A Viking Reader’s Guide
The Warrior: A Mother’s Story of a Son at War
An Introduction to The Warrior: A Mother’s Story of a Son at War
Frances Richey is a poet and a single mother whose only son, Ben, attended The United States Military Academy at West Point and graduated in 1998. Ben, who is a Green Beret, was twice deployed to Iraq, where some of his missions were so sensitive that his location had to be kept secret and he could not communicate with anyone, including his mother.
In this collection of twenty-eight poems, Richey shares her story of watching Ben go to war and the excruciating wait for his return. In the intervening days she must grapple with his decision to become a soldier, the physical and emotional distance that separates them, and her own role as a parent who wants to support her son, even as she opposes the war ideologically. Faced with the brutal realities of combat, she also has to confront the fact that he might not make it back.
Through a flicker of news reports, memories, and dreams, Richey illuminates her most painful moments between her son’s visits and phone calls from Iraq. On Mother’s Day she waits for a package that doesn’t come—three days later she learns a package did arrive but she wasn’t notified. When she tries to retrieve it, her apartment building mailroom is locked. She treasures his phone messages, prays for his safety, and tries not to think about the just-in-case letter he has stashed away in a drawer.
In her second collection of poetry, Richey shows an extraordinary talent for lyrical memoir. Within her accessible, taut verse lies a narrative that is at once highly personal and deeply universal. The Warrior offers no political opinions about a controversial war—only Richey’s own emotional truths. The resulting poems, which have been published in The New York Times and O, The Oprah Magazine, have touched readers with their candor. The Warrior is a haunting, insightful volume, powerfully portraying the realities of wartime.
A Conversation With Frances Richey
1. Several poems in this volume, as in your last book, were inspired by visual art—whether it’s Aztec imagery of Quetzalcoatl, Madonna and child paintings, or the work of the Spanish painter Solana. How does art influence your writing?
Art gives me a way into the poem that I would never have found sitting at my desk. When I go to museums and art exhibitions, I try to stay open. Sometimes a show I thought would inspire me leaves me cold. When I’m lucky, a particular painting or sculpture calls to me and gives me access to that place inside that’s working on poems even while I’m sleeping. The painting becomes a continuation of the dream. Words and images spring to the surface spontaneously and my job is to stay out of the way and write like crazy.
I started the poem “In a Time of War,” on my way up the spiral walkway of the Guggenheim to check out work by El Greco. Halfway there, I was stopped in my tracks by Solana’s The Streetwalkers, a painting of five prostitutes standing in an alley against a wall. They were not in any way romanticized. They looked rough and beaten up. And yet they stood there in their ruin and sorrow with an insolence that moved me. At first, I didn’t see any connection between the subject matter of The Warrior and the painting. That would come later through the writing. I went back three times to stand before The Streetwalkers. I gave myself over to the painting and wrote without thinking or editing (revision came later). It was a kind of communion. Finally, when those last lines flowed out, I felt a click and I was able to walk by the Guggenheim without going in to see them.
2. The themes of war, the prodigal son, and the relationship between the poet and the warrior are universal. How do you make poems that contain these themes yet remain true to your own life experience?
I never think about universal themes when I’m writing. I’m driven by a desire to re-create moments that feel crucial; moments I want to take into my body, into my cells, into the next life if possible. “The Powerlifter” is a good example. When I watched Ben dead-lift 500 pounds, I had so many conflicting feelings all at once, I couldn’t take them all in. For nine years I went back to that moment again and again, trying to arrive at some clarity through the writing. I wanted to burrow into the lining of that memory to find the truth at the core of it. Through the specific details and the gift of time I finally wrote my way into the last lines. Then I was able to make peace with the memory of that day in Arvin Gym.
3. Suggested throughout The Warrior is the fear that a child who leaves for war will return irrevocably changed. How can a parent—let alone a child—prepare for this?
I don’t think anything can prepare a parent for the deployment of a son or daughter into combat. It is written into the DNA of most parents to protect their children at all costs, and devastating to find yourself powerless to save your child from mortal danger. When Ben was in Iraq, writing became my refuge when I felt overwhelmed with worry and fear. Through the writing I felt closer to him, while at the same time, it gave me some distance.
