A review of Devon Miller Dugan's The Slow Salute
By Devon Miller Dugan
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 wanted to be doing./ 2. Halt. Three steps in front of the casket…At attention…” The poet has only written a few lines for this poem, the rest are “found lines” used in an original and effective way. There are many other places in the book where this approach is used to fine effect.
The Graves and Markers poem describes the creation of the almost identical stones and those decisions that families need to make about carving information or quotations of a personal nature. On Stacey’s marker we find that a line from a Raymond Carver poem “Beloved on the earth” was selected and chipped into the marble. We also find moving descriptions of visitors who cry over, or drink with, or converse with their departed relative or friend.
In “ANCHOR, GLOBE, & EAGLE” a few details of Sergeant Stacey’s death emerge, carried in symbolic language. “Who saw?/ His brothers./ His killer./ The fist of sun on bloodsoaked ground.” And in other poems we learn more details, brought out sparingly, that fill in the picture of the young soldier, his family, his fiancé and his devotion to a cause.
One of the strongest poems in the collection is, to me at least, “DOVER AIR FORCE BASE, 1ST/2ND FEBRUARY 2012”. Each line addresses those who have never been part of the solemnity of the arrival of a military person killed in action. “You will not have seen the waiting-center with its nursery…” “Will not have had the colonel who’s risen in the middle of a winter night drop to one knee in front of you and take your hands in his;” “Will not have watched the flag-dressed metal carry case lowered 40 feet and sent along the ramp;” Sixteen lines like this drive home the difference between the onlooker and the family that experiences every painful moment. And in the final lines of this poem we see the poet struggle with that difference. “We went to meet the body./ This is how they come home./ Reader forgive me.” And reader please forgive me for interjecting a personal memory into my review of Miller-Duggan’s fine book. In 1968, towards the end of my four years in the Air Force, I was assigned for six months to the funeral detail at our base in Florida. We were not of the caliber of the men and women assigned to Arlington. But every time we donned the dress-blues and boarded the bus to the funeral home, church or cemetery a solemnity took hold. We were young and foolish but we somehow knew that one of our brothers, either an old soldier from years past or a newly returned casualty of Vietnam, deserved a respectful and militarily exact service. We did our best at that job. Perhaps that is why The Slow Salute took me in so deeply.
Every poem in this book does more than express an elegiac tribute to Sergeant Stacey. These poems bring to light traditions that even dedicated pacifists can respect. The poems tell a story that deserves to be told. They are extremely well crafted. And they deliver an emotional impact without any pandering sentimentality. Read this one and you’ll be enriched.
James Bourey is an old poet who divides his time between the northern Adirondack Mountains and Dover, DE. His chapbook Silence, Interrupted was published in 2015 by the Broadkill River Press and won first place for poetry chapbook in the Delaware Press Association writing competition. His work has appeared in Mojave River Review, Stillwater Review, Blue Nib, Paddock Review, Broadkill Review and other journals and anthologies. He is also a regular contributor of book reviews for the Broadkill Review. He has been an adjudicator for Delaware Poetry Out Loud and can often be found reading aloud in dark rooms.