Shellback by Jeanne-Marie Osterman

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By Charles Rammelkamp
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In the eponymous poem of this powerful collection, Jeanne-Marie Osterman, reflecting on the cruel, ghastly hazing her father received from his crewmates on their way home from the war in the Pacific in 1945 – an “initiation” administered to sailors crossing the equator for the first time – writes:
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This is one shellback’s daughter
trying to find that wiser self within
who can forgive these men,
for they’ve come from Okinawa
where they watched a buddy’s skull
blow out of his head,
teeth still gripping his last cigarette.
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This collection of poetry about her father’s long life and slow death (1919-2017) is steeped in blood and violence.  JDO, as he was known, experienced the most horrific things in the war, from an attack by a kamikaze pilot that killed a dozen men and maimed and injured many others to the grim day-to-day duties of the killing business, and he returns home to Washington state a damaged man. Not always the easiest person to live with, prone to spasms of violent behavior and cruelty, he ages into a tough old bird who resists acknowledging his pain and physical decline, in a way that’s both admirable and tragic. As Osterman writes in the poem, “Forgive,”
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I let memories I can’t erase
rest in peace,
knowing no one is only
their sins.
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The collection opens cleverly with the poem, “Epilogue”:
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He’s losing his grip.
Last Saturday night,
trying to shave for church,
my father cut his face so deep
it bled till 2 AM.
He couldn’t reach the Band-Aids
to stanch the blood.
He fell down trying.
He wouldn’t ring for help.
He didn’t make church.
He won’t wear his hearing aid,
so I shout the small talk –
think it’ll rain today?
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This introduces JDO perfectly. The rest of the collection shows us the man in his perpetual state of denial, suppressing his trauma, as he navigates fatherhood and old age, and indeed, our end always marks our beginning. The final poems deal with her father in the hospital, dying, pivoting from this “epilogue” that opens the book. Osterman is with him during his final days.
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Osterman really knows how to start a poem with a bang. For instance, “The String” begins:
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            I go to my father’s room to take him to dinner and find him
            face down on the floor. Thinking he’s dead, I say, Daddy?
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            I think I’m at the end of my string, he says, so I call 911.
            He wants me to pick him up, but he’s dead weight. 
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Right away, the reader is involved in the drama, compelled to read on. “Get the Body You Want” similarly begins: “Middle of the night, on your way to the bathroom, / you trip and fall on the wheelchair we insisted on / to keep you from falling.” A poem early in the collection, “Third Girl,” starts, “I was my father’s third girl. / Sundays I tried to be his boy.” Again, we are drawn into the drama. She is writing here about the great American pastime of watching NFL football on TV, but it highlights one of the heartbreaking themes of the collection, the child’s desire to be loved by her parent and the casual neglect he often shows. “On the Stillaguamish River,” a few poems later, poignantly addresses the same yearning. “I just wanted to take up your time, see how // you, once a sailor, would row, save me from drowning….”
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The poem, “Polaroid,” in which an emotional eight-year-old Osterman poses for a family photo, describes JDO, his jaw clenched, holding the camera and warning his daughter not to cry, “or I’ll give you something // to cry about. I was happy / at least he didn’t tell me to smile.”
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The poems that vividly address JDO’s wartime experience are truly jaw-dropping, drenched in blood and gore, from “End Like a Sponge,” “Wing and a Prayer” and “Theater of War” to “Fukuryu” and “Think of It,” which deals with the battle of Okinawa, in which 50,000 Americans and 100,000 Japanese died. What a horrific experience for a teenager to have to live through! On top of that, the hazing by his crewmates in “Shellback” reinforces the permanent psychological scarring.   And as she writes in a later poem, “Patterns,” “You might think that holding it in / kept it from us, but we / could feel it.”
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In the midst of the grimness, Osterman displays a sense of humor at times, while illuminating her father’s character. “Horny Goat Weed” is a poem about discovering a package of one of those (quack?) medications that you see in the snack kiosks at gasoline stations, meant to enhance a man’s libido, “a remedy for erectile dysfunction.” “My father’s ninety-six. My mother’s been dead for years,” she writes; another poignant example of JDO’s refusal to concede weakness.
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Just as this tender elegy starts with an “Epilogue,” it concludes with “The Living Always Leave You, but the Dead Stay with You Forever,” which is the true epilogue to this sequence. Her father has been dead six months, but reminders keep popping up.
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Perhaps the most touching poem in Shellback is a poem toward the end called “Yay.” Her father’s body is beyond salvageable; it’s only a matter of time. He is thirsty but he can’t drink. Droppers are not allowed, and water dripped from a spoon only rolls off his lip and soaks his hospital gown. JDO’s daughter soaks a piece of cloth and squeezes it slowly onto his lips.  The gratitude is heartfelt.
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            Yay, he whispers.
                          Yay.
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Charles Rammelkamp is Prose Editor for Brick House Books in Baltimore and Reviews Editor for The Adirondack Review. His most recent releases are Ugler Lee from Kelsay Books and Catastroika from Apprentice House.
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