Thirty years ago, yet I am still there
in my gas mask and lost in the desert
Thirty years ago, men and women dropped everything to go to war, Juan Manuel Perez shares the load they returned with. This collection is packed with variable weights, burdens many soldiers take pride in bearing silently: traumatic anecdotes, terrorizing dreams, empty chairs at family gatherings and full body bags in field hospitals. Perez’s work has a confessional style which shifts between narrative and figurative explorations of the diverse tolls associated with the first Gulf War. Each piece conveys the fracturing of reality and self that accompanies the experiences of a soldier at war with the added complexity of being a medic. The past reverberates through the present and the present exhumes the past in poignant ways throughout, yet Perez also gives readers moments to catch breath with shifts to dark humor and light ration preferences.
These 50 poems are arranged straight as a marine’s spine with each beginning “Thirty years ago.” This echo serves as both a reminder for when the past overshadows the speaker’s present and a trigger for memorialized encounters. What is most potent in Perez’s writing is his phrasing. There are so many powerful moments as he recounts “fear of a volatile sky” and having “a chest full of quicksand;” times when “pulleys to [his] brain are on their last belt” or he suffers a “silent apocalypse.” He includes criticisms of congress’s “sophisticated stupidity…distancing intelligence by long miles;” and being haunted by “soulless containers moaning [his] name.” Compelling phrases like these immerse the reader in the resounding emotional tenor of the piece and, thereby, of the internal battles fought. What, at times, takes the reader out of the writing is the way that the pieces themselves are fragmented. Perez chooses to omit periods from his palette and, although there are line breaks, the reader is set adrift in terms of how to separate the thoughts. This does, however, feel intentional and adds to the larger concept of fracturing being traversed. My favorite piece in the collection is number 40, which interlaces the methods of a game of solitaire with the function of the game for this speaker to gain “some piece for my booby-trapped brain.”
Juan Manuel Perez picks up the emotional ordnance transported for years without limit and invites his readers to carry it with him.
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