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Frances Richey’s Poetry Speaks to Son’s Role as Soldier

May 9, 2008 at 6:45 PM EDT
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"The Warrior" by Frances Richey is composed of 28 poems written by the poet to her son, Ben, a Green Beret who has served two tours of duty in Iraq. Jeffrey Brown speaks with Richey and her son about the collection and their unique perspectives on the war.
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TRANSCRIPT

RAY SUAREZ: Finally tonight, a Mother’s Day look at war and relationships. Jeffrey Brown has our story.

JEFFREY BROWN: The Iraq war has divided many Americans, including Francis and Ben Richey.

BEN RICHEY, Iraq War veteran: … from a soldier’s perspective, and everybody that’s involved is going to continue to do what they’re doing, whether people back here are paying attention or not.

JEFFREY BROWN: Ben, a graduate of West Point, is a 33-year-old Green Beret who served two tours of duty in Iraq.

FRANCIS RICHEY, poet: I live in a world where a lot of people don’t think about it and don’t want to think about it.

JEFFREY BROWN: His mother, Francis Richey, who opposed the war, is a poet. She raised Ben, her only child, as a single mother, early on in Wisconsin and then New Jersey, seeing him through childhood to manhood, until a close relationship reached a rift over the U.S. involvement in Iraq.

In response, Francis Richey wrote poems about and for her son. They’re collected in a new book called “The Warrior.”

FRANCIS RICHEY: Thank you so much for coming.

JEFFREY BROWN: And the poetry has helped bring mother and son back together. They came to Washington earlier this week to talk to us.

FRANCIS RICHEY: I was trying to be closer to Ben when our relationship was strained. And I was also trying to have a little distance from the pain of his being away and also of knowing that he might never come home and that we might never get the chance to mend our relationship.

JEFFREY BROWN: Your relationship was strained?

FRANCIS RICHEY: It was strained. Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: How? Why?

FRANCIS RICHEY: Well, we disagreed on the war itself. I felt that we shouldn’t go into Iraq, and I was very critical of the current administration. And he felt that it was his duty to go and that it was the right thing to do.

And when I criticized the administration, I wasn’t thinking that I was criticizing him. We had always debated about politics, and I didn’t realize that when we were arguing, when he was so close to going into combat, that it was much more personal, that it hurt him when we argued.

JEFFREY BROWN: Is that how — how did it feel to you?

BEN RICHEY: And we were both sort of walking on eggshells around each other when it came to politics. When it came to anything of any gravity, I mean, things like the war, of great gravity, it was like we sort of couldn’t talk about that, or if we did, we knew it was going to turn into some kind of an argument.

JEFFREY BROWN: Just couldn’t even talk at all?

BEN RICHEY: In any kind of a civil way, because I was getting ready to leave. And, really, I think what we’ve both realized or learned is that, when soldiers are getting ready to leave, when service members are getting ready to leave, arguments and discussions about politics and about policy and those kinds of things are — while they’re important, they’re not as important as just the service member knowing that he or she is supported.

JEFFREY BROWN: That’s something you had to come to terms with, I guess, to support a soldier, a particular soldier, even if you didn’t support the war.

FRANCIS RICHEY: You know, and I said to him that I supported him, and you can say to a person, “And I love you,” but I felt like he wasn’t hearing me. I could look in his eyes when he came home that first time, and I saw I was losing him, that I was losing him on the emotional level.

And it was too late. His visit was over, and he was going to go back. So I wrote. I wrote like a maniac, because I put the truth on the page, but I also think, you know, in poetry, you can say things — you’re saying something on one level, and then underneath it — underneath it in these poems, I think there is the love and, you know, I am with you, and I want to understand.

And it was easier to do it in poems than it is to say, “You know, I love you, and I support you totally, even though I’m against the policy.”

BEN RICHEY: “Letters” was the first one that sort of floored me and sort of spoke to what not only my mom was going through, and how much she did love me, and how much she supported me — even though I didn’t necessarily feel that at the time, she really truly did — but I also could see that this is something that probably so many family members go through.

