Author: Charlie Bondhusbondhus

2013, Main Street Rag Press

Filed Under: Poetry

Winner of the 2013 Main Street Rag Poetry Book Award, Charlie Bondhus’ All the Heat We Could Carry is a meditation on war, the effects of war, particularly on gay soldiers, specifically with regard to the endless war in Afghanistan in the 21st century.  Shifting scenes from the home front in America to Afghanistan and back again, these poems expose the emotions and perspectives of soldiers, in the midst of conflict in the strange, alien terrain of  war and in the familiar, but now no less alien, environs of home.

The title comes from a line in “April,” the final poem in the middle section, a poem about the beginning of the end of a romantic relationship.  For one of the storylines in this collection is about the break-up of two lovers affected by the war.

And we two,

who spent winter breaking

into each other’s warm places,

gathering up all the heat we could carry,

find we no longer need each other’s skin

to keep out the cold.

The line suggests that breaking point all humans reach, when things fall apart, no longer hold, and the poems in this collection are all about flirting with that breaking point.  Heat, indeed, is a metaphor for passion throughout these poems, including sexual love but encompassing all human drive, hope and ambition.  In “July,” the second poem in the collection,

The screen door squeaks

and here you are, in shorts and tank,

bearing iced tea, two glasses,

the books we’ve been reading.


No one else on their porch;

it’s hot, and everything sticks

to everything….

Later in the poem:

The hottest on record since 1895,

say the weather people.  A sign

of God’s displeasure,

say the evangelicals.

In “What He Left,” from the third, final section, after the lovers’ break-up, the speaker reflects on the bullets, the firing pin his lover left behind (“I know it’s broken/but the cool, dark potential still unnerves me.”):

No climax: you simply packed

what was useful and indisputably yours,

leaving me everything that might have been

ours, so why abandon this broken, deadly bit

of memory you carried

through Afghanistan?


Hard and cold as canteen water,

a memento of more than one desert,

I cradle it as though it were your heart.

Wrestling and gardening are likewise metaphors Bundhus employs throughout for stylized violence, civilized decay.  Bondhus weaves images of war into the everyday (e.g., “cold as canteen water” above; even the title implicitly alludes to weaponry – “packing heat”).  Take these lines from “October”:

I watch from the window, hurt but admiring

the ease with which you roll

the season’s lovely casualties

into large and small heaps,

working until a sudden gust

turns the morning’s labor

into a firestorm…

What a way to describe raking autumn leaves, eh? Again, from “Wood Gathering,” a handful of poems further in:

In November we gather

straight branches into bundles,

and carry them


past flowerbeds

we stopped tending

last spring, to the shed


door which always sticks

in cold weather.

I want to ask you


how long since the seasons

became the same,

neither sun


nor perennials penetrating

our ribs, to the place where organs

slump like frozen vegetables?


When the snow starts,

you will cross

the backyard, and tugging


and grunting, pull open

the shed, where what

we’ve gathered is stacked neatly


as bones…


Or from “Gardening Alone”:


The sun stripes my back

as I loosen thistle roots,


dig out entrenched stones,

spray hot pesticide on the kudzu.


Weeding was always your job


because I have trouble disposing of things

that lack beauty yet insist on life:


your comb, for instance, gray with dust

and snarled with frayed hair and skin cells,


or the half-empty box of .45 ammo you left,

whose bullets’ hammered gold refracts light


in quick-stepping patterns that I love.

But by far the most affecting, riveting poems are those set deep in the midst of war in the remote expanse of Afghanistan:  “A Quiet Day in Kandahar,” “Morning After First Kill,” “Putting a Body into a Bag,” “Falling Asleep in Combat.”  Consider the violence in these lines from “Panjwayi”:

But there is no devil in this story;

believe me when I say

the evil men do

is entirely their own,


a lesson

for Mohamed Hussain, shot in the neck,

the bullet nicking

his right common carotid,


for the roadside bomb

he might have set.

Equally poignant are the PTSD poems, postwar stateside:  “Homecoming,” “Veteran’s Notes,” “In Therapy,” “Memorial Day Barbeque” (“Did he carry a gun in the glove compartment?//I remembered every Vietnam movie I’d ever seen,//his eyes, two unpinned grenades, overturned tables and smashed/chairs, bowls of finger food shattered into small universes.//When he saw me, I felt like I’d been caught stealing….”)

The penultimate poem in All the Heat We Could Carry, a six-part multi-page verse, sums up the whole tragedy of war, the pointlessness of the experience for the anonymous soldier, gay or straight.

Don’t think that

I’m going back for the U.S.A.

I love America, but nobody’s died for it

since 1945.  These days we’re dying

for the benefits; we’re dying for the adventure;

we’re dying for the chance

to make someone else die;

we’re dying because we’re no longer moved

by movies and video games; we’re dying because our parents

said work, school, or the military; we’re dying

because we don’t know who we are so,

like prophets of the Old Testament,

we go to the desert to hear a voice;

we’re dying to prove that we can die better

than anyone else; we’re dying to be told

that we are good; most of all, we’re dying

because we’re not sure

what else to do with ourselves.

Similar Reads: All Quiet on the Western Front – Erich Maria Remarque; Appetite – Aaron Smith.