Life During Wartime: Camouflage in the OC Neighborhood

Life During Wartime: Camouflage in the OC Neighborhood

Some small books suggest big ambitions and demand disproportionately urgent attention. Understatement isn't always what is appears to be, important writing arrives in small packages, the medium really is sometimes the message. Like that. William Kotzwinkle's perfect little novel Swimmer in the Secret Sea, or John McPhee's nonfiction meditation, Oranges. Campbell McGrath's Spring Comes to Chicago. Just to name, as they say, a few. These present with the authority and voice of something so much more, and yet so complete in their economy as to challenge expectations and demand, almost naggingly, provocatively, more. Yet it is in their quiet, small completeness that they achieve so much, and just enough.    
Winner of the 2011 Sentence Award from Firewheel Editions, Orange County local Lorene Delany-Ullman's Camouflage for the Neighborhood is both a collection of deceptively simple short prose poems and, all together, a resonating, provoking, deeply sad long-lifetime of a narrative in pieces.  It is an indictment of history and memory, not to mention a camouflage itself. It is a small book, seventy-one paragraph-sized glimpses, gasps, moments and stories of lives in the familiar war zone of our county and beyond, told with the permanent melancholy and honest, unyielding curiosity--and I choose my words carefully here--required in order to examine what Gore Vidal called life in the permanent garrison state. Which is not to say that these poems (perhaps one long poem, together) are particularly anti-war or only about war, but, like McPhee's sweet book, a meditation. 

The folks who write copy over at Firewheel got it right, making this reviewer's life easy for 
once: "From toy guns to weed-covered bunkers, this series of prose poems examine the ways the franchises of war  pervade our quotidian lives and complicity that the speaker, her family, and her suburban hometown endure but also share in the propagation of violence."  Yup, that's it. Except only to emphasize further for readers of this blog the immediate Orange County connection by way of celebrating a hometown girl who done good. Delaney-Ullman's uber-auto-biographical narrative poem(s) evoke our own benighted place, and the Southern California political-poetical economy of so-called "defense" manufacturing, itself a funny phrase, and I don't mean funny ha-ha.

She knows from whence she writes, and lives.  Delany-Ullman is a UCI Creative Writing MFA grad who teaches Composition at the university, and a co-founder of the now-legendary (if defunct) poetry performance series at Casa Romantica in San Clemente. Her work has been published widely, including in AGNI, Cimarron Review and Zocalo Public Square. but this is her own first book.

Camouflage? What an image. The uniform of combat, but also a way to hide in plain sight the horror which we have grown used to. My own reading of places and moments in the collection suggests Delany-Ullman has watched carefully the decades of So Cal war history from WW II through the present, Viet Nam, Korea, Iraq and Afghanistan, in idiom and image
Playground battlefield memory
Playground battlefield memory
with of course the usual family stories and remnants, and the landscape, the two giant airship hangars in Tustin and Aerospace Alley and all the aircraft carriers in the sea and the playground fighter planes re-purposed as, yes, jungle gym toys in the public parks so many of us grew up in.

It was only after reading the poems as a story that I saw they worked on their own, too. Perhaps my own assumption about a through-line prejudiced that first reading. Here's a longer piece, and I do mean "piece" as in both fragment and as a complete stand-alone poem. 

Through the Second World War, my grandmother, Thelma, and her sister, Valgene, worked the swing shift at the Chrysler plant. They wore the cleanest overalls, afternoon-fresh make-up, perfect hair donning hairnets. And left the children to take care of the children. They didn't know they were making history. One mishap: a hot rivet fell, and glanced Thelma's forehead long enough to embed a piece of a B-29 bomber above her brow. My mother remembers this - Aunt Valgene brought her home in the middle of the night - that small bit stayed with her.

Yes, the small bit of machine, in one woman; that small memory in both, presumably. That theme, of the shrapnel of war intruding upon both psyche and the physical body is one of many through-lines in this collection, imagistic or literal or both.  My favorite, an image of such clumsily and profoundly easy beauty as to be almost perfect and unbelievable, yet of course so necessary and true:

Danny swallowed a bullet. His tongue flipped it down his throat during math. Mrs. Hart was furious. You know, she said, when you're eighteen they'll draft you, and you don't even have the right to vote. You'll be swallowing bullets then. I imagined this as she yanked on Danny's collar and hauled him off to the principal's office. We heard the doctor ordered laxatives. This one would slip through. 

I read the vignettes, details and moments as a mix tape of voices, so that it seems Delany-Ullman is playing around with the people and (dis)order of wars and their effects. They are meant to be connected. They are unconnected. She connects them. They are many stories, many people and only one. The narrator, for instance, is a wife, a mother and grandmother of boys who play with toy plastic soldiers, a worker herself in the defense industry, a descendant of that "greatest" generation, a patient, it seems, fighting a life-threatening and very real physical illness, not just the despair of violence, metaphorical, but somehow the accumulated affliction of it.

Funny thing. The same week I read Camouflage, I met Brian Turner, possibly the most well-known latter-day war poet, a combat vet of three tours, and author of Here, Bullet. As it happens, he wrote a blurb for Delany-Ullman which evokes the "long shadows" of war and her documenting of them, and I think that is the image I like best by way of recommending the collection. The shadows fall, and the world moves, and the shadows fall again, elsewhere but the same way. Delany-Ullman has rearranged the world, our collective cooperation in war, and our victimization by it, in layers of shadows.  Some are imperceptible and almost benign, some so very dark. This is heartbreaking and precise and difficult illumination, confession and catechism at once.  Make of it what you will politically. It happened. It happens. The images here are of us, the people inside also. We are, in another sense of the word, shadows. Reading these poems made me feel as I felt once as a child looking through old yearbooks or at the photographs, all in rows, of church members in directories, of soldiers and sailors lost in battles, of long-gone people whose lives' patterns and arrangement demanded so much more than the circumstances in which the images of them were preserved.    

Lorene Delany-Ullman will appear at the April 6 Literary Orange conference on a panel, "Poetry: A Visual Language."  

Camouflage for the Neighborhood, Lorene Delany-Ullman, Freewheel Editions, 80 pgs, $18.00

Andrew Tonkovich hosts the Wednesday night literary arts program Bibliocracy Radio on KPFK 90.7 FM in Southern California.

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