Book Review: WHEN THE MEN GO OFF TO WAR by Victoria Kelly

9781612519043 When the Men Go Off to War
Poems by Victoria Kelly
Naval Institute Press, 2015
Hardcover, $27.95

Reviewed by Alison Taverna

It’s convenient to think wars are distant worlds across the sea. To think of them as containable and separate, only affecting the lives of soldiers and the towns they occupy. It’s convenient to limit the loss. But here, in Victoria Kelly’s poetry collection, When the Men Go off to War, we are witness to the intrusive, residual displacement women experience as their husbands deploy. For brief moments, we learn about the battles that take form inside the bodies of those left at home.

Kelly divides her collection into three sections: “Departure,” “Absence,” and “Homecoming.” This division sets the stage for the speaker’s life; her own time is marked by the location of her husband. Already we can imagine the emotions, and thus the themes, this separation awakens: anxiety, wistfulness, and haziness. Simultaneously Kelly balances her speaker between hyperawareness and distraction. She writes, “How merciful to be unaware, for a night, / that one is condemned to dance forever somewhere / between this world and the next…”

The poems are narrative and straightforward, tight stanzas as precise as a gun. But inside the frames of the poem, the mind wanders. Often, after staring at the sky, we shift to the past and learn about the speaker’s grandmother, who “had a small life too, her needlepoint and the tidy compartments / of her mind that would be closed off in widowhood, / one by one, like the rooms of a half-used manor.” The presence of family and the consciousness of age are rooted at the core of these daydreams. In the poem, “Reverie on Leave,” the speaker finds a carousel and is transported back into the edges of her memory, imagines,

[parents] looking
nothing like you last saw them, when they were rigid…
Your grandmother
leans into a lawn chair, because there is
no hurry, you are never too old
to be young here.

As complicated as marriage is, Kelly illuminates the true weight of companionship. There are few moments in When the Men Go off to War that feel complete; this is not to say the poems are unfinished, but to say the taste of longing is always present. We can’t put our feet up; we cannot settle or rest. The full-body consumption of an absent partner is made apparent in “Homecoming.” The speaker is at her brother’s wedding. In the parking lot, she talks with a guest,

“Where have you been,” he asked sleepily,
leaning against a lamppost. “Married,” I said, and he
laughed. “Girl,” he said, “married isn’t a place…”

It would be false to say there were not moments of lightness here. But Kelly is skillful; even in the happiness we know it can’t last. We know there will always be another war, another stage of departure, absence, and homecoming. So we appreciate what we are given as readers, as the speaker too appreciates when her worlds collide and rest, if only for a moment. This appreciation is represented perfectly in “Birth,” as her husband holds their daughter. The three sentence poem ends “She is only / six weeks old and there are no other / pleasures: everything is ageless here, everything / is here.”


 

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