Jul/Aug 2006  •   Reviews & Interviews

A Conversation with Writer/Poet Patricia Monaghan on War and the "Homefront"

Interview by Elizabeth P. Glixman

Patricia Monaghan grew up in Alaska and taught in the community college system while working as a freelance writer, writing primarily about science, technology and environmental issues. Her passion for mythology resulted in The Book of Goddessess and Heroines published by Dutton in 1980. She is completing a revised edition of the book this year.

Her four books of poetry are Winterburning, published by an Alaskan press, Fireweed, in 1990; Seasons of the Witch, which won the Friends of Literature Award for poetry, published in 1994 and recently republished with a CD of the poems set to music by Creatrix Press in Wisconsin; Dancing with Chaos from Salomon Poetry, Ireland, and Homefront her first book that has relied heavily on an autobiographical voice. In the other books Patricia says, "I have tended towards a dialogic model, using multiple voices and personnae."

Patricia teaches literature and environment at De Paul University in Chicago.


EG     Tell me about your father's involvement in war.

PM     My father was never mobilized during World War II, although he was in basic training near the end of the war. He remained in the National Guard for the next several years to serve out his commitment. He was called back to service for Korea, where his training in flying was put to use as a "Mosquito" pilot, flying small fighters alongside bombers. He was shot down over Korea but rescued; he won the Purple Heart for his service. We have no details on that incident, which he never talked about. When he returned after more than a year overseas, he remained in active duty military until the late 1960's, when he was forced out of the Air Force because he did not have a college degree. He was active in pro-military organizations (like the Air Force Association) until he died of alcoholism and untreated diabetes. Along with these illnesses he struggled with nightmarish memories for years. Dad suffered from PTSD brought on by his battle experiences. I've been discovering that some of his madness is shared by other vets with PTSD, like keeping loaded guns around the house within the reach of children.

EG     What were his specific manifestations of war trauma?

PM     He had frequent nightmares and, I suspect, turned to alcohol for self-medication. He was not a falling-down-drunk kind of drinker; alcohol had the effect of sharpening his mind so that he wanted to talk and argue, often eloquently. It was, in fact, many years before I realized the extent of his alcohol abuse; I was in my mid-20's when my therapist assigned me to measure Dad's alcohol consumption on my next trip home. When I realized he regularly consumed most of a bottle of Scotch in an evening, I understood that despite the apparent clarity with which he spoke, he was drunk most nights. Some members of my family still resist the idea that Dad was alcoholic, preferring to think of him as a "heavy drinker." But when he collapsed and went into a coma before he died, the diagnosis was "advanced alcoholism".

EG     How awful. Everyone suffered in your family.

PM     Addiction is a problem for many veterans and many families of veterans. Since Dad's death I have come to understand more fully how the suppressed and repressed horrors of war haunt veterans long after wars are "ended." Even the VA admits that "secondary PTSD" is a crippling disorder that can impact the children of veterans.

EG     How soon after your father returned from the war did he show signs of PTSD?

PM     He was very typical: for the first ten years or so, he maintained a very rigid control over himself and his memories. These were the times when he conducted white-glove inspections of the children every Saturday morning. If the house was run like a military camp, he felt safe.

Then something happened. I have traced it to the accident involving my brother Mike, who turned the family boat over on himself and nearly drowned. When Mike was hauled in to shore by fishermen from another boat, Dad beat him badly. I remember Mike weeping through the night, telling me he wished Dad had killed him. It is common for veterans who've been maintaining rigid control to crack suddenly like that, usually when they experience something that recalls a traumatic war event. After that, Dad began drinking heavily. It was also early in the Vietnam era, and he absorbed himself in fighting the Korean War over again through contact with Vietnam-based pilots. The Vietnam period was probably the worst for Dad, because he was constantly re-traumatized by the news, just as Vietnam vets are now being re-traumatized by the news from Iraq.

I believe my father suffered more because he was a sensitive man who went to war partially out of economic duress and partially out of misguided patriotism. I don't believe he was a sadist to begin with. He did things he never forgot nor forgave himself for, although he never said what they were. How many thousands and thousands of others will be like him from this newest war? How long will this legacy last?

