Review of “When the Men Go Off to War”
In Victoria Kelly’s debut collection, When the Men Go Off to War, the title poem evokes the patriotic language used in the wars of another century (We Can Do It, Loose Lips Sink Ships). The poem plays with our expectations about the rigid lines of military culture: men deploying to do battle and women remaining stateside to keep—as we say—the home fires burning. But, the poem shows us that the men’s absence allows the women to engage in enormous adventures of their own: “We set up for a few weeks at a time / in places like Estonia or Laos— / places where they still have legends.” The women too have agency and movement. And, it’s the poem’s conclusion that is most provocative. When the men return from combat, the women, the houses, the landscape appear unchanged, as if all has stayed exactly as it was left months before. “What have you been doing all this time?” ask the men. The answer? “Oh you know, the dishes.” The poem ends with the soldiers’ gratitude, “Thank God some things stay the same.” We recognize that the wives have camouflaged some part of themselves. Kelly creates an understanding between speaker and reader; these poems will do their duty to husband and country, but they will also honor the secret, interior worlds of military spouses.
With When the Men Go Off to War, Victoria Kelly joins the small company of wives who are writing about the experience of being married to the military, not as materials for self-help books or how-to manual but as subjects for literature. As with books by fiction writer Siobhan Fallon or memoirist Alison Buckholtz, Kelly’s work is informed by her academic training, her intellectual privilege. In the poem, “Lessons,” she acknowledges how little these kinds of achievements can matter within the strange, strict confines of the military community: “These are things they don’t teach you / in public school, or at Harvard—you can read Chaucer but not the bars // on a uniform.” This is a perspective that the soldier-poets have always been permitted—fancy degrees don’t prepare someone for the grit and mud of war—but it’s only within the last decade that military spouses have begun to explore these same themes, elevating their subjects to literary prose and poetry.
In “Elegy,” Kelly elegizes the romantic stories that we tell ourselves about military marriage. “[W]e never did have / the time of our lives,” laments the speaker, an observation that some readers may find discomfiting coming from the wife of a naval aviator. All of the glittering, shrapnelled possibilities of wartime eventually become past tense. “There is nothing,” the speaker explains, “as poetic as the memory / of the glimmering, snow-lit streets of Annapolis, / or a thousand flags waving / for a plane coming home.” As any poet will tell you, poetry itself is fiction. And this poem, named for a form usually employed to mourn the death of a loved one, is used here to grieve the loss of mythology and belief.
There are certainly moments of joy and optimism in When the Men Go Off to War. But what makes the book such an engaging read is Kelly’s willingness to dismantle the narratives that we military wives tell ourselves, in order to make the long wars, the long deployments, the long distances tolerable. Near the end of the collection, in “Ordinary Evenings,” the poet writes about the veterans of earlier conflicts: “In the photos they are huddled together, / tired as the old men they would become.” These gray-haired soldiers are not only objects of storytelling but they’re also a reminder that the figure of the husband—now both heroic and handsome—will one day be old too. Perhaps he already is, having seen so much in his takeoffs and landings, having struggled so often to decide whether service is easier when one isn’t tethered to a wife or burdened by love and fidelity. And perhaps Kelly, like so many poets who have gone before her, is the one who can keep the husband young, always flying above the Persian Gulf in these poems or walking through Annapolis, forever gleaming in his summer whites.