Breaking the Code of Dots and Dashes

by Kim Bridgford

Dots and Dashes: Poems by Jehanne Dubrow, winner of the Open Series Award, Crab Orchard Series in Poetry, Southern Illinois University Press, 2017, paper, 76 pages.

ots and Dashes by Jehanne Dubrow, about poetry and the military, emphasizes that disciplines have their own language. Dubrow, who is married to a naval officer, attempts, in the way of all good poets, to cross from one language to another, from the life of the artist, to the life of her military husband. People do try to understand one another, even if languages are opposed: but at one point or another, the analogy breaks down. As the formal poet and professional violinist Kate Light once emphasized when people used a musical comparison to illustrate a point in poetry: they are useful in comparison, but they are not the same. Dubrow and her husband are like all couples who have different interests or careers. They find a way to manage the scenario, although in their long separations and chosen professions, they are more extreme than many others.

I was reminded of this opposition recently, in hearing Dubrow read "From the Pentagon" at the Poetry by the Sea Conference, comparing chocolates to weapons of war. Of course, this is not a new concept, to have celebratory chocolates in honor of an occasion, but there is something unsettling about "a drone / unmanned and filled with hazelnut praline. / He brings me cocoa powder, like chocolate blown / to bits" (6-9). Many people love chocolate, and some can overindulge. How interesting, then, that this chocolate not only stands for war, but in another context can literally blow a person up.

At the same time, Dubrow and her husband both have tattoos, they are detail/texture oriented, and they are filled with longing. These general but interesting links—particularly the latter two—are emphasized in Dubrow's poem "The Long Deployment," which has also been made into a short film by Motionpoems. An irony about this interpretation of the poem is that a filmic sensibility gets to participate in the trading off of languages as well. "There's bitter incense paired with something sweet," writes Dubrow. "And then he's gone" (21-22). What I remember about this film is its eroticism: very much a third creation, outside the couple. Additionally, this poem is part of a volume called The Book of Scented Things, which uses scent as a lens and underscores the level at which, down to a whiff of pepper, Dubrow understands and misses her husband.

How to get to know the absent husband? The most common trope is the story of Penelope weaving and unweaving her tapestry each night, but this contemporary story is more practical. By his bedroom drawer? The contents—from condoms to correspondence—seem no different from most people's bedroom drawers. Yet in "A Catalogue of the Contents from His Nightstand" Dubrow makes us believe that the end of this list sonnet reveals the link between them: "A tiny light / he aimed at shadows as we lay in bed / (bright spheres) until the battery went dead" (12-14). Her firmest beliefs are the points at which the practical becomes magical in their connection.

We tend to gravitate to our own kind within our groups, and so one of the most fascinating poems in the collection is "Cadets Read Howl." They may be an unlikely physical group to read the poem, "shaved-to-bone, heads bare" (1), given our understanding of the Beat Poets and their aesthetic, and yet it is these crossings that alert us, "like a text that won't give up its meaning" (14). Poets enter here.

Just as the cadets can wander into Howl, so, too, can Dubrow wander into Ronald Reagan landscapes on the military side. "Is everything Ronald Reagan?" she somewhat sardonically asks her husband, from an aircraft carrier, to an airport ("USS Ronald Reagan"). It certainly seems so. And who from a more leftist viewpoint, Dubrow thinks, wants to be in that landscape anyway? At one point Dubrow would have said "no one." Yet, given differently niched realities, Dubrow wants to go along with the absurdity of this premise now, in this disguised sestina:

all is quiet on the Ronald Reagan—
and how I'll want to believe, although Reagan
could never persuade me that America
was steering toward a flat horizon. (30-33)

Is it "just" to believe in Ronald Reagan if it means bringing a husband home? Is this what real life is like?

In her poem "What We Talk About When We Talk About Deployment," Dubrow reveals that, even among partners going through the waiting experience, the answer is different. Dubrow bluntly points out a truism: that "deployment is like misfortune—you only care when it's your own" (19). Other military wives have additional ways of defining and carrying on: "I can see the separate narratives our mouths have formed. I can see how we keep trying to change the subject—what about the weather, we say, what about the lonely shadows of the afternoon, how when we speak of it, December almost seems to disappear" (19). As Dubrow goes on to write in "The Signal Flag," "If only marriage came equipped with signs / as manifest" (9-10). That is the crux of the book.

