Charlie Bondhus: War Poet for the Post-DADT Era

Charlie Bondhus’s masterful, heart-wrenching new poetry collection, All the Heat We Could Carry (Main Street Rag, 2013), could not have been written in any previous generation. In the closeted centuries following the Greco-Roman era, the poetry of gay male love and the poetry of war have only been permitted to overlap in sublimated and metaphorical ways. Bondhus merges them candidly, but the story this book tells is more elegiac than celebratory.

The alternating narrators of Heat, a veteran of the Afghanistan war and his homefront lover, seem free from their forerunners’ self-conscious anguish about sexual orientation. They can admit openly how sex between men is like martial arts grappling, how killing can be orgasmic and the camaraderie of soldiers more intimate than lovers. They can savor the flowers in their backyard garden without weighting down those fragile stems with the entire burden of their erotic communication, and without fearing that attention to beauty makes them unmanly.

But despite this unprecedented openness, an unbridgeable rift separates the lovers, and that is the tragedy at the heart of this book. Combat changes the veteran in ways that his partner cannot comprehend first-hand. His feelings are hardened like scar tissue. He can’t fit in, can’t understand the relevance of the civilian routines that he left behind. He eventually goes back to the war, not because he believes in it, but because it’s the only place he feels at home.

The past few years have brought high-profile victories for gay and lesbian inclusion in mainstream (some would say conservative) institutions like marriage, the church, and the military. After the celebrations fade, there’s an opportunity to look critically at the social structures into which one has been assimilated. Heat suggests that participation in systems of oppression doesn’t end with the waving of the rainbow flag.

Charlie has kindly permitted me to reprint these poems from his collection, which won the 2013 Main Street Rag Poetry Book Award.

Sharing a Bed

I remember the first evening in bed,
making love with the lights on.

Outside the window, a hanging basket
of red impatiens
and a ruby-throated hummingbird.

In late spring’s greenish light
my head was a bowed peony,
your torso,
a grand urn
of tissuey ranunculus.

Summer found us sharing a home
with mismatched furniture,
plagues of ragweed and clover
choking the thin, dark spaces
between our together-time.

Like angel’s trumpet, I craved
the cool white suddenness
the moon brings,
and when it came
silent as a cloud
our limbs were not the marble of roses,
or the patrician regularity of zinnias,
but the cheap, unsung beauty
of daisies, wild pinks.

Hornets nested in our heads.
Butterflies settled on our eyelids.
Morning’s first finches began to sing.

My arms were full of nettles and lamb’s ear.


Wood Gathering

In November we gather
straight branches into bundles,
and carry them

past flowerbeds
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,
neither sun

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

as bones. Wordless
(we have no use for lips),
you will track dirt and ice

across the carpetless floors
and drop the flaking
wood on the fire,

filling the house
with the easier
kind of warmth.

First, pink rushes
to fingertips. Next,
skin cracks as heat

refills the heart
like hot water
into a cold glass. And then

like a body
from a thawing lake,

and bumping heavily
against the sheet ice:
a pulse

or what remains of love,
brushing the underside
of the wrist,

a feeling
brittle as firewood,
finite as frost.

3 comments on “Charlie Bondhus: War Poet for the Post-DADT Era

  1. Hank Rodgers says:

    This is good, as are your comments. HOWEVER: once, again, the only thing to which I object, as what I hope is a “realist” approach to our life experience, is the use (i.e. euphemism) “making love”, for any sexual act, gay or straight, particularly when attempting to come from a male (of whatever sexual orientation) point of view. “Love”, it has always seemed to me, is merely (and joyfully) an expression of a high degree of (sometimes fleeting) emotional affection. Lust is also great, but more like the appetite for and the appreciation of a good dinner, than a great, emotional feeling. Love and lust can co-occur, perhaps (though likely not at the same time), but only co-incidentially, and the former can never be “made”.

  2. Jendi Reiter says:

    I appreciate your sharing your experience of the relation between love and lust, but I wouldn’t generalize that to all men. The characters in this poetry book did use words of love toward each other, and saw their sexual connection in those terms, so that is how I described it in my review. My idea of “realism” does not involve reducing all higher emotions to selfish biological impulses, nor would it be my place to do so when reviewing someone else’s love poetry.

  3. Hank Rodgers says:

    Yes, though I was talking about this only in relation to the poems, rather than as to your review. The reviewer should address the poet’s frame of reference. However, my personal point of view is that while “love” is an emotion, “lust” and the sexual act would seem no to so qualify. Different points of view, of probably, but where would we be withoout them?

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