Winner of the 2013 Main Street Rag Poetry Book Award, Charlie Bondhus' All the Heat We Could Carry is a meditation on war, the effects of war, particularly on gay soldiers, specifically with regard to the endless war in Afghanistan in the 21st century. Shifting scenes from the homefront in America to Afghanistan and back again, these poems expose the emotions and perspectives of soldiers, in the midst of conflict in the strange, alien terrain of war and in the familiar, but now no less alien, environs of home.
The title comes from a line in "April," the final poem in the middle section, a poem about the beginning of the end of a romantic relationship. For one of the storylines in this collection is about the break-up of two lovers affected by the war.
And we two,
who spent winter breaking
into each other's warm places,
gathering up all the heat we could carry,
find we no longer need each other's skin
to keep out the cold.
The line suggests that breaking point all humans reach, when things fall apart, no longer hold, and the poems in this collection are all about flirting with that breaking point. Heat, indeed, is a metaphor for passion throughout these poems, including sexual love but encompassing all human drive, hope and ambition. In "July," the second poem in the collection,
The screen door squeaks
and here you are, in shorts and tank,
bearing iced tea, two glasses,
the books we've been reading.
No one else on their porch;
it's hot, and everything sticks
Later in the poem:
The hottest on record since 1895,
say the weather people. A sign
of God's displeasure,
say the evangelicals.
In "What He Left," from the third, final section, after the lovers' break-up, the speaker reflects on the bullets, the firing pin his lover left behind ("I know it's broken/but the cool, dark potential still unnerves me."):
No climax: you simply packed
what was useful and indisputably yours,
leaving me everything that might have been
ours, so why abandon this broken, deadly bit
of memory you carried
Hard and cold as canteen water,
a memento of more than one desert,
I cradle it as though it were your heart.
Wrestling and gardening are likewise metaphors Bundhus employs throughout for stylized violence, civilized decay. Bondhus weaves images of war into the everyday (e.g., "cold as canteen water" above; even the title implicitly alludes to weaponry — "packing heat"). Take these lines from "October":
I watch from the window, hurt but admiring
the ease with which you roll
the season's lovely casualties
into large and small heaps,
working until a sudden gust
turns the morning's labor
into a firestorm...
What a way to describe raking autumn leaves, eh? Again, from "Wood Gathering," a handful of poems further in:
In November we gather
straight branches into bundles,
and carry them
we stopped tending
last spring, to the shed
door which always sticks
in cold weather.
I want to ask you
how long since the seasons
became the same,
nor perennials penetrating
our ribs, to the place where organs
slump like frozen vegetables?
When the snow starts,
you will cross
the backyard, and tugging
and grunting, pull open
the shed, where what
we've gathered is stacked neatly
Or from "Gardening Alone":
The sun stripes my back
as I loosen thistle roots,
dig out entrenched stones,
spray hot pesticide on the kudzu.
Weeding was always your job
because I have trouble disposing of things
that lack beauty yet insist on life:
your comb, for instance, gray with dust
and snarled with frayed hair and skin cells,
or the half-empty box of .45 ammo you left,
whose bullets' hammered gold refracts light
in quick-stepping patterns that I love.
But by far the most affecting, riveting poems are those set deep in the midst of war in the remote expanse of Afghanistan: "A Quiet Day in Kandahar," "Morning After First Kill," "Putting a Body into a Bag," "Falling Asleep in Combat." Consider the violence in these lines from "Panjwayi":
But there is no devil in this story;
believe me when I say
the evil men do
is entirely their own,
for Mohamed Hussain, shot in the neck,
the bullet nicking
his right common carotid,
for the roadside bomb
he might have set.
Equally poignant are the PTSD poems, postwar stateside: "Homecoming," "Veteran's Notes," "In Therapy," "Memorial Day Barbeque" ("Did he carry a gun in the glove compartment?//I remembered every Vietnam movie I'd ever seen,//his eyes, two unpinned grenades, overturned tables and smashed/chairs, bowls of finger food shattered into small universes.//When he saw me, I felt like I'd been caught stealing....")
The penultimate poem in All the Heat We Could Carry, a six-part multi-page verse, sums up the whole tragedy of war, the pointless self-fulfillment of the experience for the anonymous soldier, gay or straight.
Don't think that
I'm going back for the U.S.A.
I love America, but nobody's died for it
since 1945. These days we're dying
for the benefits; we're dying for the adventure;
we're dying for the chance
to make someone else die;
we're dying because we're no longer moved
by movies and video games; we're dying because our parents
said work, school, or the military; we're dying
because we don't know who we are so,
like prophets of the Old Testament,
we go to the desert to hear a voice;
we're dying to prove that we can die better
than anyone else; we're dying to be told
that we are good; most of all, we're dying
because we're not sure
what else to do with ourselves.