Two other pieces stand out in the collection: "POEM" and "A Row of Ribbons." Each one is a clever way of understanding the world through one of the two languages under discussion. It would seem that "POEM" would be the poet's language, but it is "Personal Observation Encased in Metaphor" (2), as the government uses acronyms to communicate. In another life, I worked as a military historian for the federal government. Although this poem serves a clear argumentative purpose in the book, it is not the best argument for the military as a whole. Perhaps it recalls what I was told when I wrote military history: that military history is best when it says something not quite clear. The better argument for the military is "A Row of Ribbons," where each ribbon has a purpose and a function. As Dubrow writes,

To us they're only rules
and bars of color,
each one a regulated streak

of a body belonging
to a greater one.
But ask my husband,

and he'll point to awards
on his chest, which are
to him an ocean. (19-27)

As Dubrow clarifies later, "they don't bend / to fit the wearer, / who is after all, part / of a vessel" (48-51) …."every sacrifice already / knows its place" (56-57). These poems suggest that, within a profession, a layered meaning is best, although it certainly helps to have a belief system to make it so.

Thankfully, Dubrow's book does not descend to the radish/carrot quarrel of Waiting for Godot; instead she emphasizes the importance of agreeing to disagree, or delivering a lesson of what happens when life is out of balance. For example, in "Photograph of General Petraeus with Paula Broadwell" the General's love for Paula is clear: "how even this professional touch / has made the General blush" (5-6). When a person lives outside the prescribed lines, indicates Dubrow, there can be consequences. Some are more dramatic than others. In "Persuasion" (Dubrow reads books to pass the time as well), she indicates that this book world is not her world either; she, unlike the characters in the poem, is uneasy in a world not suited for her invention and attention: in short, she's bored. Yet, with an air of frustration, Dubrow admits, "I hate to be Anne Elliott, but I am" (21). What is there to do to pass the time: puzzles, amusements, community? As Dubrow points out truthfully, "We persuade ourselves to love or not" (29). One figures out the right language to describe the experience later.

In the end, each bears witness to life through an individual language, and those languages, depending on the context, keep coming. Dubrow marks "Elegy with Full Dress Blues" with yet another language: "Early in our marriage I would stand / at the edge / of his closet like a visitor / at a planetarium" (1-4). I have a friend who moved through various worlds in this professional life: football, business, art, writing. They, too, all have their language and sense of their own importance: each, both rightly and wrongly, thinks it is the world. Perhaps, it is best to give up a sense of one language being any better than the other. For Dubrow, working to learn the language of her husband is worth it, just as for her husband working to understand his poet-wife is worth it. As Dubrow points out in "Liberty,"

I believed
in the seam our bodies made,
but when in the morning he put on
his uniform, it was what I'd sewn
myself that held. (16-20)


Throughout the text line numbers are used, with the exception of "What We Talk About When We Talk About Deployment," which is a prose poem.


Kim Bridgford is the director of Poetry by the Sea: A Global Conference. As editor of Mezzo Cammin, she was the founder of The Mezzo Cammin Women Poets Timeline Project, which was launched at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, and has held events at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and at Fordham-Lincoln Center. The author of ten books of poetry, including The Blue Whale Sonnets (forthcoming) and Human Interest, she is the recipient of fellowships from the Connecticut Commission on the Arts, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Ucross Foundation. Her collaborative three-volume work with visual artist Jo Yarrington on Iceland, Venezuela, and Bhutan, The Falling Edge, is forthcoming. Bridgford has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Connecticut Post, on NPR, and in various headline news outlets. She wrote the introduction to Russell Goings' The Children of Children Keep Coming: An Epic Griot Song, and joined Goings in ringing the closing bell of the New York Stock Exchange, the week before the first Obama inauguration. Bridgford has been called "America's First Lady of Form."

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