EG     In your poems in Homefront, it is clear you were affected by your father's experience of war as were the children in this poem:

Home Movies 1954

A Japanese meal has been made,
And sake warmed and sipped, and
the girls dressed up in small kimonos.

The conversation has been
Instructive, for the children,
And slightly bawdy, for the rest.

At least one mention has been made
of Panmunjong. There has been
a bilingual dirty song or two.

The daughters now bring out
The wood dolls from Japan and show
how the elaborately dressed hair

can be removed, leaving the head
momentarily bald while another
wig is brought from the case.

As the children grow sleepy
a sheet is tacked against the wall
and the projector taken out.

There is a little game to play
with sake cups, so that
everyone is drunk by the time

the movies begin. Aerial views
of Korean Fields, paddies, blue
distant hills. Smoke and flame,

real war movies. The men drink
and retell the squadron jokes
while the women clear and clean.

The children, holding their dolls,
Watch the silent bombs land
on the bed sheet, over and over.

How did his experiences shape you growing up and as an adult?

PM     A huge question!

As a girl living on Air Force bases, I had no idea of life outside the military. Everyone had a father whose work involved danger and possible death. Many kids had family lives that were, to outsiders, rather strange, with guns around the house and so forth. But like most children, I thought my family was normal. Yes, Dad hit us, but that was because he had a "hot temper." Yes, we had little money, but that was because there were so many kids, not because Dad drank up so much of the family resources.

As a young adult, my own PTSD began to surface. I was incredibly fearful of any kind of conflict, even a raised voice, because I associated it with possible violence. I drank, because that's what adults did. I had repeating nightmares of war, some of which found their way into the poems. In my late teens, I became active in the anti Vietnam War movement, out of a blurred feeling of war's wrongness that went counter to the fierce patriotism of my family. This led to some memorably violent confrontations with my father, who had made the Air Force his career. Finally I found a home in the Society of Friends, because I met people there who seemed to understand peace not as merely opposition to war, but as a path in itself.

When my father retired, he returned to Alaska where we had been stationed some years earlier, and to some extent he experienced healing through nature. In family films, his voice is quite changed during those later days, whenever he talked about the outdoors. He was a fervent hunter and fisherman, and he spent as much time in wilderness as he could. Although he continued to drink heavily until he died, he was not as violent after returning to Alaska. The idea of healing through nature, which is part of the Sweeney sequence in Homefront," derives from this part of my father's life.

EG     Do you have any siblings? How were they and your mother affected?

PM     There were seven of us children; my brother Mike died when he was 38, of a rare cancer of the bile duct. I will not speak for my siblings and how they have dealt with the family legacy, except to say that we have each found some way to handle it, some more successfully than others.

For me, writing the poems in this book was extremely difficult, because there is a culture of secrecy about the wounds of war. Children of war veterans are more likely than other Americans to join the service and/or to marry people in the service; thus the kind of secrecy that shrouds family difficulties (incest, alcoholism, domestic violence) becomes complicated by the code of honor of the military. I was brought up with both those codes: don't speak about what goes on at home, and don't ever seem "unpatriotic" or "un-American" by "giving comfort to the enemy." I have been writing the poems in this book for more than 30 years, but I never showed them to any but a few friends. Years of inner work on the dynamics of the dysfunctional and alcoholic family led me to believe that truth-telling was important, but even so, I hesitated to read or publish the poems in Homefront. But slowly I came to realize how common my experience is and how, by maintaining the silence about the impact of war on families, we fail to acknowledge how pervasive war's legacy is.

One of the purposes of literature for readers, I believe, is to help us feel less alone in our human struggles. Yet when I look for literature that describes the experience of being the child of a war-damaged veteran, I find very little, Pat Conroy's "The Great Santini" being an exception. It is as though my life does not exist. War literature focuses primarily on the experience of the soldier. But for those of us who've heard more than enough war stories, war literature doesn't tell us more than we already know. A few books describe the aftermath, like Ron Kovic's Born on the Fourth of July. But in such books, the soldier occupies center stage. What about the wives, the children, the grandchildren of such damaged people?

EG     How important is the poet's role in changing attitudes about war?