4. In “The Movers,” you talk about “finding your work.” How has the work of writing poetry helped you through these difficult times?
Writing forces me to employ all my senses at a heightened level, particularly sight and sound. When I’m searching for the defining details, I feel more alive. Writing keeps me engaged, even when the subject matter is difficult, while at the same time allowing me to detach somewhat from the pain of wanting a certain outcome that is out of my control. When I’m memorizing the stubbles of grass in Ben’s yard or the way his face softens as the movers deliver the old chair I rocked him in when he was a baby, I’m not obsessing, at least in that moment, about the reality that I might lose him.
5. You mention once believing that as a mother you’d know instinctively whether your child was safe. You also mention the urge to “imagine” Ben to safety in an underground bunker. Can you talk about the role of prayer, superstition, and positive thinking in this book and in your life?
When I look back over the years of Ben’s growing up, it seems that a combination of magical thinking, prayer, and a sense of instinctive knowing have always sustained me when I was somehow prevented from protecting him. I told myself that if I went to his football games, he wouldn’t get hurt. I was consciously aware that this idea had no basis in reality, but it helped me handle my fear for his safety. When he was in Iraq, an image of him in a concrete bunker surrounded by maps kept popping up in my mind’s eye. I had no way of knowing where he was or what he was doing. If my subconscious was throwing me the lifeline of a comforting image to hold on to, I wasn’t going to reject it.
There have also been instances when I have had unexplained experiences that I can only describe as mystical. When Ben was a plebe at West Point, he went through a tough initial training called Beast Barracks. One afternoon, shortly after Beast, I was thinking about him, sending him love. That evening he called and asked if I’d been at West Point that day. He said he thought he’d seen me on the plain. I said no, but asked what time he thought he’d seen me, and he named the time when I’d been thinking about him earlier in the day. I believe there are connections and communications in human experience that transcend time and space. While Ben was deployed, I felt cut off, for the first time, from the ability (real or imagined) to intuit whether he was okay or not. That’s when I started praying. I think this mix of wishful thinking, prayer, and deep connection had to be in the poems because they were integral to my emotional survival during Ben’s deployments.
6. In “Waiting,” you recall experiencing the onset of vertigo when you first found out Ben was going to be deployed to Iraq. How did you cope with this physical problem and how was it important for you in symbolic terms?
I was in a car accident in 1985 and sustained a concussion and a whiplash injury. Since the accident, I have had periodic bouts of vertigo. I can go years without an episode, but when I’m under intense pressure or stress, the vertigo sometimes resurfaces. So I wasn’t really surprised to experience that spinning sensation and loss of balance when I learned Ben was going to be deployed. I had a dizzy spell at the Guggenheim while viewing the art of the Aztec Empire. It seemed that so many of the artifacts were soaked in the blood of human sacrifice. Was it the awareness that Ben was in Iraq while I was looking at the brutal artifacts of an ancient warrior civilization, or was it simply the winding walkway that threw me off balance? Either way, when I literally had to place my back against a wall to keep from falling, it did seem to sum up how I felt about Ben being in Iraq.
7. Reading “One Week Before Deployment,” one can’t help but think of Tim O’Brien’s catalog of objects in The Things They Carried, which you acknowledge as an inspiration for these poems. The list is a powerful device—how does it function in this poem?
The list tells the reader who this young soldier is; what he cares about, what his values are, what he’s prepared to sacrifice, and what he will need to survive. The peril he faces is implicit in the list. The periodic interjections of the mother’s thoughts provide a window into their relationship. It is written, of course, from my own experience watching Ben pack for deployment. I had told him that if he went through his gear with me, I would write a poem from it. The poem is in six parts because there were so many dimensions to his preparations. I didn’t know until I sat down to write the poem that it would have to include the actual list.
8. In the poem “Thor,” a young man is explaining what happened to him in the war, but the story is incomplete, with the narrator’s questions left unanswered. Do you view this scene as emblematic of the kinds of conversations most families have when their loved ones return from battle? Do the questions ever get answered?
