The Poem In Time Of War


REVIEW by David Ray of THE POEM IN TIME OF WAR by Sherman Pearl (Conflu:X Press, 2004, 96 pp., $12.00)

Justly praised by Sam Hamill and Mel Weisburd, Sherman Pearl's THE POEM IN TIME OF WAR is a bold and exuberant collection of poems, including work that won an award from the prestigious Strokestown Poetry Festival in Ireland.

As a poet against the war Sherman Pearl in many poems adds his indignation to that of others who fear that our nation has strayed so far from its ideals that the world reflected in his happier poems of boyhood, travel, and appreciation of the arts and media may be in jeopardy, its restlessness and anomie reflected in violence and disillusion.

"Bodyslam" catches a bloody TV match as if it is truly a fight between good and evil "in glorious color," the observer seduced into cheering for both grapplers in their "savage ballet."

Pearl is a poet of movement. Many of his poems reflect restlessness, a fantasy life roaming or soaring through or recalling many modes of travel. The titles reflect the theme of "In Motion is Possibility":

I packed light;

what wouldn't fit in my pockets I'd pick up

along the way. I could carry whole countries

in my eyes, their flavors in my mouth

leaving my hands free to stroke the silks

of exotic bazaars, to grope through

shadowed back streets, to scoop up women

who would dance flamencos on my palms.

"Swimming to Catalina" or driving big rigs or riding bicycles or recalling "Immigrants" or even leaving earth as a space traveler are variant expressions of the poet's enthusiastic commitment to movement, no doubt symptomatic of anxiety, but potentially liberating.

"Watching Others in Motion" is inevitable for a traveler with habits of sharp observation. In motion, of course, "Accidents Happen":

Home itself is an accident. You met your mate

as she happened past on her way

to somewhere else. Together you've built a house¼

The less challenging chore of "Sweeping the Attic" is welcome respite from journeys where one sooner or later is obliged to engage in "Asking Directions":

¼ You take all the turns

he commanded, plod the streets till they become dead ends.

When it's too dark to read the signposts

you pull out the matchbook. By match-light you check the address.

You search for a carpet to carry you home.

Pearl has a sharp and informed view of history. "Hitler's Falcon" is a poem that suggests that evil survives, hovering over us, throwing shadows "on clouds that were formed by lingering smoke/ from the death camps." Now that so much history seems to be repeated, bearing out Thucydides' pessimism about men not learning from the past, such a view seems easily justifiable, and somehow more acceptable through metaphor than the didacticism that Pearl is wise enough to avoid.

"Soldiers Home" is a prophetic view of a nation which is inheriting thousands of war casualties who must grieve their "obsolete lives" even as they learn to crack hardy (an Australian term that means putting a good face on that which is hard to bear). Despite the understated dark view of the future Pearl's poems convey he never lets the child within die:

My face is pasted inside-

young, eager, looking out on the world.


Pearl counterpoints his witnessing concerns with poems like "Geronimo" (not about the Apache, but boys who yell the name in parachute play). He can drive through Cuba in "my '56 Chevy, all chrome and cool and Turtle Wax-" or stray through Wal-Mart where he finds poems on sale (perhaps the last product monster stores might find marketable. Pearl brings media events into vivid view, seemingly aware that Americans often don't know the difference between fantasy and reality. His poems based on memories of family members are intimate and moving:

I know how my grandfather felt

huddled in steerage leaning side to side

to steady the ship, pressing backwards to stop it.


Sherman Pearl is not afraid to be a poet who has much to say, not a fashionable activity in these days of passivity and a great deal of cultish poetry that is irrelevant to history or even to intense personal experience. He would not vote, I suspect, for "abolishing meaning," as is taught in many academies.

I recommend THE POEM IN TIME OF WAR to readers who want to be entertained and at the same time join a poet in his imaginary travels and in his anxieties about the inescapable realities of war and "The Unthinkable," which was born at the original ground zero sixty years ago.

"and we darken under it wondering who

can gather it up, who to implore

to put the unthinkable back in its room.

The mushroom-shaped shadow looms."

Like Sherman Pearl, a contributor to Sam Hamill's anthology, POETS AGAINST THE WAR, David Ray (who with Robert Bly founded American Writers Against the Vietnam War) has published two recent volumes of poetry, 1000 YEARS: POEMS ABOUT THE HOLOCAUST (Timberline Press) and THE DEATH OF SARDANAPALUS AND OTHER POEMS OF THE IRAQ WARS (Howling Dog Press). He lives in Tucson with his wife, poet Judy Ray.