To Awaken Soulfulness in the Human Voice
THE INSTITUTE FOR
was a stepping stone towards dealing with my grief.
I graduated from San Diego State University. As I was nearing the end of my tenure in graduate school, I began working with the Carlsbad Library in Carlsbad, CA. I worked with the poet James Allen to bring in poets to read and to lead poetry workshops. After James Allen's death, I took over the program and ran Magee Perk Poets readings and workshops from 1995 to 2013.
Through my involvement with the poets leading the workshops, I became involved with CPITS, California Poets in the Schools. As a CPITS poet, I worked in grades 1-12, bring poetry to the students. Eventually, I became an area coordinator for San Diego County.
Perhaps my most exciting years in poetry were those years leading workshops for elementary and secondary students. Their poetry seemed to flow effortlessly from the past to the present to the future, and during our class read-around, their poetry seemed to connect us to a community larger than ourselves.
As a teacher, my second most exciting time was teaching composition and literature in the Vincennes outreach program on the Navy base, located on Coronado Island, CA. As it turned out, my most dedicated students were the enlisted personnel.
My teaching career was sandwiched between working as a trail locator for the Cleveland National Forest and as a construction inspector in the private sector. After 40 years in construction, I retired. My poetry draws on those experiences; as well, as growing up in the farmland, north of Detroit, Michigan and my army experience during the Vietnam War.
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Before I retired, I worked for the last 40 years as a trail locator for the Cleveland National Forest and as a heavy equipment foreman in the private sector. My poetry draws on those experiences; as well, as growing up in the farmland, north of Detroit, Michigan and my army experiences during the Vietnam War.
was married for 33 years, and for 25 of those years, I was the primary health supporter for my wife. Patsy lost her fight against cancer in July of 2015. During the last three years of her life, I was the primary health care provider. During those years, I wrote love poems to wife, which documented our experience with cancer. The first poem I wrote of this nature was published by John Fox in his book, Poetic Medicine.
Why is a scar on a man a mark of distinction,
on a woman a mark of disfigurement?
I don't know.
Why is it funny when a man loses his hair,
and tragic when a woman loses hers?
I don't know.
What will you tell her
when the X-Rays turn the scar
on her breast raw hamburger red?
I don't know.
When she's bald, lost the hair
from her eyebrows,
and lies with closed eyes,
with a skeletal look,
will you kiss her
and tell her
I don't know.
What do you do
in the bedroom,
when she is thinking
and she cries?
I hold her hand, and I breathe.
In what seemed to me as strange occurrence, dealing with my wife's illness released memories of my military experience during the Vietnam War. In the Army, my MOS (Military Occupational Specialty Code) was a 17L20, which is an aerial photographer. Memories triggered by her illness caused an intense series anxiety attacks.
In 1970, I was at the overseas station in Fort Lewis Washington. While I was waiting to be shipped to Nam, a friend from my former company, the 152nd, appeared one morning at the overseas station. He joined me in formation. He was part Native American and part European. During that formation, he received orders for Viet Nam, and I received orders returning me to our company in Fort Lewis, Washington.
It was a week later that I was informed that his plane exploded in Nam. In the mid-nineties, these memories prevented me from sleeping. One night I composed this poem.
A Brief History
We weren't childhood buddies with a history of playing Buffalo Bill and Sitting Bull. We were two strangers pulling guard duty on Skunk Hill.
Under a Y-cloud shadow,
slivers of water stream
down blades of grass.
They drop on dirt mounds,
footprints, and a gray stone
soon the season will change.
What if you hadn't enlisted in the Army in '71? What if you hadn't volunteered for Nam? What if you hadn't hoped a bronze star would transform you into a 100%?
A gopher's head in the den's door,
he is surrounded by five beige birds.
He barks at their shadows, which form
a ring in the sunlight.
And we hadn't said you were a Cherokee, even though you corrected us, 'Oglala'. And, if a sergeant from Seattle hadn't disliked you because you were, quote, "Indian?"
Dropped in the fall, a broad-leaf tree dries.
Neither its bark nor its leaves can save it.
How much wood keeps a man warm?
Would it have ever been a practical joke? If you hadn't died or if you'd returned from Nam without a scratch?
I dream of a scarecrow in a corn field.
It's dressed in khaki shirt, army pants.
I see two warriors waving, hear a threadbare hero.
What if you hadn't replaced me at the over-seas station?* Would it still have taken me 25 years to admit I'm a beneficiary of prejudice?
In a season of early scents,
orange and grapefruit tree are blossoming.
I roll over, hold my wife, and
count the ohs and ahs of my heart.
Happy to be alive, I feel full
with the urge to cry.
