Battle Lines is the second collection of poems by the Erie, Pennsylvania resident Matthew Borczon. He was a nurse and Navy sailor at Camp Bastian during 2010-2011, which at the time, was the busiest combat hospital in Afghanistan. Upon his return to the United States, Borczon was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in 2012 and started writing as a form of therapy. In a recent interview with BM, which follows this review, he explains, “I was unable to talk about the war and a therapist said I needed to get my story out somehow.” But as Borczon has painfully discovered, the writing hasn’t made the ghosts of his nightmares to go away.
There are 40 short poems in the collection. The language is understated and carved to the bone. There are typically only two words in each line and the words cascade down the page, similar in form to the late outlaw poet Todd Moore. The poems tightly compress Borczon’s most recent reflections into his post-war condition but he also includes the narratives of others he has heard about from a string of wars, including Afghanistan, Iraq, Vietnam and World War I.
Borczon says of the title, Battle Lines, “There was some discussion about what it meant and was it a fitting title? I used it as a way of saying that for some of us the war is not over, not just me but I know Viet Nam vets who still have a lot of trouble and I can say honestly I do not know of anyone who comes through a war and is the same after.”
Although Borczon was not a front-line combatant, his role as an emergency trauma nurse, would have brutally exposed him to death and dying on a daily basis. The collection does not explore his role as a medic, but rather focuses on his return home to America and how he has struggled since to make sense of it all. We experience his nightmares, his panic attacks, the resentment some people express towards him in the community, we sit beside him at group therapy, enter his workplace- & along the way, we come to better understand why he needs a drink or a smoke, and most importantly, how he has become estranged from his family.
Borczon subtly incorporates his thoughts and impressions onto the page and his use of stark, realistic imagery and language adds authenticity to his writing. In some key poems, we are able to join the dots to help us better understand his sense of hopelessness and disintegration. In “Brian emailed” he explains to his friend about the presence of his online poetry: "I am/ just trying/ to make/ sense out/ of everything/ we saw". In “the inmate”, the prisoner, an ex-soldier, discovers that his new cell number is the same as the squad number he has tattooed on his forearm. Borczon, working as a prison nurse, is asked if he thought this “meant something.” He replies:
I no longer
In “like war” Borczon admits that he “knew what to expect” but didn’t think he’d “come back… in pieces”:
(reprinted with the permission of the author)
Some of Borczon’s best work are the terse, imagist micro-poems such as “in the”, “Kevlar chest”, “I once” and “helicopters” which further hint at the terrifying and unrelenting ghosts embodied in his imagination.
Borczon’s writing is perhaps most compassionate when he describes the impact of the war on his own family. In a series of poems, “when I", “my mother”, “my wife”, and “for Dana”, he represents how his deployment in the Afghani War has smashed to pieces his pre-war identity and how the casualties of war are not only those who served, but also their loved ones- the children, partners and parents. In “for Dana” the reader feels a pulse of humanity, long suppressed by Borczon in the careful, deadpan delivery of his poems. The broken, hollow man temporarily stirs & perhaps even sheds a tear:
(reprinted with the permission of the author)
About 15 of the poems in the collection are third person portrait poems which provide snap-shots into the post-war lives of veterans, in particular, how they are psychologically maimed as a result of their war experiences. The most disturbing amongst these poems is “his neighbour” in which a bunkered down vet decides to kill a vexatious neighbour, but impulsively shoots himself through the head instead.
Also memorable is “Randy repaired” about an Iraqi war vet who used to fix bicycles for the local children, but “now he/ can’t get/ through a/ night without/ a bottle/ of tequila/ and a/ machete.” The poem “Gary’s been” furthers the idea of dislocation and paranoia. Even after being back from Iraq for 8 years, he “still/ won’t pull/ right up/ behind a/ strange car/ at stoplights.” “Andi Got” succinctly expresses the numbness, the sense of death that many veterans feel. He orders a farming magazine from England and wryly says,
In "they were" before a physical induction, Frank drops a stack of weights onto a guy’s foot so he can avoid serving in Viet Nam. Each of these poems adds to our understanding of the grievous impact war has on everyone involved. We never find heroes in this collection, only victims- who are traumatised for life.
The book’s jacket was designed by Richard Robert Hansen publisher of poems-for-all. It is sepia coloured photograph and adjoins the front and back covers. It features a column of American soldiers rushing to board what appears to be a Blackhawk helicopter, which is blurred in the distance. The difficulty of establishing the time and place of the photo is deliberate, and perhaps Hansen is universalising the traumatic impact that all wars have on those who bravely serve as represented by Borczon’s work.
This is an outstanding but short collection of poems by a writer who has survived a war but who is perilously clinging on. Asked this morning about how his head was now, Borczon vulnerably replied: “I think I have given up on the idea that I can ever really get better, I hope to get better at living with all of this. My symptoms come and go, lately it has been extreme anxiety, and panic but some days it is other things as well. I still have nightmares pretty much every week, but I am better at processing them and just kind of moving on after they happen though. I do the best I can, I still have a job and the wife has not left me yet and my kids are all healthy and happy so I do not feel like I have a lot to complain about.”
BIO: Matthew Borczon is a nurse and Navy sailor. He has written two books of poetry, A Clock of Human Bones from the yellow chair review press and Battle Lines from Epic Rites. This summer he will release Ghost Train through Weasel Press and Sleepless Nights and Ghost Soldiers from Grey Borders Press. He has four children three jobs and still manages to find time to write and publishes often in the small press.
