November 27, 2005
A "nation at war"?

The Bush Administration says we are a nation at war. And of course men and women are fighting and dying in our name in a faraway country. But "a nation at war"?

"For those who are fighting, and for their families, of course, there is a war," says poet Fred Marchant. "But all the rest of us go on about our business as if nothing has changed."

He's right: for most of us, even as the war creeps closer to our consciousness, it still seems distant as we drive to work, take out trash, do holiday shopping. We're not like the World War II homefront Americans who collected scrap metal and planted "victory gardens." Nor are we consumed with thinking and talking and arguing about the war as we were with Vietnam.

Marchant, who is a professor of English and director of the creative writing program at Suffolk University and is the author of Tipping Point; Full Moon Boat; and House on Water, House in Air, has spent much of his life thinking about war. In another time, another war, Marchant was a Marine. It was 1968 and, although he was not a supporter of the war in Vietnam, he was interested in writing about it. So, as he explains, "I gave myself an artistic exemption" and enlisted. Two years later, after we all learned about the massacre at My Lai, he knew he could not stay and he became possibly the first officer to be honorably discharged from the Marine Corps as a conscientious objector.

Now he and I meet over coffee and discuss our bewilderment at how detached Americans seem to be from events in Iraq. (Later, as I page through his books, lines from his poems weave themselves into my notes from our conversation: "The eyes of the many no longer here./ And the living eyes of friends who are.") While no one would want to return to the Vietnam-era days of rioting in the streets, the silence we both notice is eerie, what he describes as " a sense of hollowness, of emptiness."

And so every Wednesday at noon Marchant joins what he describes as "a handful" of Suffolk students, faculty, and staff members for a peace walk. They walk in silence around the university ‘s Beacon Hill. campus, carrying a banner that reads, "Suffolk University Peace Walk," stopping at several buildings to recite names of the fallen. (Another Marchant line:"War...disfigures everyone.")

"Aside from the memorial aspect," says Marchant, "it feels like a terrifically valuable thing to do, to walk through the city with our banner and integrate this into the life of the city at noontime. Invariably a stranger will pause and stand with us awhile. People smile, they say. ‘thank you,' they beep their horns and wave. One woman told us her son had been sent to Iraq that day. ("The cicadas sound like a cry for help, a plea for life,/a life I have just begun to love,/only more so.")

"It's not a big demonstration. It's not threatening to anyone. It's just a little reminder." ("The history that could not be changed,/ and locusts crying out everywhere.")

Marchant and I talk about those "support our troops" stickers slapped on gas guzzlers on every road and how simplistic slogans stop people from thinking and from talking meaningfully about the war. ("The commanding general said,/ 'Every man has a tipping point,/ a place where his principles give way.'")

We talk with anger, but, much more with sadness. ("A poetry of the day/after the peace has begun, when furies/ have been talked back into the earth.")

Ellen Steinbaum can be reached at You can see past City Type columns at

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future perfect

like untracked snow
the pages wait
the days aligned
in black and white
boxed like small gifts

the leisurely rounds of
full moons and crescents
turns of
equinox and solstice
weave through
the weft of months and seasons

we are past dancing
at the turning of the earth
past burning junipers
into holy incense
past bearing shaking sacrifices
to the altar
our eyes lifted toward the moon

still the primal rite
owns my heart
bereft of wand or chalice
for the risky passage
bare under the guardian stars
I clutch my private totems

I pause on the brink
the sacred pages whispering
through my fingers
like the breath
before the curtain rises

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©2004 Ellen Steinbaum

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The cover of my book, Afterwords, was designed by Kate Misail.
The painting on the cover of the book, which is also pictured on this page, is by Eric Sealine.

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