The Backwaters Press, 2016
$16; ISBN 978-1-935218-40-1
Reviewed by Kali Lightfoot
While the words lyric and drone don’t normally exist in collaboration with each other (except possibly in bagpipe music), the very beauty of the lyric poetry in Kim Garcia’s book DRONE serves to make clear the devastation caused by our modern, seemingly sanitized, drone-based warfare. These are poems in which Garcia dissolves dichotomies—enemy/ally, combatant/civilian—leaving the reader unsettled in the way that the best of poetry can, opening new paths of thought and emotion.
Approaching the book, the reader sees the single word DRONE set against a blood red background: a photograph by Kevin Sudeith of a rug woven by Afghan women. The figures in the rug’s design are of aircraft in different sizes crisscrossing a red field— missile-laden drones under which the weavers live.
The introductory poem in the collection, “Bird,” begins: “I set my alarm by an inner dove, / wake to crows.” The poem continues, juxtaposing singular birds with flocks, jittery with steady, to end:
…planet light, hawk gaze,
heron waiting on the fish rise.
Within that silence, love even for the carrion birds—
vulture, raven, gull.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the origin of the word drone is Old English drǣn “male bee,” from a West Germanic verb meaning “resound, boom,” and Swedish dröna “to drowse.” Garcia uses all of these colors of the word, as well as its definitions—”continuous low humming sound,” “a male bee which does no work but can fertilize a queen,” “a person who does no useful work and lives off others”—to consider the nuances within what has become our most common contemporary usage: “a remote-controlled pilotless aircraft or missile.”
In the five loosely themed sections of the book you will find bees, drones as predators, drones for surveillance, and dream sequences as well as remote pilots in their rooms in Nevada, drone-targeted people across the globe, and the families of pilots and targets. Garcia uses a variety of formats and forms in the poems so that the reader is kept visually as well as auditorially interested, and perhaps a bit off balance. The emotional arc of the book builds relentlessly toward a deeply disturbing realization that this modern brand of warfare is personal— and horrifying in a new way—for both the shooter and the target, as evidenced by these lines from “Surveillance: A Screen Life:”
…When we can read labels on the spice jars in the kitchens of our enemies,
and know how the soup will taste, and feel the weight
of our enemy’s daughter resting against his knee, while he—our
enemy, and this we must remember—is cleaning his shoes
or reading aloud from a book we can study from Nevada,
then we are in danger of tenderness, a knowledge that complicates
where it does not disarm, unmanning in its call to husband life.
Her use of the word husband there is particularly affecting in that it can mean the person—a husband—or the act of husbanding, as in preserving.
Garcia is a professor at Boston College, and the author of a chapbook and two previous full-length collections. She has won awards and has published individual poems in a number of journals, including Broadsided Press which featured her poem “Drone Confessional” on October 1, 2016 with art by Helen Beckman Kaplan. That poem is included in Drone as “Confessional.” Garcia said in an interview with Rappahannock Review that because of the title of her second book (Madonna Magdelene), and her use of words like confessional, she is considered a religious poet; but she is not interested in theology, rather she is interested in
…faith, as it is quickened by painful states like doubt, despair, and fear, or vulnerable ones like raw joy and forgiveness. That’s its cutting edge, not beliefs and ideas…My hope is that if [readers] come to feel in company with a certain yearning open to whatever is, doubts and all, I will meet them there if I possibly can. It’s an intimate, human exchange.
We live in an era of minute-by-minute surveillance from street and pocket cameras and buzzing robots, all with unseen presences operating them. Add missiles and targeting software to the mix and it becomes truly frightening. Who is watching, who is shooting, who is friend, who is enemy? DRONE is a necessary book. We need its faith and its intimate human exchange; the space Garcia provides for us to recognize our feelings and work with them to remember all that is beautiful and dangerous about being human.
The Broadsided Poem in the Book
“Drone Confessional” – Broadside with art by Helen Beckham Kaplan (published October 1, 2016)
3 Questions from Broadsided; 3 Answers from Kim Garcia:
Bsided: What kinds of research did you do to write the poems in DRONE? Were you able to talk with pilots and the wives, with Afghani people or others who have lived under drones? What did you read that might have shaped your writing?
Garcia: My preliminary research didn’t look like research at all. I was reading early articles about armed and surveillance drones, and I was just haunted by them. I found myself collecting photos and articles. Then I had a chance to be in a glorious writing cabin at Hambidge Center for the Arts in Georgia. I had smart, thoughtful musicians and artists around for dinner conversation, Amichai’s Amen, and Louise Erdich’s Jacklight. Bit by bit I found myself writing poems about this strange and slippery corner of warfare, trying to understand it from multiple angles and all kinds of suffering and/or self-delusion.
At that point I started doing the kind of online research any citizen could have done. Some of that information has since disappeared, but it gave me a sense of the early PTSD research, which helped me to understand how key it is to have a human heart within the kill chain of this fearsome technology, but also how costly. As I read and reflected, I did not think I was writing a book. I was just collecting what I happened to be writing and putting the results up on the wall. Then I saw they were all about drones and our shared airspace and surveillance. And also about the slippery way we press responsibility for our fear onto others. It was not until my poetry friends back home had a look at the poems I produced, which I thought of as purely personal meditations, that I was slowly convinced it was a book.
