From Vietnam Veterans Against the War,

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Midnight Cargo

By Susan Dixon (reviewer)

Midnight Cargo: Stories & Poems
by Kevin Basl
(Illuminated Press, 2023)

I had been an anti-war activist in college, had settled into a sad grief about what the Vietnam War had done and meant, and through a combination of chance and apathy, had little experience hearing the stories of veterans. So when a two-tour infantryman gave me a large manuscript to edit, I had questions. Often, I turned to Vietnam veteran Jim Murphy, whose life we celebrate in this issue. I would email Jim, and he would respond with the date, time, and place of a bi-weekly breakfast gathering of veterans. I would show up, socialize, and sometimes be invited to ask my question. It was at one of these meetings that I met Kevin Basl, poet, author, artist, musician, Iraq veteran, and leader of the Ithaca Warrior Writers Workshop, which developed out of those conversations over eggs and coffee. I came to know and admire Kevin's work, wrote a review of his jointly-authored chapbook, Coal, Corn, and Yellow Ribbons (see Spring 2023 issue of The Veteran), and now hold in my hands his collection of stories and poems, Midnight Cargo.

And holding this volume is a pleasure. Midnight Cargo just feels good in the hand. Published by Illuminated Press in Trumansburg, New York, each copy is hand-sewn and numbered, its endpapers made from pulped military uniforms. One sees the stitching as the pages turn and then, at rhythmic intervals, the sturdy thread. Together with the stories and poems it holds, the book as an object becomes a metaphor for the physicality and immediacy of war.

As participant, witness, and interpreter, Kevin occupies the liminal space where cultures and intentions clash, things go wrong, nothing can be done, and the mundane meets the grotesque. He notices details and shapes them into words. He fills his stories with foreshadowings, some of which he leaves unresolved so that they echo in the reader's mind. What happened to the young men we now care about in "Occupations"? We want to know, we won't find out, and the tension of not knowing makes us feel the missed opportunities, unresolved misunderstandings, and helpless tragedy. Kevin's stories and poems resonate because they concern deeply human experience.

In the poems, Kevin plays with how the words are laid out. Word clusters and voids interlock. Lines are sometimes flush left, sometimes centered, sometimes undulating. In "God Mode," short lines are spread across the page, and the resulting lines are justified, which pulls the short lines apart, making them spasmodic and abrupt—a visual expression of the imagined thoughts of an unmanned military drone. "The Fog," an anguished poem about burn pits and breathing, explodes off the page, which folds down to accommodate it.

Two poems interlock in "The Agency's Mark." One comments on the painting "Horse Dance" by the Iraqi artist Faeq Hassan; the other on the CIA's role in promoting American modern art to demonstrate capitalism's positive effect on creativity. The CIA also promoted Arab artists within the United States, probably without the artists' awareness that "they were being used as content creators for the US government's culture war." Each commentary calls the other into question, and for me, trained as an art historian, the dialogue deftly undercuts any illusions about the non-political nature of art.

A rider sallies the frame:
CIA secretly funded
exhibitions in the USA

in white cloaking
in the 1950s and 60s
spotlighting Iraqi painters.
a mirage in the dust
Abstract expressionists like
Pollock, de Kooning, & Rothko
those flashes of flame
received agency funding too,
fashioning American culture
smoke on the wind
to counter the Soviets' promotion
of "socialist realism"—

The poem's last line—"The program, of course, supplemented /other—more belligerent—operations"—reverberates, the poem's imagery lingering in the mind so that the deathly world of weapons merges with the hushed, polite world of the museum.

"The Bugler," an often bitterly hilarious story about the funeral of a WWII veteran, explores the tension between what is said and what is left unsaid, who should hear—who can hear—what veterans have to say. Not all buglers, it seems, are trained in the instrument. They may be doing a form of lip-synching, playing a trumpet that has been fitted out with a miniature speaker, as happened at this funeral.

Afterward, the widow approached Jenkins. She leaned forward on her walker and, in a gentle voice, said, "You're a very talented musician."

Was she serious? She was. Jenkins could see it in those grandmotherly eyes. Her husband's flag, passably folded, sat in a basket attached to her walker. It would be mean to tell her the truth. Her husband just died. She could be deaf. Let her believe."

The deception, however, is later discovered by a friend of the deceased (himself a Vietnam veteran) who is not only amused but coaches the hapless bugler to try the trumpet for real. The story ends with a poignant invitation, one that is always available:

"Good," Dave said. "Give it another try—but really let it rip this time." Then he motioned to [a] couple, now intrigued by this impromptu music lesson, to come and see what the noise was about, to come learn the truth for themselves.

Midnight Cargo is a brave book, exploring territory often considered controversial: imagining a story from another's point of view. It is a risky venture, especially when he imagines the minds of Iraqis, for how can we, Americans, ever understand Iraqi reality? It is a legitimate concern that could also excuse an evasion of responsibility. "The Red Keffiyeh," which opens the collection, expresses Kevin's taking that responsibility:

I took out the scarf and put it on,
surprised at how the checkered fabric had frayed,
gazed in the mirror at my weary face
and, still gazing, went on to
consider sadly
its beauty and how old the boy now would be …

To those who would say how dare we try to imagine the reality of lives that differ from our own, this collection replies, how dare we not? How dare we enter the country of war without even attempting to understand its terrain? How dare we think of war only in terms of grand absolutes—including those in opposition—and not as the stories of people whose lives war so profoundly affects.

Purchase a copy of Midnight Cargo at

Susan Dixon is co-author with Vietnam veteran Mark M. Smith of Seeking Quan Am: A Dual Memoir of War and Vietnam.

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