A Moment of Truth [REVIEW]

A review of Luke Ryan’s second book of poetry,

A Moment of Violence.


A combat deployment is a series of moments, clock ticks, mental snapshots that, when called up later, reappear disjointed, defying order or context. A flipbook made of random pictures shuffled by the mind and pulled into the present by a smell, a sound, a ghost of a memory, or the memory of a ghost.


In Luke Ryan’s second book of war poetry, A Moment of Violence, the ghosts are present on the page. The sights, sounds,and smells of his four deployments with the 3rd Ranger Battalion to Afghanistan have faded slightly since his first book, The Gun and the Scythe. Faded as memories do. Where The Gun and the Scythe was more immediate and raw, A Moment of Violence is more reflective, its truths both more universal and condensed. Rita Dove said, “Poetry is language at its most distilled and most powerful.” Luke’s poems are shots of rye, and for those who have lived it, they can burn going down. Truth is that way. This is not a collection just for those who have served, but also for those who seek to understand those who have. In Do Not Shy Away he tells us,

Knowledge is a heavy weight,
It must be carried by all,
It must be known by all,
Lest it fall into oblivion.


A major theme is the recognition of the burden of service and the acknowledgment that those who serve are indelibly marked with a tattoo on the soul that time cannot fade. The Legionnaires ends with:

As the wars rolled onward
Like avalanches of flame, rolling through history,
The legionnaire would come to know
The eternal group he joined that day.
He would come to know
That a warrior a thousand years before
And a thousand years ahead
Would sit on the same fields with the same thoughts,
And that he is one of many.


Where The Gun and the Scythe feels to me as though the author is in Afghanistan looking homeward, A Moment of Violence is home looking back on, and reconciling with, another life that while terrible, will always be longed for by those who have lived it and that longing will always be questioned by those they love. A Smile in the Grim captures the small unexplainable moments:                    

But it was not all doom and gloom
We laughed among the ruins
We played games when others thought we ought to cry.
Not every moment was one of reverence
All this talk of brotherhood and the blood spilled among it,
Yet we forget that laughter was a primary ingredient of it all.


There is a mixture of poems of life and death. Dreaded phone calls, raising kittens, and mourning loss. In Luke’s first collection, I can’t make it through the poem The Hooded Figure with dry eyes. In it, Death arrives to fulfill his duty of escorting a young soldier from the battlefield and gives him permission to weep, “Weep for you were a better man than those who will remain in this place for a hundred years.” In this collection I feel the same about Such Little Time for Such Grand Things where a wounded soldier questions the memories he is having:

I don’t want to die in this place.
Are those memories my own?
Please let them be mine.
I look to the man next to me.
He has also been adorned with blood,
And I know that it is his.
He is my kin,
Though our parents never met.
No, Please let these memories be his.
Yes, better his than mine.


But where I think this collection really shines is in the poems that reflect on service in all of its forms, and what it means to have served and to continue to do so. In Thank You For Your Service, the narrator watches a crossing guard and considers the obligation that those who have fought for our country and returned still bear as citizens.  This theme continues in one of the hardest hitting poems:

Did You Forget?
“To serve”—
What did that mean to you?
What value does that coin hold
If you cast it aside now?
Will you ask for others to bend to you
Because in your youth you bent to them?
That is not a service,
That is an exchanging of services.
An economy of favors.
Why do you shrug off the cloak
That you look so fondly upon?


And further in, What To Do With What Has Been Bought, a parable of sorts that admonishes the reader to consider the value of what we have been given and to not squander it.  


Overall, the collection leaves the reader with a glimmer of hope, urging us to live in the moment while remembering and honoring our past, and to recognize that we can mourn someone only when we have been blessed with their legacy and only because we believe in a future that we wished to share with them. These moments are really what the collection is about. Moments not only of violence, but of joy, sorrow, contemplation, and love.

And for that moment, the storm is away.
And for that moment, I rise into the sky and rest.
Glorious rest in the arms of my love.
John Dailey was born and raised in Louden County, Virginia. He joined the Marines at seventeen, which led to a career of over twenty years. He received his MFA in fiction from UNCW in 2018. John is a contributing author to the book, Collegiate Battlefield. His work has appeared in:Consequence Magazine, The Bitter Southerner, The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature, Coffin Bell Journal, as well as professional military publications. He is editor of “The Raider Patch magazine. He lives in Hubert, North Carolina with his wife Tracy.

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