What does it mean for a soldier or marine to come home from war? What does it mean to live a life shaped by war? If anyone gives you an easy, simple answer to any of these questions, you’re simply not getting anywhere near the truth.
After more than a decade, journalists and Hollywood directors have perhaps gotten at some of the truths that America must know about itself after sending its military men and women into rotation after rotation of combat in Iraq and Afghanistan. Veterans have added their own strong voices to the conversation, but rarely do we see a veteran go off script, setting new boundaries and speaking in an authentic, irrepressible voice about the really hard stuff. The hard stuff, like what is happening in the dark, lonely corners of life after war, or when those who have been changed by war look at an America that is seemingly unchanged.
Michael Day is the veteran who goes off script to speak on these hard truths in his debut book,“I Am The Title“ (Front Porch History, 2013). In eloquent, compelling, and often devastating poetry and prose, Day transforms his experience as a veteran struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) into an emotional journey through these dark, lonely corners, as well as through the anger, frustration, and grief of readjusting to a home that can often seem morally intolerable. It is a short book, consisting of short pieces totaling 51 pages, but this is more than enough for Day to change how you think about life after war.
In Iraq, Day complied with boundaries, followed orders, and did all that he was asked as a Marine Corps mortar sergeant. But now at home and writing in New York City, Day does not comply, he does not respect boundaries. He makes you uncomfortable. He tells you what you do not want to hear. He brings you to a place where you must listen, and you must look at your own reflection. He dedicates his book to humanity, yet shows how humanity seems to turn a blind eye to what he and so many others are suffering through. We would do well to listen.
Both warrior and scholar, Day brings you on a journey of stories and raw emotions told in different voices, from different points of view, in rapid-fire columns of raw emotion, in eloquent, studied prose, in short letters of disillusionment delivered with a sometimes playful, puckish sense of humor. He is at times Whitmanesque, and this is Day’s song of himself–a lament, but also a celebration of the strength to persist and sing out these truths that he has found. “I Am The Title” is deeply sad, at times funny, but thoroughly beautiful, illuminating, and important to read in its entirety.
Day earned his master’s degree in social work from Columbia University, and has found himself on both ends of treatment, and this sort of juxtaposition is a continuous thread of reflection/opposition throughout the book. In “Social Worked,” Day cleverly analyzes a VA hospital social worker in the tone and style of clinical notes:
Writer met with social worker at bedside to assess and discuss general malaise with the Veterans Administration (VA) hospital system. Social worker presented as alert and oriented x’s three, but exhibited symptoms representative of Axis 1 disorder. Writer recommends that the medical team order a psychiatric evaluation.
Few of Day’s characters escape some form of mental disarray: a veteran struggling with cocaine in “The Drugs on War,” a young man who seeks to move past his psychiatric need for an array of prescription medications that look like Skittles, a father tormented by dreams of the son he lost in miscarriage. The lover of an artist lost to suicide recalls the artist’s haunting wisdom, one of Day’s key themes:
He eloquently moved through trapdoor thoughts and away from the front stage, favoring observation and theory from behind the curtain. I wish I saw what he knew.
Day looks behind the curtain throughout his book, and his characters serve to flesh out the grief, ache, and darkness that Day knows not just as a personal daily reality, but as a broader human struggle. Day further layers the personal struggles of his characters with the broader social injustices wrought by politics, poverty, prejudice, and crime. He rejects easy answers, particularly those offered up by religion. In “Faith Departed,” he offers God his resignation from faith, saying:
I have been to your brother’s hell and my brother’s hell and,
I have seen saviors selling your heaven on the corner of 125th and Morningside. In Basra I found you within the veils and in the distance between bullets around Mesopotamia. Yesterday I heard you between the lyrics of Marley and Cash…. I find you everywhere except where you claim to be.
Day delivers his most powerful truths by showing how disillusionment compounds personal trauma. In “This is wAR“, he lays bare the dark thoughts of a veteran submerged in crisis:
I am shackled to this War.
It will not allow me to
leave and I am afraid I am
going to die alone because
who is going to want to be
with me in
side my head…
He feels on one hand lonely and numb, yet on the other hand fearful and desperate for the pieces of his dissonant, fractured world to come together and make sense. He shows the isolation often felt by veterans who return from combat and feel out of sync with their daily routine at home, and the problem of suppressing that isolation:
the way we
live I hate the way I live
I can’t figure anything out
why is everything so
foreign to me
that is a horrible feeling
to have deep inside you
that only comes out when
someone provokes you or
you’ve had one too many…
These disparate, dissonant pieces do not come together in “I Am The Title.” In “Purple,” right-wing and left-wing political sound-bites blur in fast-talking, smooth lyrics, only to end in angry, frustrated irrelevance. In “Humanist Abomination – Juxtapositional Insurgency” (HAJI), Day recalls the terminology of warfare in Iraq–the slang term “haji”, improvised explosive devices (IEDs), and rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs)–and transforms them into instruments of beauty, sympathy, and humanity: improvised empathetic determination, rocket-propelled generosity. But these ruminations do not blot out the despair.
In “Punkdrose,” Day is lost on a drinking binge to the point where the pain and hopelessness he feels makes him want to transcend his physical being:
This shell needs to be cast aside in defiance and the world must see my truth…. Sleep well tonight because tomorrow you will take ownership of my thoughts. Town by town. city by City. Person by person. What was once elusive inquisitiveness will now be accessible and impossible to ignore. Collectively, this nation will feel and see and cry and struggle and squirm. This is my gift to us. No thank you necessary.
After his collapse at the bar, Day’s awakes:
A burly man looms above me, minimizing my stature to helplessness, and begins to ask foggy questions. The words and sentences are disjointed. Appear. Life. Suicide. 1.8. BAC. Family. A needle protrudes my vein and the scrambled words collect in structured coherent thoughts. “Are you thinking of taking your life,” asks the doctor. “Where,” I ask inquisitively.
Day shows beauty, swagger, and humor in the spaces between these dark, terrifying moments. And he also undeniably shows strength, bravery, and confidence, even in the midst of a dark and painful struggle. And we believe with him that it is indeed possible to transcend all of this. In “City Breath,” Day portrays his daily life as continuous and difficult cognitive dissonance. Yet he can sit on his fire escape and look out over Manhattan, waxing Whitmanesque and remembering that his struggles are the struggles of so many:
Mos Def resounds from my room into the valley of buildings, “Escucha la ciudad respirando.” I listen and I can feel it. I can feel the City breathing. From my fire escape, I hang my feet over the edge and listen to the sounds of The City. The lights of a police helicopter rest heavy against the few spots of darkness. If you squint your eyes… I mean just barely keep them open… it looks like the lights emanating from the projects are the nerves of the City. The lights become little synapses firing, connecting all the buildings to one another to create one massive electrical charge. The City hums with a cyclic rhythm, inhaling and exhaling.
Day’s writing is not what you want it to be. It is uncomfortable. It does not fit the script we are accustomed to hearing, and it may not be what we want to hear at all. But it is a work of tremendous integrity, both personal and artistic, that pares itself down to get at the bare, emotional truth. How do we loosen the shackles of war? We stop, we listen, and we learn from the truths that a vital voice like Michael Day offers us.