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All the Heat We Could Carry is a compelling, fierce, vivid, yet sometimes understated and curiously dry in tone, collection of poems by Charlie Bondhus, describing life as a gay soldier in Afghanistan. Bondhus cultivates a theme of heat: sustained, transferred, endured, enjoyed or suppressed, whether in the desert, the bedroom, the front porch, or the end of a pier. His decision to cloak volatile, profoundly disturbing content may seem counter-intuitive, but is actually dead-on, as this kind of material demands a kind of nonchalance. Otherwise it might feel manipulative and purple. Overblown. There is a quiet precision to Bondhus’ poems, like sealing something dangerous, despairing or grotesque in a glass jar.
In a calmly perverse turn, Bondhus compares the deconstructing of a gun to a boy’s natural sense of curiosity and awe in ”Rifle Cleaning.” A man’s boyish appreciation for the phenomenal is twisted into a fascination for weaponry. “First, disassemble /into the major groups: /upper, lower, bolt carrier./ Handle each piece like a young boy/ unpacking a box of seashells, striped rocks, pine cones ; / marvel at how something this metal / could be so breakable. Think about the body.” Consider how the poem gropes for definition in the line: “marvel at how something this metal”. It’s as if the narrator is searching for the dividing line between the hard organic substance of natural treasures, and the fabricated skin of steel. When he says, “Think about the body,” a transformation is implied. The mundane task of maintaining one’s tools becomes a reflection, a reverie on what it means to assume the role of warrior, with its contained or subjugated humanity.
In the poems describing the narrator’s connection to a lover (perhaps partner) we sometimes gather the partner is also a soldier. Not all of Bondhus’ poems raise this issue of shared experience, though it’s implied that two men who have seen warfare, and understand the other’s difficulties. In “July” he paints a wry tableau of domestic tranquility. Two men manifest spousal validity by enduring the heat, on a day when the more cautious have chosen to stay indoors: “No one else on their porch; / it’s hot, and everything sticks / to everything. Still we resist / spending this golden day – / the clearest of the year- / behind curtains./” Further down, the protagonist mentions how “The neighbors got used to us/ a long time ago, but sometimes kids, / the more observant ones, stare.” Like so many of the poems in All the Heat, “July” is cunning in its subdued rhetoric. Bondhus takes a very ordinary scenario, reading books and drinking ice tea in the summer sunshine, and turns it into quiet defiance. Rather than evoking a confrontational stance, the contact he explores between lovers (both men) is detailed, but not lurid. In “At the Grappling Tournament” he considers how fluidly conflict can change to consortium: “…searching out the trick spot/ where muscle and bone fail/ while I knotted my arms about your shoulders, / in the soft violence of an embrace.”
Much of All the Heat submerges us in the subdued atrocities of the battlefield. In “A Quiet Day in Kandahar” the narrator describes a card game in which they are killing time, using a deck featuring delectable naked ladies. Bondhus carefully places this situation in context, creating a rare moment of relief from the devastation, relatively innocent fun tainted by ghoulish humor and mortality they need to forget. A steppe eagle appears, “…gliding on a heavy breeze which rolls into camp/ and scatters the cards, / every which way / filling the air/ with a flurry of tits and ass./ ….Two civilian casualties, Mendoza snickers, / dumping his cards on the table.” In another blindingly subtle piece, Bondhus has evoked the sad, cruel instruments necessary to survival as a soldier, the distraction, cynicism and frozen emotion required to simply function, from day to day. Everyone’s future is subject to calm, arbitrary fate.
It is challenging to find the words to adequately praise All the Heat We Could Carry. Charlie Bondhus takes excruciating, sometimes nightmarish, sometimes melancholy ordeals and makes them accessible, by the meticulous use of restrained, pointed, focused language. He taps into extraordinary subject matter by refusing to shift gears into something frantic or tawdry. The protagonist might be stuffing another soldier’s corpse into a body bag, or gathering firewood in the back yard, or tussling naked, joyously, with his flawed yet perfect boyfriend. He draws us into these scenarios with sharp, intense, yet nuanced wisdom. He refuses to assign blame, yet none of us are off the hook. All the Heat We Could Carry is a truly remarkable collection.
All the Heat We Could Carry
by Charlie Bondhus
Main Street Rag
Paperback, 9781599484365, 72 pp.