The effect of writing this poem was not a complete resolution of my anxiety, but its effect on me was another stepping stone towards dealing with my grief. By examining the conflict within me, I was able to release some of the tensions of the event that caused my insomnia. This resulted in making me less defensive about my condition and allowed me to enter into a dialogue with my wife by enabling me to accept the compassion my wife offered me as well as respond with sensitivity to my wife's anxieties
Because, as it turned out, we suffered from similar anxieties. Patsy wondered why she survived, while other cancer patients, who tried as hard as she did, died after a couple of years. I wondered why I was not sent to Nam, which enabled me to survive the war.
Both of us were survivors but there was something more.
I was no better than my friend, Smitty. The only difference was that I was of Irish-Polish decent. I remembered how some of the Sergeants made fun of his heritage when we were stationed at Fort Lewis.
Despite her illness, my wife organized a trip to the Vietnam Memorial in Washington DC. She felt that it would help me deal with Smitty's death. As I was reading the names of the dead, this poem came to me.
How Can I Find You,
Who Gave to Me the Gift of My Life
Everywhere the day has turned
into the color, existing between
red and violet. At the wall
my heart refuses to embrace the black
marble or the reflections of clothes the
color of deep red and purple. I ask
my reflection, "Do I dare
bring inside me the colors
of white or green?" I tell myself
I know everything is foolish,
especially my wish
that you have the ability or the desire to find me.
How could I expect you to meet me without bitterness or malice?
The experience at the Viet Nam Memorial helped me deal with my experience as well as my wife's illness. It was during the last five years of my wife's illness that I became aware that she was dying. I remember the day I realized I was losing her. We were in the hospital so she could receive her MRI exam. When I saw her coming out of the examination room, a poem came to me.
That night I worked on the poem. It was during the composition that I realized my anxiety over the death of my comrade was linked to my inability to speak to him and listen to him. I decided that I needed to communicate with my wife in a special way. I had to be present with her in the moment.
Of course that is easy to say, but impossible to do. Still, it did contribute to a better relationship with her, and along with that poem, Why Is a Scar on a Man... my new poem became a favorite of hers.
Advice to the Lovelorn
Waiting for my wife to complete her MRI, I have no
patience with the book, which I brought to pass the
time. Occasionally, I open it and remove my wife's
picture that I use as a bookmark. Then, replacing it,
I close the book and look at the receptionist,
who is talking to her sister about her recent breakup.
Hanging up her smart phone, she turns on the TV
and watches her favorite show, Advice to the Lovelorn,
which starts with the host telling us that you should go
to the ocean every chance you get. You should sit
on the sea wall until the sound of the waves,
sliding away from the shore becomes silent,
and your mind becomes as opaque as the sky.
He says that when you can recreate this very
same tranquility in an airport or Laundromat
that you should go to the home of your lover and sit
in front of the fireplace with or without a fire.
Sip a drink so simple you forget you are
drinking it. Sit so close to your lover that your
shoulders touch. But don't speak. Instead, conjure
the silence of the waves and the opaqueness of the sky,
and breathe steadily until you unearth the realm of the
horizon, the space to begin. Of course, this is the way
we want our life and our love to continue.
I think about 30 years of marriage, its beginnings
and then I think about our Colorado, river rafting trip,
and how we slept on the beaches.
I remember that one morning the river sparkled
as she swam, just before we broke camp.
As she walks out of that examining room with its
sterilized table, she rests on her cane, and looking at me,
she smiles. I stand, thinking this is what I want
even more than the health of our youth, and that ride
through the rapids, it's this--this delight in her infinite eyes.
As I worked on the above poem, I thought about Smitty's death. I knew I could never find his mother, but I wrote her, and the poem, Somewhere Between the Beginning and the Present, which was the first time I could express the emotional crisis caused by becoming a survivor as a result of prejudice.
Somewhere Between the Beginning and the Present
A letter to Smitty's Mother
As I closed the blinds because sunlight hurts my eyes, I saw the world map hanging on the wall by the window. It reminded me again of Smitty and of you. I suppose my problem with sunlight began in October or November of '71. Rain dripped off my plastic poncho as I stood in a formation with those being shipped to Nam. I was thinking of maps when Smitty took the space beside me. Because Smitty was supposed to remain stateside, his appearance startled me, and we were both shocked the next morning when we discovered that both our orders were changed. I was to remain here in the states while they were shipping Smitty to Nam. Why they had done it no one ever explained; though, rumor had it someone switched
those orders because he was a half-breed Sioux or because he wore love beads. For me this switch was not a joke. As a result, I can work only in dark rooms.
All I know is his plane exploded overseas. On the day of the ceremony celebrating his death, it stopped raining. Then, you stepped onto the stage in sunlight, Lydia, and the rays reflecting off your sequin purse changed forever the way I reacted to light. As I stood at attention beside his casket, one sergeant stood directly behind me. He mumbled, "A good Indian is ...." Later, he offered you condolences. In the sunlight, the dog tags they presented to you gleamed inside the glass cover. I pulled my cap's brim over my shades. Still the light coming off the case hurt my eyes.