PM     Unquestionably, the arts impact our thinking about war. In Homefront I have several poems that weave in the Irish martial music with which I grew up. Irish folksongs tend to glorify the rebel-martyr who gives his all for dear ole Ireland. I grew up believing that to die for Ireland was the greatest good, though I didn't go to Ireland itself until I was 30. This fed into the virgin-martyr complex common to many Catholic girls, so that I saw being killed in the line of duty as a fine way to go. I didn't, at that time, realize that "dying for Ireland" was just another way of talking about "killing for Ireland." Such music does help shape us. So does the powerful poetry that the melodies carry. So does other media, including movies, for which war is a source of endless exciting shots.

EG     What do you think about the news bringing pictures of dead and wounded civilians in to our living rooms via TV? Could the media help to reshape people's views on war?

PM     Can arts or media reshape people's ideas on war? I hope so, or I would not be writing. But I think war's hold on humanity is very deep, because if we were acting rationally we would certainly never be talking about using nuclear weapons. War excites people. Killing people is exciting and powerful. Unless and until we can begin to deal with the addictive process of war, we'll never stop going to war.

Yes, there are other reasons we go to war, like protecting our property. But the "leaders" in Washington who invaded Iraq could not have done so if thousands of young men (and increasingly, young women too) were not primed to go have the time of their lives killing the latest version of "gooks." Dehumanizing the enemy permits the soldier to perform acts that are utterly unimaginable by those of us who escaped the siren call of war. I notice that the torturers in Iraq were mostly people without much power or education, people who were only going to get their own heads kicked in back here in America. They didn't torture people because they hated doing so and were pressured to by their superiors. They were nice normal Americans who had never had the chance to be so powerful. And killing someone: the ultimate power.

When I was writing the book Homefront (as distinct from the autobiographical poems that I had been writing for so many years), I realized that the poems were one-sided, leaving out the voice of the soldier. In searching for that voice, I found the image of mad Sweeney, from Irish myth. It was surprising to write that long series, because I clearly had more insight into the delights of war than I would have ever imagined. The passion of war was something I did not know I understood until I began to write in Sweeney's voice. Until we acknowledge that passion, the pleasure people find in war, we won't stop it. We've come to acknowledge that many things that feel good aren't good for us as individuals or for the community. Going back to the media, we now have a media feeding-frenzy about child abuse. When I was in college, I was told that incest was taboo in all societies. Had I been an incest survivor, I would have felt incredibly isolated in my experience, which was so utterly denied. Now, child abuse is the staple of every second episode of Law and Order. What if we started making wounded veterans the centerpiece of dramas? Not only as unfortunate street people, but as apparently successful men and women who torture their children?

EG     It seems like we have all become desensitized to the violence of war on the human psyche. In your poem "Soldier's Heart: The Song of Sweeny," which has been described by Jendi Reiter as "a saga of the Lear-like madness of a warrior king," these two excerpts describe part of the king's journey from glorifying war to seeing what is lost:

1. Din of Battle

They call me madman of the trees, king gone astray, witless
         one, mimic birds, folly's friend. La-la-lee. La-la-loo.
         The wild mad king.

Sweeney? I am not Sweeney. Sweeney was a tall strong man
         who raised his voice and his arms against anyone who
         slighted him.

He was a king, that tall man. A king by birth and battle. I
         knew him in his youth. A frenzied man, that Sweeney,
         like every man who knows the secret of war. I learned
         that secret from him, in my youth.

Lean forward: let me tell you. Let me murmur to you what I
         cannot speak into the night's wide listening ear. Let me
         tell you of the way, in slant evening light, wine shines
         like fresh blood. The way, in mead-tinged candlelight,
         the gold hair of a woman glints like weapons clashing.

The way everything grows wild and fierce and vivid, the
         night before the battle. The blood pricking. The loins
         surging. The breath intoxicating. The stars multiplying.

9. War among the birds

Am I going mad? How can I think war beautiful? Enough of
         war and your dreams become all screaming heads.
         Enough of war and you forget all other beauties, the
         small spring flowers and the yearning bend of willows
         and the sweet taste of water.

