Book Review: Christopher Pascale’s “War Poems”

In the foreword of Christopher Pascale’s War Poems: A Marine’s Tour 2003-2008, the poet explains his motivations for joining the Marine Corps, citing a list of sixteen goals set before him and the two that jumped out at him: “self-discipline” and “leadership and management skills.” I imagined myself in Pascale’s place, knowing that he was around my age at the time he enlisted. A few different words spoke to me, like “courage,” “travel and adventure,” and “educational opportunity.”

war poems

In another life, I could’ve followed Pascale’s path. I was certainly surrounded by military influence for the majority of my life. I grew up in Annapolis, Maryland, neighbor to the same Naval Academy my dad graduated from in 1988. In my immediate family (including my dad, four uncles, aunt, grandfather, great-grandfather, great uncles, and cousins) the Cooks have served a combined 196 years in the military. It goes beyond blood as well; my stepfather also served eight years in the Marines, and my family sponsored a plebe, Marjorie, who became a pseudo big sister to me. I heard stories of her travels in Japan and beyond and watched her with wide eyes. So while I have had many military connections in my life, they have always lay on the periphery. I have never trained under others, or been sent off to defend my country. Pascale’s poetry immersed me in that world, bringing it into focus with loud, sharp clarity.

Pascale is unafraid of adopting a certain self-awareness in his poetry, at times editorializing as he writes and creating a sense that some words are scrawled down freely and others are added after Pascale has set the pen down and absorbed the effect of his work. His very first poem, “The End of Summer” begins, “driving the streets drunk/ in a truck like you’re/ on some racetrack/ while you think and /those thoughts drown” is followed by the line: “you pull into a place/ to sit down and gather/ yourself; always remembering/ to never start a poem/ with some bullshit action sentence.” It creates a feeling of twin speakers, Pascale the protagonist and Pascale the poet. Likewise, with the second person narration he is able to talk to himself while simultaneously placing his readers into his poetry. It is a laudable choice for his introductory work, using the “you” in the singular as a look backward to a man just entering his twenties, as well as a “you” written in the collective sense, inviting his readers in.

The first section details Pascale’s last summer prior to enlistment and bursts with frustration. Some points inward (“you moved/ back home and fell/ apart, throwing your second/ novel and three books of poems/ in the trash”) and some outward: at drunk women in dark club corners, aimless math professors abandoning poetic ambition, and middle-aged men he briefly feared he might become, bearing “MBAs/ and upside down mortgages/ like shoemakers with bare feet.”

The subsequent section dives into the kind of pity one can only muster when ruminating in the depths of a break-up. Young Pascale tries to make light of the dissolution of his relationship, but a sadness seeps through, tinged with anger. His diction and humor are unique to him, yet I found it almost haunting how his poem titled “Chanelle” ended with a crushing “And I think of you/ But you’re not thinking of me.” The sentiment nearly mirrored a poem I wrote when I was 20, on a rare sunny day in winter: “It smelled like spring today/ and sounded like May/ I thought of you/ but you’re not returning the favor.” Ironically, the loss we feel at the end of a relationship, especially when we’re young, is as universal a feeling as they come. It is this human quality in the author’s work which makes his poetry all the more engaging.

Further in lies one of my favorite poems in Pascale’s collection. The poem is a fictitious work titled “Camping with Dad,” that the author was inspired to write based on the nightmares of fellow veterans. In it the speaker, who is on a camping trip, is shaken awake in the middle of the night by a father who no longer recognizes him. The perspective shifts then to son imagining the life of his father, a war veteran, who is caught between the past and the present and horrified by both. It is simultaneously visceral and innocent.

Even before Pascale begins directly addressing his time in the Marine Corps, he does not shy away from crude language and vulgar imagery. He has no interest in glossing over the dirtier parts of his life; if anything, he amplifies the dirt, shoveling it up into the clean air. There is a bluntness to his work, not just in his diction but in the rhythm of his line breaks as well, that reads like an elbow to the ribs. Pascale is not interested in “nice” poetry. If you’re looking for flowery words and comforting metaphors I would suggest going elsewhere. Poems like that are better suited for nature-filled monologues by Robert Frost. Pascale is his own poet: depressive thoughts, crying jags, rage, and all.

Pascale also explores his lack of confidence and his path towards building himself up into a more resilient man. In “Conversations With Scott Goodman,” Pascale recounts being sucked into a bog while on duty, caught beneath a sweltering sun. He turns to Scott Goodman, the father of the woman he dated in high school and someone he has mentally turned to time and again since he was a guileless fifteen-year-old:

And today, as the Sun
 scorched my boots and blouse,
 drying them within
 ten minutes of me falling
 into a stagnant bog, I
told him that I didn’t know if I could make it.
Help me, I said,
I need you.
And he said,
you don’t need me.
Everything you need is 
already inside of you. 
Now take yourself home. 
And I did.

Pascale captures the forced push towards adulthood, especially in the face of military duty. Becoming a realized adult often comes from a combination of outward and inward influences, but it is ultimately a lonely accomplishment. Scott Goodman is referenced as offering words of encouragement through divine intervention, but it is Pascale alone who pulls himself out.

In giving an honest review, I would like to offer some brief criticism. The trouble with poetry, more so than with novels, is that it is a medium which is extremely subjective. Pascale writes most of his poems with a sharp edge, and it would be foolish to say that he is not trying to provoke a strong reaction from his audience. Personally, I would be remiss if I did not address questionable overtones that I picked up on, especially in earlier poems. There seems to be an un-bottled anger towards women who have hurt him (“Love Lost”) and a power over women the speaker would like to conquer (“The Champ”).

The majority of his work is absent of this kind of rhetoric, which leads me to believe that these moments that perturbed me were simply 1) a commentary on the misguided anger of young men in general or 2) a reflection on a phase in his life he grew away from. And this is not to say that he does not represent the female voice well; in “June in Kuwait,” he writes of the grief of a mother who has had her son ripped away from her, and it is rife with empathy. Every mention of his wife is engulfed with love and, at times, apology. I am an optimist as much as I am a feminist, so I am willing to give Pascale the benefit of the doubt in regards to certain sections of his book. However, I would be doing my readers a disservice if I failed to mention my feelings on the subject altogether, as complex as those feelings may be. In any case, I am probably not his preferred audience.

I would like to end this review by praising an interesting through line in Pascale’s book: his continued efforts to get his work published. The fact that I was even reading his work affirmed that his efforts paid off. There is a latent victory in watching an author contribute in self-flagellation over and over again, knowing that they succeeded purely because their work is in your hands. As a writer in my own right, it felt like a shared pride, an assurance that I can publish my work one day too.

Overall, I was incredibly impressed by Pascale’s work and grateful for the opportunity to review War Poems: A Marine’s Tour 2003-2008. I believe he has a promising career ahead of him and I would be interested to read any future poems he may publish. I would recommend this book for anyone who has served in the military, those interested in the life of veterans, or any lover of poetry with bite, wit, and captivating imagery.

📚: ★★★✰✰

You can find Pascale’s book on Lulu, Amazon, Barnes and Noble.

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