Monday Inbox: US Embassy Baghdad’s Conrad Turner Recites a Russian Poem, And ….

— Domani Spero

Updated on 3/24 at 11:24 pm PST: The YouTube description now indicates that this is “One of four videos celebrating international poetry during the visit to Iraq of poets from the University of Iowa’s Writers’ Workshop.”

The video below was published by U.S. Embassy Baghdad on March 4, 2014 on YouTube. The video includes the English and Arabic text translation of a Russian poem.  The speaker is the embassy’s Public Affairs Counselor in Baghdad reciting a poem by Russian poet Alexander Sergeyevich Pushkin in Baghdad. The embassy’s AIO also recited a poem last February; can’t say whose work he is reciting here, can you?

Oh, please don’t get us wrong, we love poetry.  We love Mary Oliver’s “Wild Geese and  Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s “Underwear“and Keats, and Yeats, and Billy Collins, too.  But somebody from that building sent us an email asking if this is “really clever use of PD time and money?” So we went and look.  The YouTube post is 1:40 min in length, has 256 views, and does not include any context as to why our U.S. diplomat in Baghdad is reciting a Russian poem. What’s the purpose why this video is up, anyways? Was this part of a larger event? Nothing on the embassy’s website indicate that it is.  Was he just feeling it?  We can’t say, no explainer with the vid.  This could, of course, be part of celebrating poetry month, but the National Poetry Month in the U.S. has been celebrated in April since 1996.

In related news, according to iraqbodycount.org, the March civilian casualties in Iraq is currently at 749; the year-to-date count is 2,755 deaths.

Well, what do you think –  is this “really clever use of PD time and money?” or is this Reality Detachment, a chapter in Peter Van Buren’s future novel?

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Billy Collins – The Names

Billy Collins was the U.S. poet laureate at the time of the 9/11 attacks. He wrote “The Names” in honor of the victims. He read the poem before a special joint session of Congress held in New York City in 2002, and in a PBS program last year, see clip below.

The Names – by Billy Collins

Yesterday, I lay awake in the palm of the night.
A soft rain stole in, unhelped by any breeze,
And when I saw the silver glaze on the windows,
I started with A, with Ackerman, as it happened,
Then Baxter and Calabro,
Davis and Eberling, names falling into place
As droplets fell through the dark.
Names printed on the ceiling of the night.
Names slipping around a watery bend.
Twenty-six willows on the banks of a stream.
In the morning, I walked out barefoot
Among thousands of flowers
Heavy with dew like the eyes of tears,
And each had a name —
Fiori inscribed on a yellow petal
Then Gonzalez and Han, Ishikawa and Jenkins.
Names written in the air
And stitched into the cloth of the day.
A name under a photograph taped to a mailbox.
Monogram on a torn shirt,
I see you spelled out on storefront windows
And on the bright unfurled awnings of this city.
I say the syllables as I turn a corner —
Kelly and Lee,
Medina, Nardella, and O’Connor.
When I peer into the woods,
I see a thick tangle where letters are hidden
As in a puzzle concocted for children.
Parker and Quigley in the twigs of an ash,
Rizzo, Schubert, Torres, and Upton,
Secrets in the boughs of an ancient maple.
Names written in the pale sky.
Names rising in the updraft amid buildings.
Names silent in stone
Or cried out behind a door.
Names blown over the earth and out to sea.
In the evening — weakening light, the last swallows.
A boy on a lake lifts his oars.
A woman by a window puts a match to a candle,
And the names are outlined on the rose clouds —
Vanacore and Wallace,
(let X stand, if it can, for the ones unfound)
Then Young and Ziminsky, the final jolt of Z.
Names etched on the head of a pin.
One name spanning a bridge, another undergoing a tunnel.
A blue name needled into the skin.
Names of citizens, workers, mothers and fathers,
The bright-eyed daughter, the quick son.
Alphabet of names in a green field.
Names in the small tracks of birds.
Names lifted from a hat
Or balanced on the tip of the tongue.
Names wheeled into the dim warehouse of memory.
So many names, there is barely room on the walls of the heart.

After End of War, Operation No Easy Exit

Tom Engelhardt has a piece on How to Forget on Memorial Day (excerpt):

Afghanistan has often enough been called “the graveyard of empires.” Americans have made it a habit to whistle past that graveyard, looking the other way—a form of obliviousness much aided by the fact that the American war dead conveniently come from the less well known or forgotten places in our country. They are so much easier to ignore thanks to that.

Except in their hometowns, how easy the war dead are to forget in an era when corporations go to war but Americans largely don’t. So far, 1,980 American military personnel (and significant but largely unacknowledged numbers of private contractors) have died in Afghanistan, as have 1,028 NATO and allied troops, and (despite U.N. efforts to count them) unknown but staggering numbers of Afghans.

So far in the month of May, 22 American dead have been listed in those Pentagon announcements. If you want a little memorial to a war that shouldn’t be, check out their hometowns and you’ll experience a kind of modern graveyard poetry. Consider it an elegy to the dead of second- or third-tier cities, suburbs, and small towns whose names are resonant exactly because they are part of your country, but seldom or never heard by you.

I did check out the hometowns and I’ve never heard of Normangee, Texas.  According to the 2000 Census, Normangee is a town of 719 people, 277 households, and 185 families.

Sgt. Wade D. Wilson
(Photo via YouTube)

Sgt. Wade D. Wilson, of Normangee, Texas, died May 11 while conducting combat operations in Helmand province, Afghanistan.  He was assigned to 2nd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division, I Marine Expeditionary Force, Camp Pendleton, California.  He was 22.

But even as we pulled out our troops in Iraq, and combat operations are planned to end in Afghanistan in 2014, the next operation is one with no easy exit.

Excerpt from Probably Not the Final Destination by Dale Ritterbusch (WLA. Volume 23 • 2011):

Fall semester, second week of class, a student stays after:
his field jacket, his scruffy beard
tell the story. I don’t know if you have noticed,
he says, but when I answer your questions
sometimes I lose my line of thought
and I stumble a bit trying to find it again.
I tell him the lie I hadn’t noticed, but his speech,
slurred, slowed, gives it away—a sergeant,
twenty-seven months in Iraq. My wife thinks
I have PTSD he says. Every class he stays after,
and there’s little I can say, little I can do
except listen: maybe there’s little anyone can do,
that old lesson we never seem to learn,
moving from “costly their winestream”
to the “red, sweet wine of youth”:
enough there to embarrass half the demons of hell.

At night the NewsHour runs pictures
of the dead, name, rank, hometown flashing,
holding, silently across the screen—the first man just eighteen.
We might remember Urien’s lament: “I bear a great
warrior’s skull; I bear a head at my heart.”
Or has war’s paradigm so changed
Urien’s progeny may now swear,
“I bear the dead, the half-dead
in my half-dead skull; I bear
the dead in my half-dead heart.”

Photo Taken By Cpl James Clark | 01.20.2012

Domani Spero