From Vietnam Veterans Against the War,

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Corn, Coal & Yellow Ribbons

By Susan Dixon (reviewer)

Corn, Coal & Yellow Ribbons: Poems
by Kevin Basl and Nathan Lewis
(Out of Step Press, 2021,

Corn, Coal & Yellow Ribbons begins with a question often asked of veterans: why did you join? Such questions often get glib answers, from both veterans and sociologists, but not here. By the end of this collection—eleven pithy, witty, bitter poems—Iraq War veterans Kevin Basl and Nathan Lewis have examined the question as asked to one particular population, taken the question apart, and shown us the complexity of its answer.

The two poets grew up in "Northeastern Rustbelt/Appalachia," Kevin in Pennsylvania coal country and Nathan on the shores of Lake Ontario in New York State. After leaving the Army, both became activists and artists, and both, in time, came to Trumansburg, New York, a small town outside of Ithaca, which is where I met them and grew to admire their work. They create art and music, write poetry, conduct workshops, and make "combat paper"from pulped military uniforms. Corn, Coal & Yellow Ribbons, a product of their press, is handmade and sewn by the poets, its guts are printed in nearby Lodi, its cover is combat paper that they made, and each copy is signed. These details are important because the poems are not ends in themselves. They and the process of fabricating the books make up a whole, each depending on the other for meaning-making. (Kevin's essay, "This Is Not A Military Uniform: An Essay About Combat Paper," which probes the links between creativity and meaning, is available online at

The poems provide glimpses of childhoods filled with everyday ironies and premonitions only recognized in hindsight. In "The Desert Storm," for example, Kevin celebrates his ninth birthday against the sounds of war and its patriotic commentary—

That night, a green blizzard on the tube:
Scuds, flashers, friendlies—
we learned it all from NBC.
Grandma, Grandpa, Mom & Dad
TV casualties, like the Big Game
had come two weeks early.
The US will win. US will win.
No, it won't take long. Won't take long.
Supporting our troops. Back after these messages—

We put the war on mute
I made a wish for something small, plastic
my candles into smoke
gave the anchor back his voice
and we all ate chocolate cake.

In "First Ambush Mission" Nathan helps with the family vegetable stand that "never turned a profit" in part because the good people coming from the three nearby churches "complained when sweet corn went up to $3/dozen." Nathan and his twin brother conduct an ambush mission to protect the crop, "Racoons standing in for guerillas." And then—

My wet sneakers squeaking on linoleum
Had my ears not been ringing
I would have heard
Desert Army Boots crunching gravel

In areas where opportunities are circumscribed and families can't turn a profit on hard work, young people are likely targets. "Anyone living in an impoverished area, rural or urban, will easily recognize the military recruiter's car as it lurks around the high school parking lot." These poems look at how military recruitment feeds on and is fed by communities struggling with racism, drug addiction, gun violence, and unemployment. That symbiosis becomes sinister in poems like Nathan's "Rust Belt Fed"—

The combine strips the corn from the fields,
the recruiter's van strips the youth
from our schools, churches
Like metal scrappers pulling wires and pipes
from a foreclosed home
Except this job gets done in broad daylight,
owners hold the door and help you load

In "Fortune," Kevin throws a magic 8 ball so hard it shatters the storm door of a trailer home, causing him to be grounded for the rest of the summer—

But what, on a breezy June afternoon,
will prompt that costly, fateful shot?
This: a simple question, slurred sideways
over the ball:
When I am done with school,
will I leave this wasteland behind?
You will shake it hard
much too hard
and the little white pyramid
will float up
through the purple inky fluid
to present its response:
my sources say no.

At the high schools where the young people have few chances to leave their wasteland behind, recruiters on their own mission ask "what are you going to do with your life?"

"What are you going to do with your life?"

These poems, born from conversations, creativity, and community, from uniforms made into paper, and from the land, simultaneously challenge the very idea of an "all-volunteer" army, and answer the question.

Susan Dixon is co-author with Vietnam veteran Mark M. Smith of Seeking Quan Am: A Dual Memoir of War and Vietnam

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