. . . I met my husband in a class
on Ovid where we learned longing
to limestone, or causes us
to caress the white bull—no matter
that he’s animal and his child minotaur,
offspring of our love.
—from “At the Reading of the Antiwar Poets, 2007”
Every time I read Jehanne Dubrow’s work, I write a good poem. In fact, after reading and reviewing her book The Arranged Marriage over a year ago, I wrote a whole chapbook, published the following year. Perhaps she is something of a muse to me. Perhaps this is why, after spending nearly two years in Denton, Texas, and nearly also working as an adjunct instructor at the University of North Texas where she serves as an associate professor, I did not try to meet her even though I was encouraged to.
Maybe our muses are best left alone, enigmas granted asylum from gaze and inquiry. In any case, Dubrow continues to bring me good luck and inspire more poems.
Ironically, as I read her work, I wonder if Dubrow and I have anything in common other than Denton. I read Dots & Dashes as ignorant of the speaker’s experience as I was of those explored in The Arranged Marriage. I know nothing of arranged marriages, or the life of a military spouse—the subject of this newer book that received the Crab Orchard Open Competition Award in 2016. However, Dubrow is so skilled a poet that I do not need common ground to find it. As I slowly sift through these beautifully crafted poems with a voice clear and rotund as a wind chime, all at once complex and reflective, I feel what it must be like to live in the company of commanders and high patriotic ideals—but with the discerning ear of an artist.
Dubrow’s poems are intimate, exploring national politics and allegiances as much as conflict and correspondence in the bedroom. As a military spouse and American, she carefully observes what can be said and not said, what should be honored and what is not honorable, what is all pageantry and passion against what is pure affection and humble dedication. In “The Long Deployment,” Dubrow invites her reader to experience her husband’s absence:
For weeks, I breathe his body in the sheet—
crushed pepper—although perhaps discreet,
difficult for someone else to place.
There’s bitter paired with something sweet.
With each deployment I become an aesthete
of smoke and oak.
In the same vein, “Patton” begins:
My husband loves to stand before a giant flag
that isn’t there and quote the General
to his troops, which is to say to me,
that I’m the troops who need rallying
before the beach is stormed, or in our case,
before the combat of routine marriage.
In “Officer Candidate School” Dubrow writes of a letter she sent to her husband, pre-marriage I imagine:
Long after this, you spoke about those weeks
in Pensacola when you uncreased
my letter from your pocket, reread it as a drill,
like the callousing of feet in combat boots,
how you loved that dispatch for the precision
of its cruelty, my words and their marching
orders to leave me the fuck alone.
And in the appropriately named “[When I Marry Eros],” Dubrow reminisces over a wedding photograph, her husband wearing “the uniform / of war” and remembering how “quickly the outside / clatters in” as her new husband “give[s] a sharp salute, the shape / his hand creates against the sky / a missile aimed at something high.”
The subject of war and misguided national pride is not lost on Dubrow, but neither is the humane and approachable in the mix of soldiers and salutes. Dubrow is the bridge between a divided American self, on the one hand proud of its military conquests and on the other ashamed. She bridges this gap, not by taking a side or hefting an argument, but by focusing on the universal—such as our need for companionship, the experience of grief, how easily we are thrilled by a call to arms in any situation (whether we admit it or not), and what she says in “Much Tattooed Sailor Aboard USS New Jersey” poem “iii”:
Even in war,
the artist’s narrow
seeing finds an aperture
to let in light across
the injuries of skin.
Our appetite is keen,
Sontag says, for pictures
of bodies held in pain,
Dubrow is keenly aware of our universal dishonesty—our unwillingness to look deeply into self and see that we are all, in one way or another, warriors and lovers, and all, at one time or another, fighting for lost or misguided causes. But more than this, we all need to be a cause: someone that another longs to come home to. To be wholehearted, devoted, and wanted. To be able to say to a young soldier who asks about the heaviness of a wedding ring: “how much it cuts / the skin, / the kind of bruise commitment / leaves” that it is “light [ . . . ] you’ll barely feel the burden of this thing.”
As is Dubrow’s poetry: light. Not heavy as artillery or sharp as a battle cry, but weightless amidst the tempest of romance and relational tension, less resilient than the cord that binds these lovers—husband and wife—in this somewhat Grecian drama of universal desire, longing, and an ancient call to wage war not with weapons, but with poetry.
Dubrow is one of the few poets I have read who can get away with writing about romance, a subject perhaps too cliché for the rest of us to be a great success. But nothing about this book is cliché. It’s surprising and perceptive at every turn, not to mention, eclectic, containing a variety of poetic forms—not small among them, the sonnet. If you are looking for a book of classical resonance, formal precision, and artistic equipoise, search no further than Dubrow’s Dots & Dashes.