There are so many ways in which a culture of violence is built and reinforced, and so many ways, direct and indirect, that we all become part of the aggression and its consequences,” writes Louise Aronson, in her essay “Necessary Violence.” Though it sounds like she may be referring to the culture of the military or law enforcement, she is talking about life as a medical doctor, and about the violence inflicted upon patients in order to save their lives. As this issue came together, her thoughts about a culture of violence continued to grow more resonant, until it seemed to me that every piece here was in some way speaking to aggression and its consequences. This is an exaggeration, of course; these twenty-three poems, stories, and essays have even more subjects than they do authors, have no single theme or message to convey. But it surprised me to see how frequently the shadow of war—to take one obvious example of a culture of violence—darkened the edges of these disparate writings. With the world always in the throes of some violence or other, it’s no wonder; whether we’re civilians or soldiers or doctors, we all become part of it. Born during the Vietnam War, finishing college at the start of the Gulf War, and then becoming a parent during the War on Terror, I’ve learned that being in a state of war doesn’t always have a clear beginning and end, and now it’s not even always clear where the war is actually happening and who’s fighting it. It’s not just in this magazine or in this moment in time that writers are contending with such themes; it’s always.
Even so, more than usual the themes of war and violence kept creeping into this issue, in the story that treats the subject of American soldiers in Iraq (Eric McMillan), of course, but also in a story about a family spending a year in Italy (Megan Staffel) and in a poem about an artist and a sacrificial goat (Paisley Rekdal). Other poems treat the Pulse Orlando shooting (Caroline M. Mar) and the internal violence of cancer (Tony Hoagland). “On Stendhal,” a work of literary criticism from the 1830s (Paul Bourget) presented here in translation, also turns to the subject of war and what Stendhal called “the daring pleasure of the military life.” “The pleasure consists,” he wrote (and Nancy O’Connor translates), “in . . . the certainty that what is happening is something terrible.” The theme of war comes back again in an essay about a 1950 film starring Ingrid Bergman stranded on the island of Stromboli. Here Laura Kolbe describes the ways in which individual fallibility “exists within and beside natural and global tragedy, which injects the unthinkable with thinkability.” Just as there are so many ways that the culture of violence is built and reinforced, there are many ways of injecting the unthinkable with thinkability, which is one of writers’ primary jobs. It’s also why I shouldn’t be surprised that the distant, or not-so-distant, rumblings of war are so often heard in these pages. What is more unthinkable, to the civilian, than war?
As the final note to this issue, the “Rediscovery,” we chose an excerpt from Fritz Kreisler’s Four Weeks in the Trenches. Kreisler’s description of his inculcation into military life in 1915 resonates uncannily with Aronson’s description of doctor training, the way it wears one down to the point that otherwise unthinkable acts are possible. In order to be a doctor, that is, in order to be able to cut into or puncture a stranger’s body in an attempt to save it, “I submerged my innate responses and bent my behavior to dominant norms.” Kreisler describes the extraordinary stress and fatigue of being on the firing line, and how normal responses dissolve. “You are eating a crust of bread, and a man is shot dead in the trench next to you. You look calmly at him for a moment, and then go on eating your bread. Why not? There is nothing to be done.” Can people resume “normal” responses when no longer faced with imminent danger, after growing into “shaggy, lean wolves, from the necessity of subsisting on next to nothing”? Though she’s writing not about war or doctoring or even any specific kind of violence, Stefany Anne Golberg offers, in her essay, the suggestion that maybe “the best way to hold onto one’s humanity was to voluntarily join the wolves for some time.” Kreisler, for one, went on to continue his career as a much beloved concert violinist, noted for the beauty and emotion of his playing. Golberg’s essay conveys no direct experience of violence and the culture thereof, and yet by nature of its place in this issue it joins the conversation and takes it in a new direction, making it even more apparent that even in everyday life, there’s plenty of danger and threat, both real and imagined.
The twenty-three pieces in this issue—twenty-four, counting the cover art— each stand alone even as they stand together; each is a world unto itself, asking its own questions, telling its own truth in its own way. They just happen to be standing next to each other right now, striking up a conversation, some more sociably than others. Alcohol and family, anxiety and art, grief and isolation—these themes also can be traced from one piece to the next. In the end there is no theme or overall message, no way to really classify one writer’s response in relation to another. But as Joshua Kryah’s poem suggests, “talked about / the day is less heavy and easier to carry.”