Even in families where no one has been in combat, there are questions that never get answered and stories that remain forever incomplete. With the intensity of war layered in, it is to be expected, I think, that many soldiers are going to try to protect their loved ones by leaving out the worst of what they’ve seen and done. Do the questions ever get answered? I don’t know. Personally, I think there are some questions no one has the right to ask. I never actually asked Thor what happened to the dog. I only realized later, when I was working on the poem, that he hadn’t told me the whole story. The question in the poem reflects that sudden awareness. I’m not sure, even now, that I’d want to know the answer.
9. How do you decide to structure and shape your poems? Does your yoga practice serve as an influence?
Yoga has a profound influence on my life and my writing. I believe poems come from the same place as dreams, and yoga allows the practitioner to swim in those deepest, and sometimes darkest, interiors of consciousness without losing the self. For me, yoga provides a bridge to and from those inner places. Yoga naturally heightens awareness of inner rhythms, so I tend to recognize the moment when I transition from struggling with a poem to falling into the natural flow of its music. I have always thought of it as being in the well. Each poem seems to have its own desire for a certain form, certain breaks in the lines. Craft is important, but what the poem wants is important, too. Yoga, and the clarity it provides, helps me let the poem have its life. Even in revision, there is this element of deep listening.
10. There seems to be quite a bit of dialogue between and among these poems. Were they written in sequence? Do you see this collection as a single narrative or more of a mosaic of moments and observations?
Although these poems were not written in sequence, I see The Warrior as a single narrative. Only three of the poems were started before Ben deployed in 2004: “The Powerlifter,” “The Canal,” and “The Barn Swallows.” The rest were written from 2004 through 2007. The later poems were a continuation of the dialogue that began with “The Powerlifter.”
1. In the poems “Kill School,” “One Week Before Deployment,” and “School for Commandos,” Richey struggles with wanting and not wanting to know what Ben has seen and experienced. Does knowing bring her closer to him? By not knowing is she forcing him into what is typically the parent’s role, protecting her from the truth?
2. In the poem “The Barn Swallows,” Richey recounts the day her son graduates from West Point and begins, in essence, a process of detachment from her that continues throughout the book. What does the reader know about him from these poems and how is he transformed by the book’s end?
3. With the exception of “Kill School,” where a rabbit is killed, there is no bloodshed or killing in Richey’s poems. She suggests violence metaphorically. What are some of the images she uses?
4. Who is the “other son” haunting Richey in the poem “Dream of the Lost Son,” and why does he “ask for nothing”?
5. In the title poem, Richey, a yoga teacher, says she thought of “warrior” only as a yoga posture until her son became a Green Beret, and she seems to have conflicting ideas about what it means now. What other meanings or associations for “warrior” are suggested by this poem?
6. The dialogue in “The Worst Thing” sounds like a real snippet of what someone—perhaps Ben—actually said. What makes it a poem as opposed to a mere transcription of conversation?
7. In the poem “One Week Before Deployment,” Richey examines her son’s helmet, boots, and other belongings. She wonders about the one thing she doesn’t see: his gun. What do we learn about her and what do we learn about Ben from her observations?
8. In response to the hall of Madonna paintings in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Richey writes four “fragments.” How do these four verses, with their respective reflections, work together? Are they complementary or contradictory?
9. Richey’s son sends her an e-mail with a photo of puppies from a secret place where he is stationed. How does she feel about the puppies and what do they represent to her?
10. In the last poem of the collection, “The Canal,” Richey remembers an incident from the past in which her son nearly drowned as a child. Why do you think this was selected as the final poem? How does it reflect or refract the information Richey gives us in preceding poems?
About Frances RicheyFrances Richey was born in Williamson, West Virginia, and grew up in Charleston, West Virginia. She is a graduate of the University of Kentucky. After working in the business world for almost two decades, she left to teach yoga and write. She is the author of one previous collection of poetry, The Burning Point (2004), which won the White Pine Press Poetry Prize. She lives in New York City.