Professor Finds Veteran Identity Through Poetry
As the memories of child beggars and care packages seep into Liam Corley’s poetry, the sounds of marching soldiers and a distant explosion echo across the page. Through his writing, Corley unpacks his military experience for himself, the American public and fellow veterans.
During the 2008-09 academic year, Corley deployed as a Navy reservist to Afghanistan, serving as a lieutenant. From September to July, he traded his life as an associate professor of English for 14-hour days writing and analyzing military information, sending it up and down the chain of command. Unlike the American poetry and literature that Corley discusses in the classroom, there is no room for individuality or nuance in writing military intelligence. “The writing was no longer mine. The thinking in the writing was no longer mine,” he wrote in his essay “‘Brave Words’: Rehabilitating the Veteran-Writer.”
Combat and military service may evoke images of violence and death, but the emotional toll can go unnoticed. Although Corley did not engage in combat, he found that returning to civilian life was a challenge. After adjusting to his old routines, an intense writer’s block set in. “While deployed, I wrote more rapidly and clearly than ever before, but only on topics of the moment,” he wrote. “Scholarship stopped me cold.”
Anxiety and self-doubt plagued his return to scholarly work. “Was it impatience? Incapacity? A loss of identity?” he wrote. “I began to wonder whether war had disabled me as a scholar.” After several attempts at research and essays, Corley decided to channel his thoughts into a new medium: poetry.
Juxtapositions of child and adult, light and heavy, and even life and death sprang forward from the Afghan landscape, contrasts familiar from the patterns of literature. Blending direct language and poetic devices made the vital connection between being a veteran and a scholar. “There’s a lot of moral ambiguity in war. Poetry is great with ambiguity,” Corley says. “Many veterans are uncomfortable with how they feel.”
Their chirrupy greetings and coffeed-up voices accused the worm end of our day/ with theories and questions concocted in situ to keep the drama at bay/by heading it off with a plausible alibi whose fullness made loss an effect/ of larger dynamics and historical precedents in a previously understood sect./ Any details we had that CNN missed would put them ahead of the game,/saved from the fire with their basket of eggs and us in the angle of blame.
“Watching Our Back”, Badlands
In several of his poems, the inspiration stems from frustration toward bureaucracy. “This is a very bitter poem that denounces Pentagon-based military and civilian leadership that viewed the war as a public relations game,” Corley says. “These people were supposed to be watching our backs, but instead we had to watch our own in dealings with them.”
A photograph he took standing near an ancient Kabul fortress graces the cover of Badlands. A massive carcass of a Soviet tank sits half-buried atop a rocky knoll, looking down on mud-colored apartments, sparse power lines and laundry fluttering in the wind. The photo reveals that even the outskirts of the Afghan city were caught in the crosshairs, and that history always asserts itself.
the chicle boy I didn’t buy from last week/ holds out his hand again,/ in it a pack of something/ I don’t need. Today he tumbled upward/ like a leaf blown back to an awestruck/ branch, tossed like my girl as she flies confiding/ from my arms./ Only Tuesday he plucked a pen from my sleeve
“Something Else You Don’t Need”, Proud to Be: Writing by American Warriors
Corley incorporates events from his military life to reflect on the cost of war. The death of a boy who sold chewing gum near a base reminded him of his own children, thousands of miles away. The tragedy is a jolting reminder to the audience that innocent bystanders can die.
a poem for the other soldiers/ citizens who never fired back/ sleeping in armor/ under a rifle’s dead weight/ crammed in rows
“unwound”, Chautauqua: War and Peace
Although many like Corley never directly faced combat, they suffered invisible wounds. The word “unwound” suggests a need to unwind after a stressful day, or the spring tension in a gun magazine. Playing with these three connotations against imagery of guns and bullets, he discusses the constant pressures and tension of duty that are not readily apparent.
This I want America/ to see: a gap-toothed child sucking on a watermelon/ Jolly Rancher, a taste foreign/ as the clacking of needles in a warm/Midwestern home.
“Care Package”, Proud to Be: Writing by American Warriors
Well-intentioned civilians send supplies, but soldiers keep only a few items such as coffee and razors. Everything else— knitted caps, deodorant, candy— is donated to the villagers. Using the imagery of care packages, Corley explores the contradictory role that civilians play from the home front. Support for the troops runs deep, but the American public is oblivious to the reality of life in a war zone.
“To begin with, I have never considered my response to duty’s call to be particularly courageous or even, considered alongside other worthy callings, unusually admirable… I did my duty for the good that it brings and not the innate pleasures of the task. A heroic warrior I am not.”
“Achilles Among the Maidens”, War, Literature and the Arts
The search for a veteran identity is strong in much of Corley’s writing. “I write so that other veterans have words to express the jumbled up mess inside, and I hope that my poems in some small way give them back to themselves,” he says. “I always have a veteran audience in mind when I write. Those are the people I am accountable to for telling the truth.”
Corley’s poetry, along with the works of other veteran writers, may provide insight for civilian and scholarly audiences. He has read some of his poems at readings, but he primarily shares them with his students at the end of a class.
“I like having a live audience. It makes me see my own words differently. Sometimes it helps me revise. Sometimes it just shows me that the words we find through poetry are never just our own.”
(Photo: Liam Corley)