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poetry War Alphabet

What is war? Jill McDonough’s alphabetical poem evolves from World War I’s soldier-oriented them vs. us to the hidden terrors of today’s warfare: CIA, NSA, Black Ops, ETC.

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War Alphabet

By Jill McDonough

Alphabet de la Guerre is a picture book from Brussels, Pour
les Grands et les Petits.
No date, just WWI. We still think this
is what war is: canteens, broad shoulders, helmets
shining. Boots, so much barbed wire. A is for Aviation. B,
Barbelés, scene of concertina wire. C is for Canon; D, Drapeau.
The pictured men are carved from wood. Tired, hulking, hefting
shells, kissing the red fringe of a flag. E: Elisabeth, a sister
of mercy, tenderly tending a jaundiced bandaged man. G
for Grenadiers, a helmeted soldier lobbing one toward
red flames, smoke, a barricade. H is for Héros: one
grim man handing a medal to another. Pink cheeks, half
blinded by bandage, his mouth too uncertain to be O.
Incendie: a line of refugee faces, babies, hands crowding
the frame from a ruined village, flickers of smoke, of flame.
L: Lance-Flammes, a gas-masked figure's new
flamethrower, boxy and mean. The freshest tech they had
then, out there shooting, saving lives. We still recognize Tank,
Union, Waggonet full of shells. But now we're all alphabet:
NSA, CIA, V for the failed VA. P is for Private Contractors,
for Predator, B for Black Ops, Black Sites. G for Guantanamo,
A for Abu Ghraib, R for Ravens, for Reapers, our remote
control avatars, hovering far from our American home.

Jill McDonough’s books of poems include Habeas Corpus (Salt, 2008), Where You Live (Salt, 2012), and Reaper (Alice James, 2017). The recipient of three Pushcart prizes and fellowships from the Lannan Foundation, NEA, NYPL, FAWC, and Stanford, her work appears in Slate, The Threepenny Review, and Best American Poetry.  She teaches in the MFA program at UMass-Boston and directs 24PearlStreet, the Fine Arts Work Center online. Her fifth poetry collection, Here All Night, is forthcoming from Alice James Books.