The Warrior: A Mother's Story of a Son at War
Were Frances Richey's collection of poems, The Warrior, written in the style of the Iliad, it would no doubt begin like this: "Sing, o Muse of your son the Green Beret/ the child you once knew so well/ now metamorphosed into an American warrior/ waging an epic battle in the sands of Iraq." Instead, this subtle and sublime collection begins with "The Aztec Empire," a poem that harks back to warrior culture and contains the haunting lines: "Before he was a warrior, he was a boy;/ before he drank blood, he drank milk."
The bloody battlefields of the war in Troy pale in comparison to the IED-laden streets of the war in Iraq. Nevertheless, Richey's poems immediately draw connections between 21st-century warfare and that of the ancient world, specifically in reference to the transformation of homegrown young men into efficient killing machines. This theme of military mechanization is one we've often seen before, but Richey takes it a step further. While The Warrior roots itself in ancient myths of medieval soldiers such as Krishna, brutal Aztec combatants, or Achilles in league with the Greeks, it focuses its attention on the emotions of the mothers who see their sons off to fights from which they might never return.
As much as these poems are about Richey's son--his training, his deployment, his correspondence from the battlefield, his visits back home, his eventual redeployment--they are more about the writer herself. If her son is cast in the role of Achilles, then she is Thetis, the mother powerless to stop the motions of a war organized by higher powers but desperate for someone to watch over her child (a poem titled "Thetis" makes this connection clear).
You get the sense that the act of remembering life with her son--eating dinner with him, helping him move to Colorado Springs, putting him in time-out in a chair when he was 2--will never be the same for Richey. Everything is now a harbinger for his transformation into the soldier that he now is. Memories have lost their innocence because they all eventually lead to where her son is now: physically and emotionally distant from her.
Toward the end of the collection, in the poem "Four Fragments From the Hall of the Madonnas," Richey makes the perhaps inevitable comparison of her situation to that of the Virgin Mary's. Yet with an emotional frankness that runs throughout these poems, she calls attention to the fact that glorious notions of sacrificing our sons for a greater good work well in myth--just not when it's your own flesh and blood out there on the front lines. "It is, I suppose, a glorious story," she writes about Mary mourning over a crucified Christ. "As long as it's her son."