On the Wings of Whispers: A Review of Gail Hosking’s RETRIEVAL

Gail Hosking’s newest book–Retrieval–is, as she says in one of the poems, “a requiem that refuses to end.” Told by an editor that Viet Nam is passé, Hosking refused to be silent, ultimately producing this bloody rose of a book, fragrant with gunpowder and grief, thorny with loss and love. In its pages, the victims of ViệtNam’s war, the dead and the surviving alike, take shape and speak, to each other…to her.

It isn’t only the men of the war who speak. Hosking will remind us more than once that women too suffered from this forgotten war. One of my favorite poems, “Madame Thi Speaks,” articulates the lonely grieving of “young sincere girl,” who in her loss of her “Dear Lover” burns “paper objects,” burns them in a fire for his “afterlife.” She who is “invisible/in books…never forget[s].” And through Hosking’s meticulously detailed collection, we remember, as well.

This was, for me–a long-ago resident of old Saigon, daughter of one of the early, infamous “police advisors” to ViệtNam–a poignant book to read and review. By today’s standards, the ViệtNam war is an old conflict. So much has happened since Johnson and Nixon poured millions of dollars into a country not even half the size of Texas. Panama, the Gulf War, Kosovo, Bosnia…9/11, Afghanistan, the Iraq War…Syria. A pandemic.

But war was, is, and will probably continue to be an everyday part of American life. And despite the time since the ViệtNam conflict, Hosking’s poems resonate like newly struck bells, ringing clear and true 50 years later. The poem “He Says War Again” underscores the ubiquity of armed conflict: “Soon helicopters will again/swoop up the wounded and dead, tracers/and bombs, machine guns and bodies–/you’ve seen it in the movies–another battle/never completely resolved.” It could be any of a dozen American “engagements,” peopled by the ghosts Hosking evokes so vividly, the ghosts who “guard the breeze.”

In another poem–“On the Bus to Da Nang”–Hosking contrasts a former soldier (a fellow traveler on her pilgrimage to ViệtNam) with “a woman older/ than [the] memory” of Hosking’s old childhood forts, which mirror, in turn, the bombed-out foundation of an old American military building: “her clothes the same/black pajamas my father wore sitting on the floor/in southern Illinois.” Deft juxtapositions of now with then echo Hosking’s own swings between times and places. “Split Frame” pairs her uncle putting on his coat for work, and his drive with Hosking to the train station, with “a frame of tiger-striped soldiers waiting/on the runway, their rucksacks and weapons/ready for the long flight ahead.” There is an inevitability to her poems that is as final as the loss of her father. Or the ongoing nature of war.

Yesterday’s ideological divisions, outlined in various poems, predict today’s similar polarities: “The factions/of a nation alive, rendered from each other/like fat from soup. Everywhere I look/the world divided, a double feature showing/simultaneously in the same theater.” Shades of most social media these days, not to mention family arguments. Hosking’s keen insistence that ALL wars matter, that the soundtrack Marvin Gaye lays down for the ViệtNam War era remains evocative (and relevant) decades later, underscores the various conflicts of our own troubled times.  Her poem “What’s Going On?” links her mother’s wait for a husband who will never return to the burning of Detroit to the griefs of so many families shattered by loss, even now. All scored to Marvin Gaye’s timeless lyrics and melodies.

As a scholar of war literature–often focusing on the too-ignored poetry coming out of the ViệtNam conflict–I have bemoaned the dearth of poetry by women, who were also victims of that bloody mess. Not only the dead–almost 11,000 ViệtNamese women, or the almost 10,000 American women who wore uniforms–but also the wives of the lost, the MIA, the maimed, the PTSD sufferers. The women who grew up without fathers, the mothers whose sons never returned. More than 58,000 American men died or were “lost”–MIA–in ViệtNam. Each one was (and often still is, as Hosking helps us remember) a loss to those who knew and loved him. What Hosking’s beautifully tragic, tragically horrific postmortem of her own anguish reveals is the visceral engagement of women with war, on all its levels.

Despite her disinterment of bodies, her eviscerating griefs, her bitter anger and hard-edged memories, Hosking retains absolute control of each line, each stanza. One of the (many) elegantly crafted poems in Retrieval is the pantoum “Situated at the Limen,” my very favorite of her collection. It’s not as transparent as other poems in the book, nor is it as overtly war-based. And yet, close rereading reveals the “silence of emptiness,” the “treasure” left behind…where? The repetition of “emptiness” in half the eight stanzas, with “disappearing” also repeated, and the culminating image of “everything known/becomes everything lost, nothing imagined before,” leaves us–like Hosking–a resident of a liminal space, existing in the “narrow place” of waiting, waiting for transformation.

Full disclosure: I am slightly obsessed with war, having grown up in a war zone, having lived in war zones. As the daughter of a lifer veteran, the sister of another, and the wife of a Marine deployed to the DMZ around the Tết offensive, war is part of my life. So I may be predisposed to love Hosking’s book.

But that’s not the only–or even the largest reason–I find it so compelling. Hosking leaves us, at the close of her book, with a grace note of a lyric poem, “Sometimes.” In it, she lists the ways in which love manifests: “like a wind I can barely hear”; “in the form of milk gravy on my toast”; the gift of a typewriter sent by my father/from a navy ship in the middle of the South China Sea”; “a prayer I offer/my sons as they grow into men.” And sometimes, she leaves us thinking, “love is the surprise of my mother’s whispers/long after she’s gone: fly, Honey, fly.

On the wings of Hosking’s requiem, sung sometimes in whispers, we do just that.

Gail Hosking was born on an army base and spent her childhood as a military brat. Her award-winning essays and poems have appeared in numerous journals, and several of her pieces have been anthologized. She also has a memoir and a chapbook. She lives in Rochester, New York.

Britton Gildersleeve’s creative nonfiction and poetry have appeared in NimrodSpoon River Poetry Review, This Land, and many other journals. She has published three chapbooks and was the director of the Oklahoma State University Writing Project for twelve years.

Retrieval, by Gail Hosking. Charlotte, NC: Main Street Rag, 2020.

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