Lydia, I didn't dare tell you that it wasn't Smitty in the bag and that it was a common trick they pulled by placing his name tag on another soldier's bag. They knew you would never find out it wasn't your son under the red carnations you placed on the body bag. That we came out of that war changed and incomplete, didn't give me the right to make your pain even worse, so I kept my mouth shut and let it ride. Thinking of him brings this image of you. Dressed in a black coat, you stand in the winged shadow of a recon plane.
I wondered what you thought as you touched what you thought was his body, and drops of mist slid off your sleeve onto the plastic bag. The army taught me the trick of reading a map by finding parts of an idealized woman among its contour lines, but I find it hard to idealize anything. Maybe I just don't want to see anything too clearly. And maybe that has something to do with the fact that in daylight I feel lost, and wear cheap sunglasses, and will not enter a room until the blinds are closed. Often I sit in shadows. I close my eyes and enter a place where memories
run like rain off hanger roofs and recon planes.
Joe Milosch 2013
Although the writing about experiences didn't relieve my anxiety a 100%, it has enabled me to live with a modicum of emotional distress. After my wife passed, my poems about her and Smitty connect me not only with them but with all the ones I loved, who have died.
I realize that the characters in most of my poems live among my memories of the dead. It is as if they fly overhead, and every once in a while, their shadows fall upon my vision. Thus, my writings bring to me a touch of peace as well as a touch of sadness, which I suppose is the way I grieve for those whom I've loved.
Sharing our experiences about cancer and war enabled my wife and me to cope with her terminal illness. Being her confidant was like writing in a community. I believe this small community is like any community that honestly engages in the life of its members, and this community enabled me to braid my experience with hers into a long and continuous tale of love.
Below are two poems. The first poem is about my wife's and my experience of the death of cancer patients we came to know in the Chemo center where she received treatments.
The second poem was written almost simultaneously with the first poem. It is the first time I was able to write about how Smitty died. I think it is important to note that it took me over 40 years to write this poem.
After a Dark Day in the Chemo Center
Between two empty chairs is a window.
Outside the shadows of leaves wave
on the sidewalk. In the ward, silence
is cushioned by the squeak of plastic
wheels on linoleum. While the pump
machines hum, the nurses avoid
the two chairs as they walk and talk
like people who are calm about it all.
After I return home, the image of two
empty chairs arrives and tells a story
about mourning. I listen to an Irish
guitarist and feel the dampness in
the tin sounding notes. The music
quiets me like a walk through sea fog.
Thinking that I'm a sentimentalist
to reflect on the two chairs that
followed me home like ghosts, I sit
in my Lazy Boy. I consider the calming
effect of the ocean's fog and the restful
sound of the guitar, whose music
travels like grief through my heart.
The Way It Was (Vietnam 1970)
It began in the morning.
One went to the washroom
and saw his comrade. They
exchanged flight duty so that
his friend could attend the
Bob Hope show.
One returned to his hutch,
drank a beer, and went to
the mission review. Afterwards,
he drank another beer, and when
the bus left, he waved to his bud.
Next one installed camera equipment
in the plane's bay. Later, he lunched,
napped, ate dinner, and drank more beer.
He walked to the hanger. With the pilot,
he climbed into the cockpit and waited
on the runway for clearance.
Then, the plane exploded,
and by the time one's
friend returned on the bus,
all the scraps had been removed
from the runway.
In conclusion, my wife lived with courage, and this gave me the realization--in a humble way--that I was fortunate to be drafted and work with brave men, and I was equally fortunate to be married to such a courageous woman.
Why Is a Scar on a Man...
Published in Poetic Medicine: The Healing Art of Poem-Making, Jeremy P. Tarcher Inc., 1997
A Brief History.
Published in Getting Something Read 2009
Somewhere Between the Beginning and the Present.
Winner of the Hackney Award 2014 & published in The Birmingham Arts Journal.
After a Dark Day in the Chemo Center.
Published in Lumox 2015
The Way It Was.
Nominated for the Pushcart Prize 2015. Published in The San Diego Poetry Annual 2015.
(*The overseas station is a location, usually at a fort, where troops are gathered in order that they may be deployed to an out of country destination. Fort Lewis was one of two army locations. At the overseas station the soldiers were given jungle fatigues and boots as well as the basic combat gear. Then they performed mundane work while the waited for their official orders, which documented that they were sent out of the USA. Then they loaded onto air planes and were transported to their destination.)
Joe Milosch's poetry has appeared in various magazines, including the California Quarterly. He has multiple nominations for the Pushcart and received the Hackney Award for Literature. His books are The Lost Pilgrimage Poems and Landscape of a Woman and a Hummingbird.
© 2006-2016 The Institute for Poetic Medicine and John Fox