Poetry tends to kindle emotion. At times, the feelings may be as basic as loving or hating the art form itself. But some sort of emotional response is likely the goal of all poetry. As Allen Ginsberg says in No Direction Home, Martin Scorsese’s new documentary on Bob Dylan, “Poetry is words that are emphasized that make your hair stand on end.”
Whether by that definition or simply from the standpoint of creating an emotional response, Mike Sharpe’s Thou Shalt Not Kill Unless Otherwise Instructed succeeds.
It is a book of poems and stories he began writing last December after hearing a graduate of a local high school had been killed in Iraq. It will undoubtedly elicit passionate comment and reaction because the work focuses largely, but not exclusively, on that war and how we got there.
The bookends of the poetry section of the book are the attack on the Twin Towers and the current labyrinth that is Iraq. Although humor occasionally makes an appearance, the bulk of the poems are told from standpoints that are painful but resonate with truth. The closing “stories” (more like musings, actually) are two somewhat sharp-witted takes on current political issues and a heart-wrenching tale of the death of a solider in Iraq.
In the opening poem, “The Twin Towers,” Sharpe expresses grief not only for the loss of the towers and the people in them but for how that tragedy led to “jihad against jihad” and how our remembrance of those losses has been “reduced to hubris and lies.” Another of Sharpe’s themes ponders what God must think of the current state of human affairs. For example, two pieces reflect conversations between Allah/God and bin Laden/Bush. The message is that the mere fact these (or other) men believe they are guided by their deity does not automatically mean they are in fact pursuing that deity’s goals.
Undoubtedly, the work will bring howls of complaint from the those who support the war and the Bush Administration and supportive cries from those who do not. It would be easy to simply pass Sharpe’s work off as protest in the guise of poetry. In fact, at a web site he established in connection with the book (Everybody for Peace), he admits he wrote the book “as a protest against the war.” Still, to cast it aside as on the basis alone is to ignore its content and meaning, and would be a disservice. In a postscript in the book, Sharpe explains some of his thought processes, and what was behind some of the more striking poems, to avoid confusion or misunderstanding. Moroever, both the poetry and prose display concern and care for the soldiers and noncombatants in our current state of war.
“It’s Hard” addresses the conflict and tragedy that faces a soldier who, confronted with an immediate decision, must shoot a boy, an old woman or a family in a car. “Elegy for American Soldiers Killed in Iraq” uses the names of various American casualties, sadly noting, “We need another wall on which to inscribe these names.” Sharpe’s writings about the meaning and effect of the deaths of soldiers on families border on gut-wrenching. Yet at the same time, “Support Our Troops” reflects a sad reality of what too often seems to constitute support in today’s society:
Support our troops by displaying bumper stickers
Support our troops by giving parties
Support our troops by going shopping
Support our troops by standing on the sidelines
Support our troops by keeping your mouth shut
Sharpe is not keeping his mouth shut. The anguish he expresses is in itself a manner of expressing support for our troops and their families. It is also an eloquent cry for our nation and world as they are again ravaged by the heartbreak and horror of war.