They mean more than the medals, The spit-shined Marine portraits Dotting her mantel: letters,

Undated and timeless in their talk About love and coming home. She forges On the envelope her name and address

As he would write it, in a font Slanted toward future. His letters arrive Like poems, the lines saying nothing

New, save I am alive the heart behind this sentence beats another day. Again

She will send off his last, the paper Dog-eared by sorters and caught Once in rain that bled his words blue.

She takes it to the post office. For him

Alone she has rented a box:

The carrier, a veteran, knows. She knows

Her number has mail today, another envelope Pushed in the slot, eyes of the sorter Momentarily distorted through plexiglass,

Melding with hers like a sad lover. She unlocks the box, pulls its toy door Open to grope for that slip of face —

Gone, among the missing, her fingers Retreating for the mail, for word That once more he's made it home.

Essentially, this is a kind of character study in which I had a per sonal stake — I knew the woman upon whom the poem is based. I could empathize with her pain although I could not imagine her loss. Thus, if my poem has a ring of truth, it is the result of compassion rather than experience.

If this type of poem appeals to you, try these methods to generate ideas:

• Focus on an individual with whom you share a bond. The person should have experienced war or the pain of war firsthand. He or she should be a relative or friend so you have a fix on his or her feelings and a stake in the outcome of the poem. Talk to that person. Such people are closer than you think. In my own life, for instance, my mother lost her first husband (not my father) in Germany during World War II when she was only twenty-two and a newlywed. While writing this chapter, I realized that I have never spoken to her about Lou Pfaff and her feelings for him, particularly on the day she received her telegram.

• Base an idea on an incident or anecdote concerning that person. The topic will depend on what he or she tells you, but the theme is yours. Emphasize the compassion we have for people who have suffered in war and convey that compassion by imagining appropriate tones of voice. The epiphany in such a poem should be implied or stated but always based on what you as a visionary poet have learned from your source about the consequences of war.

In any visionary-based war poem, being truthful is essential. While veterans can write about all aspects of war, the nonveteran should think twice about pretending to be a combatant or victim of combat. There are ways to accomplish that feeling —by depicting it in others as I did in "Missing," by sharing your political views, or by taking a historical approach as Wayne Dodd did in "Of Sitting Bear." The bottom line is clear: To compose powerful poems about war, when you haven't been in one, you should have a personal stake in the topic or outcome of your poem. Otherwise it will smack of pretense or worse, falsehood.

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