“The doctor says the problems are the chemicals in my brain,” begins Josh Hutson’s poem “Red Spices.” Indeed, the world of these poems is one in which an individual’s experience of being is only a kind of by-product that interferes with the functioning of the individual as an ideological unit. In these poems, the voice struggles to take its place, to take place, amidst what seems to be an overarching compulsion to believe that meaning is imposed from outside, in a hierarchy that excludes the experience of any one consciousness. The problem of the individual, then, is the chemicals in the brain that makes it think that it exists independently.
If, in these poems, meaning comes to the speaker in an asphyxiating manner, it may be because all of this experience, like breath, has no place to expire, to enter into, and to exchange with an outside world. “Remembering is breathing air out of / dark corners of the respiratory system,” the poet writes. As we continue to read, what seem to serve as a metaphor for the speaker’s consciousness turn into descriptions of physical asphyxiation, as the poet describes techniques of torture that he has witnessed. But as the poem continues, it seems as if the poet has looked so deeply into his subject, that he ends up inhabiting his perspective. It is, perhaps, this impossible perspective, one that is just on the cusp of not being, from out of which these poems take place. - Noam Scheindlin
* * *
The doctor says my problems are the chemicals in my brain.
I smell raw meat on my hands when I get panicked.
The therapist says I need to normalize my experiences,
spill out all the pieces and try to place them
back where they belong—within the bounds of normalcy.
I saw an orange cat with a white stripe
run across my dining room floor.
We do not have any cats.
More pills: three times a day.
It is nothing like fiction, when you see dark shapes
move out from the corner of your vision.
Another pill: five milligrams before bed.
I was my team’s driver in Iraq in 2006.
I was the best so that was my part:
night-vision goggles from the nineties,
roadside bombs in potholes, cracks in bridges,
and piles of trash all holding shape-charged,
remote-detonated, pressure-plated death.
I hit a parked car while pulling in to the doctor’s office
—I ran right into the back.
My wife drives me to my appointments now.
I caught myself drooling on my notepad.
The spot spread out on the paper, getting wider,
like the boundaries of my sanity.
The next day the spot had warped and was just a
faint brittle stain on that white landscape of potential.
Our clocks were different then the ones at home.
At home they heard about road-side bombs
with their morning coffee and paper, after the fact,
because eleven hours away when their sun rose ours set.
We thought about the particulars of those bombs,
we did not speak of them aloud. We thought
of the anti-tank mines—triple-stacked—and pressure plates
and remote detonated soviet artillery rounds
in burlap sacks full of diesel and kerosene—the same fuel
my father used in the mountain forests of Washington
to log trees and fire brush piles,
both clean-smelling things from my youth.
They found the solution to our armor.
Fire has always been the solution.
Trapped and burned—weighed down
by all our hectic Kevlar and body-armor plates
and extra ammo for firefights that would rarely come
—all of us driving or walking, waiting to fight a war
the way we wanted, the way we were taught.
Instead we burned to death by homemade
firebombs: soviet 122 millimeter artillery rounds
and two-liter bottles of stove fuel.
Men would be caught in their own mobile cages.
And for those of us who were not unlucky,
we would be changed in other ways—our belief in God
and our brain chemicals would slowly morph
while night-driving at sixty-miles-per-hour in those
desert-colored steel cocoons.
* * *
Remembering is breathing air out of
dark corners of the respiratory system,
the longer each memory has gone unthought-of
the more it returns curdled and bitter
swathed in the rational mucus of a memorized phrase:
it’s nice to be home; it wasn’t that bad;
it was mostly boring . . .
When the memory finally does return—
unpacked slowly in the solitude of
a crowded room or a dark early morning—
I can watch quietly, the white noise of
a dozen people or a bedroom fan,
like the clicking from the projector of a silent film,
where the most important part is the watching of
the eyes in black and white faces.
