Book Review: Thou Shalt Not Kill Unless Otherwise Instructed (2005)

A confession first. I am not a poetry fan. I don’t know why, but it is something I never got into. My preferred “form” of the art is songwriting. Most of my favorite songwriters are generally called “topical,” meaning they’re writing about what they see is happening in the world.

That’s probably part of the reason I like Mike Sharpe’s Thou Shalt Not Kill Unless Otherwise Instructed. It is a book of poems and stories he began writing last December after hearing a graduate of a local high school had been killed in Iraq. Sharpe’s work focuses largely, but not exclusively, on that war and how we got there. Moreover, it brings to mind something Allen Ginsberg says in No Direction Home, Martin Scorsese’s new documentary on Bob Dylan (about which more tomorrow). According to Ginsberg, “Poetry is words that are emphasized that make your hair stand on end.” By that definition, this is unquestionably a book of poetry.

The bookends of the poetry section of the book are the attack on the Twin Towers and the current morass in Iraq. Although humor occasionally makes an appearance, the bulk of the poems are told from standpoints that are painful but resonate with truth. The closing “stories” (more like musings, actually) are two somewhat sharp-witted takes on current political issues and a heart-wrenching tale of the death of a solider in Iraq.

In the opening poem, “The Twin Towers,” Sharpe expresses grief not only for the loss of the towers and the people in them but for how that tragedy has led to “jihad against jihad” and how our remembrance of those losses has been “reduced to hubris and lies.” Another of Sharpe’s themes ponders what God must think of the current state of human affairs. For example, two pieces reflect conversations between Allah/God and bin Laden/Bush. The message is that the mere fact these (or other) men believe they are guided by their deity does not automatically mean they are in fact pursuing that deity’s goals.

While this could easily be passed off as simply “protest poetry,” it truly is more than that. In fact, in a postscript, Sharpe explains some of his thought processes and what was behind some of the more striking poems to avoid confusion or misunderstanding. Granted, his work is generally critical of where we have been led and where we are. Yet both the poetry and prose display as much concern and care for the soldiers and noncombatants in the battle zone.

“It’s Hard” addresses the conflict and tragedy that faces a soldier who, faced with an immediate decision, must shoot a boy, an old woman or a family in a car. “Elegy for American Soldiers Killed in Iraq” uses the names of various American casualties, sadly noting, “We need another wall on which to inscribe these names.” Sharpe’s writings about the meaning and effect of the deaths of soldiers on the families border on gut-wrenching. Yet at the same time, “Support Our Troops” reflects a sad reality of what far too many believe constitutes support:

Support our troops by displaying bumper stickers
Support our troops by giving parties
Support our troops by going shopping
Support our troops by standing on the sidelines
Support our troops by keeping your mouth shut

Fortunately, Sharpe is not keeping his mouth shut. The anguish he expresses is in itself a form of support for our troops and their families. It is also an eloquent cry for our nation and world as they are again ravaged by the heartbreak and horror of war.

The mobilization orders were drawn up
and then the reasons for the orders were drawn up.

“The Mobilization Orders,” Mike Sharpe,
Thou Shalt Not Kill Unless Otherwise Instructed

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