Though I Haven’t Been to Baghdad by Margaret Rozga. Benu Press, 2012. $16.95
Reviewed by Chloe Yelena Miller
“The son’s farewell, / past tense: lingered. / The phone call, / present tense: speak,” begins Margaret Rozga’s poem "Conjugating" from Though I Haven’t Been to Baghdad. In this collection, the reality and effects of war won’t be driven neatly behind a country’s border. These poems, which can be read as a single, sectioned poem, center on the author’s Army Reservist son deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan.
Rozga gives voice to her inner thoughts while allowing newspaper articles and facts to stand on their own. The poetry, that is to say, the suggestions, embedded in these moments give readers pause. A few poems toward the beginning of the two sections offer these facts. The opening poem, simply titled "Facts," starts, “The war begins the night the mother flies to Amsterdam. / The war begins 150 years after Vincent Van Gogh’s birth.” The reader knows, confidently, that she is in the hands of someone who will reach towards and away from war, to draw new comparisons and offer meaning. We enter the collective memory of artists facing the unknown.
My favorite lines come from the poem "Returning to Duty" because they address the issue of ownership over the war, a nation’s experience and individual lives. In this narrative poem, a stranger speaks to a soldier in uniform at a Starbucks. Rozga writes, “Maybe it’s the uniform, / like a visible pregnancy, / a sign read as / feel free; ask anything.” We, the readers, want to know everything. We are cognizant of our desire to offer privacy, but also our desire to better understand what’s happening. Meanwhile, the poem ends with the stranger’s question, “Seen any action?” We know that our inquiries of the soldiers and families can be painful, as well as sometimes remaining unanswered. Meanwhile, here we are, in an everyday Starbucks, learning how poetry intersects life.
The book’s title comes from the poem "Lamentation." The poem quotes a New York Times article on Iraqi bloggers; Rozga focuses on a Baghdad dentist describing a woman on the street. He said, “I stared at her anguished face again, / then at my bloody hands.” Rozga ends the poem in a single line, “Though I haven’t been to Baghdad, I look at my hands.” We question, who is responsible? What role do we all play in this? She merges her voice with the voice of others. These are everyone’s hands before washing.
How does a mother bear a child’s deployment and second deployment to war? Rozga turns to grammar in a number of these poems. She uses it as a tool to comprehend the grandness of what is happening. Instead of emotionally breaking down in words, she carefully considers them, their tense and punctuation as a metaphor for her experiences. This theme enters into a number of poems and explicitly shines in the longer poem "The Grammar of War." Each section of this poem, with titles such as, “Concrete and Abstract Nouns,” or “Syntax,” brings us closer to her experiences. For example, when her son emailed her about the difference between “who” and “whom.” In the fourth section, “Unsaid, unasked, almost unconceived:” she writes, “Do questions of grammar make war go away / Does it cease to be about him? / This is no longer a question of mother and son. / It is a question of who and whom.”
There are nightmares in this book. Rozga writes in a striking line in "Beyond Fort Hood," “This is the genre of grief.” She develops her own rules and moves punctuation to the beginning in the poem "Second Deployment." She writes, “.She punctuates before each sentence, to spare herself getting involved in the thought, to close the thought before it opens”. The reader feels the emotion as the author reorganizes reality in order to comprehend it.
This book empowers us with knowledge while supporting the humanity of soldiers and their families. As William Carlos Williams wrote in "Asphodel, That Greeny Flower," “It is difficult / to get the news from poems / yet men die miserably every day / for lack /of what is found there.” Rozga gives us poetry and news together in this beautiful, meaningful book.
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