The impression I got was, wow, you know, there’s days when we’re there, and there are some days where we know we’re not going to go out and do a whole lot that day, and we know we’re safe that day. But every day is a bad day for everybody back here, because they don’t know that.

JEFFREY BROWN: Would you read part of that poem, “Letters,” for us?

FRANCIS RICHEY: Sure, I’d be happy to.

“Letters.”

Last Mother’s Day, when

he was incommunicado,

nothing came.

Three days later, a message

in my box; a package,

the mail room closed.

I went out into the lobby,

banged my fist against

the desk. When they

gave it to me, I clutched it

to my chest, sobbing

like an animal.

I spoke to no one,

did not apologize.

I didn’t care about the gift.

It was the note I wanted,

the salt from his hand,

the words.

JEFFREY BROWN: There is rough stuff here where you’re talking about Ben learning to become a warrior in battle. There’s a poem called “Kill School,” which describes some of that.

FRANCIS RICHEY: Well, this poem came from a moment when Ben told me about a training that he had gone through — it was actually survival training — but about the moment when he had to kill a rabbit. And he told me enough detail that it was a moment when I — it felt like just a shift.

You know, I looked at him a little differently after he told me what they’d had to do, because I knew that it had to have changed him in some way.

JEFFREY BROWN: You want to read that for us?

FRANCIS RICHEY: Sure.

“Kill School.”

That was the summer he rappelled

down mountains on rope

that from a distance looked thin

as the dragline of a spider,

barely visible, the tension

he descended

into the made-up

state of Pineland

with soldiers from his class.

They started with a rabbit,

and since my son was the only one

who’d never hunted,

he went first. He described it:

moonlight, the softness

of fur, another pulse

against his chest.

The trainer showed him

how to rock the rabbit

like a baby in his arms,

faster and faster,

until every sinew surrendered

and he smashed its head into a tree.

They make a little squeaking sound,

he said. They cry.

He drove as he told me:

You said you wanted to know.

I didn’t ask how he felt.

Maybe I should have,

but I was biting

off the skin from my lips,

looking out

beyond the glittering line

of traffic flying

past us in the dark.

JEFFREY BROWN: Did you feel that you needed to help her somehow see this person you had become?

BEN RICHEY: I knew that it was a difficult thing for my mom, so I did need for her to understand that there were — in a way, it was almost like that there are bad things in the world. There are bad things in the world, and I want to be a person that’s going to protect you and everyone else from those bad things.

JEFFREY BROWN: You know, one thing that keeps coming through here in the poetry is this sense of distance. It’s the distance between soldiers and civilians in this war, which is talked about a lot.

FRANCIS RICHEY: Right.

JEFFREY BROWN: And the geographical distance between the two of you, and then the for the war, against the war, and then, ultimately, between a mother and a son.

FRANCIS RICHEY: I didn’t realize that these poems would be a bridge back to Ben. I just felt like they were helping me to live with the reality that there was distance between us and that I might never be able to bridge it.

But they gave me a way to explore and try to understand, try to understand things from his point of view.

It was scary to write these poems. I was afraid. When I wrote “Kill School,” I was afraid of what was going to show up on the page, because you can’t control it. You have to just let yourself write. And then to show him that poem was a little scary, too.

JEFFREY BROWN: What about for you, Ben? Did it become a kind of bridge?

BEN RICHEY: It was a little bit overwhelming, actually, at first. But then I was able to digest it for a while. And then, I mean, ever since then, I feel like it was — for my mom and I, it was sort of a key that unlocked a channel of communication that had been pretty closed.

I hope that other people who are going through the same thing will get something out of this.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Ben and Frances Richey, thank you both very much. And happy Mother’s Day to you.

FRANCIS RICHEY: Thank you.

BEN RICHEY: Thank you. Happy Mother’s Day.

FRANCIS RICHEY: Thanks.