Review of Kim Rosenfield's USO: I'LL BE SEEING YOU

USO: I’ll Be Seeing You
Kim Rosenfield. Ugly Duckling Presse, $16.00 Smyth-sewn (128 pp) ISBN: 978-1-937027-06-3

The stated mission of the United Service Organizations is “to lift the spirits of America’s troops and their families.” Kim Rosenfield’s book of poems, scripts, lyrics and sketches probe the realities of Supporting Our Troops—which almost all U.S. citizens do in some way.

The weight of USO: I’ll Be Seeing You rests on a long thin column of short lines—mainly one word, rarely as many as four—that take full advantage of their many possible groupings and associations. The column marches from page to page, with few stopping places; if you need to stop reading for any reason and want to start again, you have to find your place in the line.
Many of the phrases sound like they “come from somewhere”, imported from other bodies of language: interviews with USO performers or with service members, or from military memos or internal documents. But they only suggest this. They aren’t sourced, but picked up, transported into the poem, and arranged there. We don’t see which performer, what battalion, when the memo was sent and by whom and to whom. We go to our own assumptions about kinds of language (plus, of course, the flag that the book’s title waves) in order to make those identifications. Combined with the juxtapositions of these several phrasebooks—

            the garland
            of amateurs
            to give
            the infantry
            a defective
            my red

—there may be, for all we know, creations, coinages and substitutions that we can’t see. These words and phrases may sound like they have these sources but actually have as their country of origin Rosenfield’s mind, in a mutual shaping and infiltration.

Other names for this are invasion, contagion, trade, and communication. When you travel with someone, with them directing the travel and you along for the ride, you often begin to say things their way, however you see them, so that you can communicate with them. This is the process that Rosenfield showcases. After a quote from Beckett on the “mirthless laugh … the laugh that laughs—silence please—at that which is unhappy,” USO: I’ll Be Seeing You opens with a piece of entry patter: “Good afternoon, Ladies and Gentlemen. My first number this afternoon is a little song that I wrote myself. That is, I didn’t write it ALL myself. Another fellow wrote the words and another fellow wrote the music … but I happened to be in the room at the time.”

This seems key to Rosenfield’s approach: the material that precedes and follows the long column includes sketches that, like the language of the column, could be real or could seem real. A sketch full of dialect humor precedes a set of sentences—could be one person or many—that also imitate the rhythms and patterns of speech, talking about addiction (“Freebase? What’s free about it?”) divorce (“I believe in the institution of marriage and I intend to keep trying until I get it right”) and politics on the scale that most Americans are comfortable talking about politics (“I went to the White House, met the President. We in trouble”). It’s punchliney, but is it a routine? If people laugh, does that mean it’s funny? That many USO performers have been women in an historically (and still predominantly) male military—and the larger presumption that women are instruments of entertainment—also makes an appearance on this stage, in the gag material (“The girl in that bed is dead!” “I know, but how did you find out?”) and in the ranks:

            I’ve seen
            the toughest
            so he had
            running down
            his cheeks
            he came up
            after the
            as good as
            gave me
            a bear
            my rib
            it was good
            to see

Laughter as a relief, laughter as a secondary weapon of war, the painful laugh—“down the snout”, as Beckett says—that laughs at pain (one’s own, another’s). USO: I’ll Be Seeing You uses the language of the military as an institution, of the people who make it, and of the people who perform for them to reveal the inadequacy of “raising morale” or “feeling better.” This in turn is tightly layered with reminders of why they need to feel better—what they are being refreshed or restored to do—and the ways in which Americans are asking them to do it. (2013)

Purchase USO: I’ll Be Seeing You HERE.

Reviewer bio: Kate Schapira is the author of four books of poetry, most recently The Soft Place (Horse Less Press). Her eighth chapbook, The Ground / The Pass / The Wave, is forthcoming this summer from Grey Book Press. She lives in Providence, where she teaches nonfiction writing at Brown and poetry in a few other places, and organizes the Publicly Complex Reading Series.