A review of Devon Miller Dugan's The Slow Salute


The Slow Salute

By Devon Miller Dugan

Lithic Press

$12

Poets are often called upon to “write and read something” at the funeral or celebration of life of a family member or friend. It’s a daunting assignment. Sometimes the poet is very close to the deceased and is overwhelmed by emotion which can lead to a gushing, overly sentimental and laudatory embarrassment. At other times the deceased is just a passing acquaintance and the poet is forced to deliver a vague and inappropriate tribute. Devon Miller-Duggan has created, in The Slow Salute, an elegiac collection of poems that avoid every trap this form can spring.

In fact, we are not exactly sure how the poet is connected to the deceased soldier she follows on his journey from civilian life to Arlington Cemetery, and I’m not sure that it matters. The author could be a curious citizen who happened to see a New York Times article about a soldier’s death, the return of his remains to the US and the subsequent events leading up to his burial. To this reader the poet seems to be a family friend, and she may have been invited to provide some support.

These poems are a tribute to Sgt. William Stacey who was a member of the US Marine Corps from 2006 to 2012 when he was killed by an IED in Afghanistan. In making this tribute Miller-Duggan explores the rituals attached to the burial of Stacey as his remains are moved from the war zone to the fields of Arlington. In making these observations she finds and shares, in intimate ways, the deepest human emotions of the bereaved family, friends and comrades. The poems are respectful and apolitical. In “THE PARTICULARS: GRAVES AND MARKERS” the poet writes “All over Arlington they rest/ our Honored Dead (please, let them rest…)” two lines that sound like a plea for quiet reflection and an escape from political turmoil.

The Slow Salute begins with a poem called PREPOSITIONS. It starts with the striking line “Out of the metal carry case, the Remains” and goes on to describe the steps used to prepare the soldier for burial. “On top of that, Dress Blues/Class As, laid out, exact” is the sixth line and “Over the uniform, the lid” is the eighth and final line. It is a stark poem and we realize that there may be only fragments of a once vital body or just a handful of ashes remaining for burial. This poem is just the first of eighteen equally strong pieces.

In the second poem, “TWENTY-THREE”, we learn Stacey’s age at the time of his death. We also learn a few details of his childhood and adolescence. Then the author jumps to “SPRING, SECTION 60, ARLINGTON NATIONAL CEMETERY”, a description of those hallowed grounds in the season of Stacey’s burial. Each detail of these two poems is essential and move the story forward. Read the poem aloud and hear this sixth stanza: “as we walk under the loud sky toward the place./ Light bears down. Ground breathes hard/through its pain” We get a real sense of the emotional intensity the place holds and how even a casual visitor is deeply and irrevocably affected.

There are five poems that begin “THE PARTICULARS…”. These pieces each describe a part of the ceremonial equipment and paraphernalia of an Arlington burial. “THE HORSES” “THE OLD GUARD” “CAISSONS” “CASKETS” and “GRAVES AND MARKERS”. Details, sometimes pulled from Marine Corps manuals, are rendered in poetry that brings beauty, dignity and emotion to their precise language. “Even used for urns. Some are false,/ containing cupboards in the back,/ built beautifully into the back,/ like aumbries in churches’ walls…” These lines from the caskets poem lead to a sacred metaphor and an ending where we learn that “Caskets/ are interred, but urns are inurned.” In “READING THE INSTRUCTIONS: HOW TO SALUTE A FALLEN SOLDIER” we find four steps from the manual interspersed with lines pulled from Stacey’s letter of farewell and instruction for his burial. “If you’re reading this letter…my time has come to an/ end…But…know that I died doing what I/ believed in…what I