Back of the Envelope by Greg McBride
Back of the Envelope
Back of the Envelope is a chapbook of 24 poems that fold a man’s life into itself. From childhood to the Vietnam War to life in the family kitchen, Greg McBride writes out his life on the back of an envelope. And there is an abundance of experience to write down. McBride examines the migrations of his military family: Yokohama during the Occupation, on the road in the backseat of a ’48 Plymouth, Texas, Okinawa, Oregon. The child is always growing up, growing up. He plays sports, gets hints of sex, and makes love.
And then, there’s Vietnam.
In Saigon, the poet sees the stars over “the street and the girls too young in the night.” He is an Army photographer, “safe/behind his camera,” entering the intimacy of the operating room. And there’s an eerie practicality, which of course is what helps a guy survive in those circumstances. In “The Army Thought of Everything” he writes:
I focused my lens, asked that the surgeon
lower a shoulder, checked on the color
temperature, all to preserve the distance
between them and me. How their bodies heaved
under machines! Intubated, chest-tubed,
they lay tethered to possibilities
of unbridled breath.
The memory of war does not go away with time. At LaGuardia Airport, the poet’s iPod idle, he sees new
Their strident left right left so like
the Huey rotor’s chop and chop hammering
at our bones, unlike our trudging gait
into the Delta, taking fire, hauling gear
high on our backs.
These evocative poems go between the “I” and the “He.” But there is never any doubt who is speaking. In “Kitchen Duty” a man has to inject a woman, using a syringe that turns into a bayonet. This is what war does to the mind. And Greg McBride has touchingly exposed the marriage of reality and memory in this fine chapbook.
Reviewed by Anne Harding Woodworth.
Poets’ Quarterly | October 2009.