Find out more about the book and purchase it here: http://www.epicrites.org/rumors-and-rumblings-of-war/battle-lines or here: http://www.epicrites.org/pre-order.html
Can you explain why you started writing about your war experiences in Afghanistan?
I started writing as a form of personal therapy, I was unable to talk about the war and a therapist said I needed to get my story out somehow. I had written poetry a lot as a young man and it just sort of came out that way.
I have a friend who quit nursing after facing the trauma one night of a carload of critically injured teenagers in a small regional emergency ward. You've seen a lot of shit. How were you able to grind it out overseas for those two years?
The job is just the job. There was no other choice, probably why it is so hard now. At the time you suppress how unreal and bloody it is. Hell, we even laughed at it at the time. The hours were long but it is what you signed on to do so you do what they ask. I remember wondering if I should not be bothered by how normal it all felt at the time. It really was only after that it started to affect me.
You were trained for the job and knew what to expect. When did it all start unravelling for you? Was it a specific or a culmination of events.
Some people close to me say I was different the minute I got off the plane, but it was only a couple of months before even my wife was saying I needed to figure out what was wrong with me. I do not think it was one thing though. The nightmares started right away so that was my first clue.
Can you briefly explain how your diagnosis of PTSD was determined in 2012? What medical benefits did that diagnosis allow you to access?
I was referred to the va by a counselor I was seeing, the VA system has a group of evaluations and tests to help them determine the diagnosis. I am currently 70% disabled, this money made it possible to trade down to an easier nursing job. I had been a prison nurse and the job was brutal, long hours and there was real danger in it at times, which my therapist thought was really unhealthy for me.
When you returned home, how had you changed and how had others, including family and friends perceived you differently?
I was anxious, depressed and angry all the time. I isolated and drank way too much and then there were a lot of unhealthy thoughts about whether or not I still wanted to be alive.
Wolf Carstens of Epic Rites Press is a huge fan of your first book of poetry, A Clock Of Human Bones. What was the process like in getting Battle Lines into print?
I am a huge fan of Wolfs writing and after he read A Clock of Human Bones he sent me some of his books to read. I did not have another book to send him so I just made a small chap book on my computer then sent that to him. I called it my fictitious chap book. After he read it he said he wanted to put it out. After that it all moved really quick, he has a ton of good energy and he brings it all to his projects. I really enjoy working with him.
In Battle Lines, why did you decide to include a separate page to provide "a full definition of battle line"?
There was some discussion about what it meant and was it a fitting title. I used it as a way of saying that for some of us the war is not over, not just me but I know Viet Nam vets who still have a lot of trouble and I can say honestly I do not know of anyone who comes through a war and is the same after. Not that I have met anyway.
How is your head now? (Are you still experiencing nightmares? Flashbacks? Panic Attacks?) What has helped you in putting some of the pieces back together again?
I think I have given up on the idea that I can ever really get better, I hope to get better at living with all of this. My symptoms come and go, lately it has been extreme anxiety, and panic but some days it is other things as well. I still have nightmares pretty much every week, but I am better at processing them and just kind of moving on after they happen though. I do the best I can, I still have a job and the wife has not left me yet and my kids are all healthy and happy so I do not feel like I have a lot to complain about.
Who are some of your literary influences in writing of your books and who are you reading now?
I love the writing of Wolf Carstens and John Yamrus, I also love a lot of the small press writers. Jason Baldinger is a Pittsburgh favorite. For larger literary types I loved CK Williams and Jim Carroll had a special place in my early writing life. I enjoy Bukowski, like everyone else. I am currently reading a whole lot of small press poetry from folks like Sarah Francis Moran and Rusty Barnes.
How do you presently juggle your professional work with that of an aspiring writer?
The writing is easy and I usually do it in my car waiting to take my kids to school. The poems are always there just like the nightmares. The working on my career such as it is takes a lot more time. I submit a whole lot and I am always somewhere into the next book idea. I work as a practical nurse for a social service agency so I am pretty busy in my work life that is probably why it is mostly poetry, no time to write fiction. Though I have published 4 short stories in 2016.
What do you have in mind for your next project?
I just agreed to put out a chap book with Grey Boarders press from Canada, they are interested in maybe putting out my first full collection of poetry sometime in 2018. I also have a chap book coming in June from Weasel press called Ghost Train. There is also another manuscript shopping around now, but that one has nothing to do with the war. I try to not only write about my PTSD, though it is hard to get away from.
Selected Online Poems
If you haven’t read Matthew Borczon’s poetry before, the following five poems will provide you with a taste:
“what i did in the war” (Chicken and Coffee): http://www.friedchickenandcoffee.com/2015/12/12/what-i-did-in-the-war-poem-by-matt-borczon/
“Finished” and “What we never talk about” (Drunk In A Midnight Choir): https://drunkinamidnightchoir.com/2016/04/26/two-poems-matt-borczon/
“Sitting In The Dark” (Your One Phone Call): https://youronephonecall.wordpress.com/2016/11/01/sitting-in-the-dark-by-matthew-borczon/
“VA Appointment” (Your One Phone Call): https://youronephonecall.wordpress.com/2017/01/01/va-appointment-by-matthew-borczon/
Poets Underground Presents Matthew Borczon: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y7WLwuELZ1U