I ask myself to record what I see,
to publicize with ink my mind’s eye,
but it is too quiet. The words do not
hold the sound of the test-fire range
before a night raid or the smell of spices
that dye a countertop red in preparation
for the breaking of fast each night during
Ramadan when we are told not to drink
water in front of the Iraqis during daylight
hours, so that we may say we searched
the kitchens and bedrooms and stacks
of carpets while maintaining cultural awareness,
our flame-retardant Nomex gloves the only thing
separating their holy foods from our unclean
hands. The “Made in China” tags
flipped out, wrinkled, and contrasting
against the sliver of exposed
skin that is peeking out between the edge
of our gloves and our digital sleeves.
The memory itself is violent, each time taking
my consciousness by force, the rhythm of my
lungs coming out of sync, like two notes of
a string instrument refusing to harmonize.
Sometimes I reject them—the unwanted
revelation, the obvious conclusion—shaking
my head, refusing what remains undefined after
five years, my mouth hanging open and gulping
the too-thick air that always fills me and the car
or the room or the field I am in, the air feeling
uncannily heavy like the moon dust churned
up by those Camp Ramadi tanks—whose exhaust
fumes always smelled sweet and rotting
to me like the wind from the industrial dairies
around my home that used to pour in the truck
window on our way to work, my father answering
my complaints simply: “That’s the smell of money.”
I don’t have time for this event my mind
has imagined it remembers, tickling
at the front of my thoughts like a terrible sentencing
just out of hearing—on the edge of paranoia—I am
sure the secret is going to going to kill me. If
I let go of ignorance and let myself see through
the eyes my ancient self—that teenage boy—who
just wanted to fuck girls and know how it felt
to be loved by brothers—to go into that place
called war where boys go to arrive at something
and men go to forget what they know about
themselves: that thing inside they know
they will never or always see.
I think of water boarding and the feeling of drowning
fills my chest. The sensation of loss
made complete by notes of panic and dread.
A young Iraqi the age of my brother
kneels blindfolded on the ground in front of
me, my grin, defensive and scared, convincing
me of the fruits of our labor—and letting the
men around me feel confident that I know what
money smells like. We are two children
looking blindly at each other.
His knees are blistering through
his robe, tattooing tar and linen
in the random pattern of the asphalt
burned hot by the sun’s reflection off an
abandoned train station—an oasis of brick
and cinder and creosote melting under
the heat—the first place the American’s came in 2003.
The boy’s blindfolded face is lowered, but
every few moments an Iraqi guard, another
boy, this one on our side, pulls up his face
by the hair, uncoiling his body upward:
butt from heels, chin from chest, until all
his slim form is at a right angle
toes to knees, knees to scalp, all resting
on bony knees, just points of cartilage
and sinew that, two hours before, carried him
across a plowed field. When the helicopters
came rushing across the Euphrates,
blowing a millennia’s worth of silt into the air,
this boy ran across his father’s field, and in
a declaration of words sent by radio
became a military-aged-male.
When the quiet monsters come screaming the
unthinkable into my unfilled ears, I only have
so long to find something to drown out
the terrible little truths about how I never killed
anyone with my father’s shooting instructions,
nor looked at an Iraqi mother with anything that
Allah would take as offense, but that boy
on his knees was a year younger at best,
and I watched, scared and dumb, when a hard quart-
canteen of water went rushing through the air
and hit his open face—that was still blindfolded,
cringing as he struggled to breathe that hot, ancient air
I can still taste—and when the blood from his
nose erupted in two streams down his face and
into his crying mouth, I imagine he felt something
close to what I feel now. It unites us: our blood
boiling in our veins, followed immediately and
unsurprisingly by shame.
Josh Hutson was born in 1985 in rural Washington State and enlisted in the Marine Corps after high school in 2004. He completed two deployments in western Iraq between 2006 and 2008. From 2008 to 2012 he attended Norwich University in Vermont where he struggled with Post Traumatic Stress and began writing short essays and poetry about his childhood and deployment experiences. He recently left the Marine Corps and hopes to attend an MFA program in the future. Josh and his wife Nicole live in La Crosse, Wisconsin.