Sunday, March 10, 2019

Poetry Review: Ghost Train by Matt Borczon

I had the good fortune to come across Matt Borczon’s poetry in a Facebook writer’s group. If you don’t know that name yet, you should. He is one of the finest modern poets I have read. After reading just a few of his poems, I knew that I wanted to read every single line he’d written. Ghost Train happens to be the first that I got my hands on.

Borczon is a naval veteran who worked as a healthcare provider at Camp Bastion in Afghanistan, the busiest combat hospital in the war at that time. Unsurprisingly, he returned to civilian life suffering from PTSD, and his poems are his way of coping with his condition. To be sure, there have been war poets for as long as there have been wars, and Borczon’s work has the expected accoutrements: rifles, wounds, and depthless horror. The weaponry changes, but war itself never really does. Borczon takes it a step further, exploring the aftermath of nightmares and the debilitating symptoms of PTSD—the inability to take in stimuli, the inability to relate to people who have not been through what he’s been through. I am not a war veteran, but I think this work would speak to any trauma survivor, to mental health sufferers, to anyone who has ever grappled with their personal demons, on a profound level.

His work is characterized by no punctuation, just stream of consciousness. His lines are brutally short, often just a single word. He told me he does this to capture the feeling of falling down a hole. I can certainly see that, but I also feel that it conveys a myriad of things: tunnel vision, narrowness, the pinched sensation that comes with traumatic stress, and even the lines on a heart monitor.

What I find exceptional about his work is his gift for weaving seemingly disparate elements into a narrative. It’s what caught my eye about his work in the first place; that, and his eye for original imagery. “Survival kit” weaves prayer, therapy, St. John’s wort, scars, jars and Victory gardens, among other powerful images into a litany of despair. The short lines make his poems look longer on the page, but it’s barely over 100 words, scarcely a paragraph. He manages to pack so much into such small spaces—but I suppose that’s a talent soldiers must acquire. “Frozen Charlotte” is another great example of his ability to make unusual connections, about dolls, an old folk legend about a girl who froze to death, and the dead children he saw on a regular basis.

The poems in this collection follow a chronological order, beginning with “Good bye,” in which the young man embarks on his journey to Fort Jackson, and, presumably, boot camp. He becomes a medic, and his poems explore the on-going vigil at the bedsides of the sick and the wounded—not just his fellow soldiers, but enemy soldiers and civilians, including children. “Repressed memories” describes the images that haunt his psyche as “coffin/sized memories”; the children who stepped on IEDs as “dissolved/into a/thin red sigh.”

The poems themselves are straightforward and accessible, delivered with startling clarity. He speaks of injury and performing his duties with a frankness that you would expect from a military report. “Who am I” is stunning in its honesty and bleakness. This matter-of-factness serves Borczon well—how easily these life-and-death scenarios could become overwrought. Borczon also makes it a point to illustrate how there are no safe occupations in war. Even when he transfers briefly to office work in the poem, “Human Resources,” he discusses filing death certificates.

“A kind person” and “Post deployment” are a one-two gut punch, exploring the agony of trying to go back to your old life, of watching movies and walking around your home town. But there is no escaping what’s in your head. He also perfectly captures the catch-22 of longing for home, even when you know you can’t ever go there again—there is no returning to the person that you were.

The collection ends on the poem, “Add it up,” an attempt to quantify his experiences, an exhausted accounting of what lays behind him (patients, rounds of ammunition, detainees, severed limbs) and what lays before him (prayers, missed birthdays, therapy sessions, medication). These are poems about coping, but sometimes, that means finding the beginning of the beginning of something that could eventually lead to healing. Coping is endless work ahead, like that scene in Poltergeist, when the hallway seems to extend on forever. There is no resolution. You get out of the traumatic event, but you never really get out of it. There is only the tunnel vision, the day-by-day. I appreciate so much that Borczon does not sugarcoat that reality.

Purchase Ghost Train on Amazon

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