It was at this stage that I came to know a drone pilot and his wife, Joe and Meghan Chapa, and Major Chapa was kind enough to look over the poems once they were accepted for publication. I told him that I suspected I was saying some stupid things, but could he please keep me from deep stupid. He did much more than that. He wrote a fascinating, moving gloss on most of the poems in the book. I have to say the gloss means as much to me as any of the poems.
I was haunted by the idea that the poems might increase the pain of the impossible position we are putting these young men and women into through our public policies. I am horrified by this technology, and I think the book reflects this. I was relieved to hear that the poems might actually help someone forced to make impossible decisions daily. I’m not sure I would have sent the book out for publication without that assurance. Since publication I have heard that the poems hurt, but they can help. I hope that continues to be true.
I also kept reading as I edited, including testimony before Congress about what it was like to live under the threat of a strike. It’s far more destructive to the social fabric than the numbers suggest. If you only look at a body count, you don’t understand the impact of drones. Tomas van Houtryve’s powerful Blue Sky Days project was an important visual influence on this for me as well. Luckily, my empathetic leaps of imagination seemed to chime with what was emerging—the research had informed my intuitions. It’s not a work of journalism, of course, but I wanted to get the bones right.
Again, I think it’s important to emphasize that this was not some secret access research. I was looking at the use of drones by the US Air Force, not the CIA. It was open source material, available to any citizen who wanted to take a look. We just weren’t looking, although these strikes were happening all the time in our names. Or we were looking and making easy assumptions that were also easy to refute? I wanted to ask myself where I was implicated in all this. What was I missing that was right in front of me? Then around the time I sent the book out, I started hearing about many poets who were writing about drones, without our being aware of each other. It was like a dog whistle only the poets were hearing.
Bsided: The poem, “Confessional,” seems to be a persona poem of a drone pilot—part confession, part statement of shame, part prayer for forgiveness. Were you raised in a particular religious tradition, and if so, how does that inform your view of faith?
Garcia: Yes, it is all those things, and I’m glad that came through. I came from a troubled family, so I jumped into a fundamentalist church as a young teen. Fortunately it was pre-Moral Majority, so I met a lot of sincere working class people who were more interested in mutual support and examining their own behavior than being a political power. I hope there are still people like that in some of those churches now. I was encouraged to read the Bible on my own and form my own opinions, but there were also all the problems you’d imagine. By the time I was in college, I was visiting different churches, from Quaker to Pentecostal. I’m grateful for that time. It makes it easier to resist easy cartoons of religion.
Then, after I married a man of Latin American descent, I became a Catholic. I didn’t get any pressure to do so. I wanted my kids to know that half of their culture. I loved the sensuousness, incarnational and metaphorical, of Catholicism. I was critical of it too, and somehow it was capacious enough to make room for my criticisms. It’s like a very old tortoise, ugly and admirable at turns, and really, really slow. I made the switch at a lucky time and place, post-Vatican II on the West Coast. I don’t think I could have passed the required courses in almost any other place or time.
I think all of this informs my view of faith, and through that, my work. I make a distinction between beliefs and faith because I think they operate very differently. Beliefs are the way we explain ourselves to ourselves and to others. Faith is quicksilver. We need both to function in a coherent way. A skeptic has beliefs, an atheist has beliefs, we all have narratives that line up the facts. We must have these belief narratives, but they are culturally conditioned, and they must molt every so often, or we can’t hold that quicksilver. Faith can feel like freefalling.
Writing poetry doesn’t feel so different, for me. If I’ve worked it all out and start delivering a message, I don’t trust the poem or myself. I want to feel that I am ready to have the whole thing turn and reveal something I’m not hardened to, something that still costs me something.
Bsided: The artist’s response to the “Drone Confessional” Broadside is quite different from the art on the cover of DRONE, what is your own response as you look at each.
Garcia: The cover of DRONE, an image of an Afghan war rug, suggests all the ways these weapons are woven into our lives, how they are literally changing the pattern for people who live under the threat of a strike, without knowing where or when. Helen’s broadside shows us the view from above, where all the human pain below is simplified. The weapon is large and thrusting, explicit. Scaled like the Hindenburg on the page, where usually we think of drones as slight and agile. She subtly suggests the madness of unfocused testosterone and fantasies of technology through the size and angle, but then balances that against the beauty of the bi-colored landscape, and the drone suspended in all that color. I find my eye going back again and again to that sun, submerged in the blue. What’s sky? What’s ground? Most of my poems hover between the two covers. I think we need to see both, as the pilot and crew of the drones are forced to do. Our policies have put them there, and we need to understand the cost.
We need a long, hard look at our drone policy as a nation, and all the ways we are indulging in retributive justice, at home and abroad, and on both sides of the aisle. We are becoming a reactive nation, and now we have a weapon that delivers our reactivity with ever-greater speed and accuracy. We need discernment and art more than ever.
(FYI, the preferred, but not very evocative, new term of choice for “drone” is RPA “remotely piloted aircraft,” which differentiates the plane from non-military equipment you can get at Wal-Mart. I’ve only heard military folks use it.)
Kali Lightfoot lives in Salem, MA. Her poems and reviews have appeared in journals and anthologies, been nominated by Poetry South and Lavender Review for a Pushcart Prize, and won Honorable Mention from the Science Fiction Poetry Association. Kali has an MFA in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts.