When the Men Go Off to War
...the trees are unrooting, the mailboxes rising up like dandelion stems, and eventually we too float off...
Is This a War Poem?
A reflection with Victoria Kelly on “When the Men Go Off to War”
By Heather Beatty
The first time I read this poem, I thought, What a wonderful war poem! How exciting to see a poem written about the experience of a wife waiting for her husband to come home from war. It seemed tragic that I’d never read a poem like it. I think it would be sad for my father, a Vietnam veteran. He would have been sympathetic to the wives, but he might have thought that war poems were about people in the military and their stories. When I spoke to Victoria Kelly, this was one of the things I asked about. She agreed that it was a war poem “because there is the war overseas… [and] if you’re in the family of somebody in the military, you definitely don’t forget that. I think it is a war poem, but it’s more about the war at home.”
The poem is about how life is for the wives and children at home during wars. Kelly doesn’t tell what this period of waiting is like because “that would be very boring.” Instead the poem spins a fairytale with fantastic details that we know can’t literally be true. My understanding of the poem was found in the negative spaces around the details. When I talked to Kelly about this, it was clear that she was forced to live in such a gap where she could not know everything, even though she had more access to communication than wives in previous wars. “No one could talk about it over email; the phone lines are censored. You’re always imagining what’s going on, so I put that idea of imagination in the poem.” In these imaginative details, there is a clear description of a community of women coming together. Kelly told me that “…when they’re (the men) are gone, the wives get together all the time. We have meetings to talk about what’s going on. There’s a lot of information that can only be conveyed from the commanding officer through his wife and she tells everyone else. There are very strict channels due to the censorship.”
In the poem, the homecoming of the men requires everything back home to return to what was before. We roll out the sidewalks and make the beds,/ tether the trees to yard. The wives put on their matte red lipstick, the babies blanketed inside their strollers. There was a lot of information coded into these lines. When I read “our matte red lipstick” I imagine there is an expectation that wives be sexy but not too sexy. Or when I read “the babies blanketed in their strollers” I hear the expectation that the children will be present but under control. These expectations seem like they could be a heavy burden and Kelly agreed that this was true. “I think more so for the homecoming especially…there is a huge pressure for everything to be perfect. The wives get their hair or makeup done. Everyone gets a new dress. Everything has to be absolutely perfect from the home side of it and then they come back and it never is. People get into fights. Life can be a little disappointing, but they still have this vision of the glamorous return and running into each other’s’ arms.”
It was very interesting when Kelly talked about how the men flew in. “I think it’s the only time they fly in formation with all of the jets…they fly in, park all at the same time. All of the guys get out. They all have red roses. You know, it’s very scripted in terms of that.” The imagery of the men flying in is so powerful, but I liked that she left it out of the poem. We’ve seen the images of men flying in in the movies, we know that story. But this is not just a war poem. This is also a love poem. What Kelly shows us in this poem is a wife trying to create a tender place for her husband to land.
Heather Beatty is a poet and a visual artist. In 2012, she designed and curated the Bubble Gum Poetry Project (a bubble gum machine that dispensed poetry signed by the author in plastic capsules). The machine was placed in public locations in Minneapolis, Minn. and Madison, Wis. Her poetry has been published in literary journals including the San Diego Poetry Annual and the Paterson Literary Review. She lives in St Paul, Minn.