PM     I had begun, a year before starting that series, studying ancient Irish poetry, which led me to the original Sweeney poems of the Middle Ages. I had never encountered poetry so replete with natural imagery. I began doing some new translations of the work, but when I realized that the important fact of Sweeney's madness being caused by war did not appear in the originals, I began to write in that nature-intoxicated voice but about the story's lacunae.

I have never before had the experience of feeling so completely occupied by another being as when I wrote the Sweeney poems. The U.S. was invading Iraq, and I was traveling across the nation on a book tour (for my book about Ireland, The Red-Haired Girl from the Bog). I awakened nightly from nightmares that forced me up to write. Sweeney still seems alive to me in a way that is not part of my own psyche but is some archetypal force that demanded expression at that historic time.

EG     Most of the poems in the book relate to past wars and ongoing conflicts like the one in Ireland. There is also a poem about Iraq, "The Woman of Baghdad." In this poem you describe an innocent woman caught in international conflicts. An excerpt:

Men are talking somewhere, but she
does not hear them. She hears the murmur
of a dove in the tree. She hears the tiny
roar of a city wakening. She hears her heart
as we all hear ours, a soundless sound.

The men are saying she will die. The men
are saying the bombs are coming.
She, hearing nothing, gets up heavily
and picks a single lime from her tree.
She breathes its oily fragrance. These
are the last breaths she will take.

In another poem, called "Geography Lessons," you write about knowing the world of war:

How I learned my world;
Born six months after Hiroshima,
Learned to speak with names
of Bolovogue and Limerick,

Augrim and Vinegar Hill,
Lost battles in a lost land:
Learned to read on father's letters from Japan as he bombed
Pusan, Inchon, Chosin;
Later you write in this poem:
This is not the way
I want to know my world.

In west Iraq there is a town.
Only one road leads to it.
It is too far from any oil
or water to be important.
I do not know its name.
So far it has been overlooked.
A woman lives there,
a widow my age.
She has dark eyes,
She has a garden.

I know there is a town like that. I know there is a woman like that, in that town.

This is my wish for her:
That she name her own land
and it familiar hills
in words I never know.
That she live and die
safe in its severe beauty.

This is my wish for her:
That I never hear of her.
That she never hears of me.

EG     Have you had your fill of writing poems about war or are you still writing poems about the present-day world conflicts?

PM     I'm involved in several multimedia projects deriving from Homefront". The CD of music from "Songs of the Kerry Madwoman" has just been released, with music by folk composer Michael Smith and vocals by Jamie O'Reilly. In the fall, I'm going to Ireland to work on a CD of the Sweeney poems, with accompaniment by champion harper Lynn Saoirse of Waterford.

Most of the poems I have been writing lately have been about another form of war, the war on the environment. In Alaska, global climate change is being felt much more sharply than in more temperate climes. The great forests I remember from childhood are dying; the glaciers are melting. Scientists I know there say that the point of irreparable damage is near, if we have not already passed it. I have been writing a series of poems I call "earth oracles" about the environmental challenges we face.

But I don't only write gloomy poems. Because I'm planting wine grapes on our farm in Wisconsin, I'm writing poems about wine and vines, some of which are coming out shortly in the new literary journal on food and wine, Alimentum.

EG     Life is for the living. How about a few lines from a poem about wine?

PM     Here is one called "Planning the Vineyard":

A quarter jug of yesterday's rioja
darkens the sauce I make for lunch.
We sit under blue spruce as we eat,
studying that sloping lower field.

The boughs sway in the spring wind.
A wild turkey saunters past. You laugh.
"How does he know?" "Psychic," I say.
"Even the birds know what we're planning."

We are too old for dreams like this,
really we are. Think how gray
our hair will be before our vines
hang heavy with fruit under fall skies.

Why spend our days digging in lean
rocky soil on a southwest slope?
Why struggle to learn the chemistry
of balance and intoxication?

Why not go gentle into middle age?
Why this, why now? The turkey calls.
We laugh. The sun begins to set
across the valley, painting the clouds

rosť and champagne. Sunsets here
can be bright tapestries, or simply gray.
You never know. You might as well
pour a glass of wine and hope.

EG     Thank you for this wonderful interview.

PM     Thank you!


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