dallas where he serves as Assistant Editor for Reunion: The Dallas Review. His poetry has appeared in Memorious, minnesota review, Muse & Stone, South Dakota Review, and elsewhere.