KR BlogNewsletter

Why We Chose It

On Katy Didden’s “The Soldier on Routine”

Before any editor can answer “why I chose it” in any meaningful way, he or she must first step back and answer “Why edit, to start with?” I edit in part because I want to keep acquainted with the living, breathing life of the art. I edit in part because my inner social scientist likes to have a sense of the broad parameters of the art, this “creative writing,” at any given moment. I edit because once upon a time I was someone (sans MFA, living in an obscure corner of the rural South) whose early poems were picked up by editors out of the slush: there is an ethical compact here, a passionate desire to return that early favor. Finally, I edit because it’s something I can do in those interstices of free time that don’t offer themselves up to more focused exploits: the 18 minutes between student appointments, the 49 minutes between the last task and my lunch date. This may sound cold. Sometimes it is.

As David Lynn said when he inaugurated this occasional series, “editors read with an eye out for reasons to stop reading.” It’s that simple. If we stop, we stop. Indeed, if we can stop, we will stop. We wait for the work that keeps us going, breathless.

As Diaghilev said long ago, “We are all waiting to be astonished.”

A caveat: a good editor knows (or learns) how to read outside of his or her comfort zone. Just because a particular style, or idiom, or subject isn’t immediately to my taste or interest, it’s part of my job to step back from my interest–when the quality of the work warrants–and try to look at the work with a more objective, discerning eye, for our readers’ sakes.

Last year, I read and personally rejected 2,226 submissions for The Kenyon Review. I passed about 200 more up the editorial chain. Mostly poems, but also short stories and creative nonfiction. (Dear writers of prose: so many words. On every page! Make them count.)

One of the things I like most about working for The Kenyon Review is that we read and take seriously every single submission we receive, regardless of whether we’ve heard of the author. I’d never heard of Katy Didden when I opened her packet, which was her first submission to KR. Her covering note said she had an MFA from Maryland and was pursuing a PhD in creative writing at the University of Missouri, which telegraphed “narrative/conservative” to my editorial reptile brain. I read the title of the first poem in her packet, “The Soldier on Routine,” and thought Great–more poems about the war. (Aren’t all our poems about the war, right now?)

And then I read the opening lines.

“We are living with the Young Christ / in the green zone.” Maybe it’s because in real life I spend a lot of my time thinking what it means to “live with the Young Christ”–or with any Christ–that I immediately sat up and took notice. “ . . . in the green zone”: in Baghdad? And just who is this “Young Christ,” anyway? Some winsome baby Jesus? The teenager whose presence is missing entirely from the Christian Bible? The young man who would have been the same age as many of the men serving in the US Army in Iraq?

And who is this plural speaker, living in war-torn Baghdad with “the Young Christ”? What does this mean? How could it mean?

It’s a stunning opening, assured and beguiling. And what follows is virtuosic, in an accessible, even stately idiom I rarely respond to among contemporary poets. The poem turns on the distinction between that which we take into ourselves, and that which we displace. It’s precisely the Young Christ’s ability–necessity?–to take in everything that makes Him inhuman, even as the human “scrim” keeps him in the plural speaker’s world. And it’s precisely our ability to displace the products of our action–“Our hands / bleed, but then we’ve made a thing / and can put it from us”–that subtracts the possibility of divinity from our condition.

There are wounds, and then there are wounds. The poem ends on a wound, a wound-in-progress: “We watch / our hands in motion widening the wound– / it’s there we enter, as though we could pass through / to the princeless, incinerated kingdom.” There’s more than an echo here to Yeats’s “rough beast . . . / [slouching] towards Bethlehem,” only in Didden’s poem we–that damning plural “we” again–are that beast. And the kingdom we enter–through the wound–if we enter–proves “princeless, incinerated.” Why princeless? It can only be, within the logic of the poem, because as we enter (through the wounds we ourselves have torn), we leave the Young Christ behind, in the Green Zone, in the old world of our violence and fear.

When I first read “The Soldier on Routine” I was feeling deluged with mediocre poems about the war–in Iraq, in Afghanistan, any war, all war. I had all but given up on finding poems that spoke to the experience–to the communal violence of our moment–in a way that enlarged both that violence and that moment without quite expending with the human.

This poem had me from its opening lines and, through its mastery of craft, left me feeling harrowed, tortured, in spite of (even more because of) its stately, magisterial bodying-forth. What I wanted, on the poem’s terms, was to take this poem–this thing–and put it from me, even if in so doing I bloodied my own hands. I have not been able to put it from me yet.