The Warrior: In love and battle 

Frances Richey's poems bind her to her soldier son

click to enlarge Richeys memories of motherhood fill her heart and her poems.
  • Richeys memories of motherhood fill her heart and her poems.

In The Warrior: A Mother's Story of a Son at War, award-winning poet Frances Richey touches on many difficult issues: fear, pain, death. At the time she started writing the 28 poems that fill the 96-page book, her only son Ben was on his first deployment to Iraq with the Army.

"The book is really a love poem to him," she says in a phone interview from Manhattan. "Even though some of the times were very tough, I don't think you can lie about things.

"The worst thing I could have done was write a Hallmark card. This book reflects what we went through as a mom and a son."

Richey, 57, worries that people will think these are just political poems, and that this book is simply about the war.

"People who are for the war, will see it as for the war. People who are against the war, will see it as against the war," she says.

Ultimately, though, she didn't write the poems to make a statement about what's going on in Iraq. The single mother wrote to be connected to her son.

Ben wasn't allowed to speak of many of his experiences in Iraq. The poems helped the two open a line of communication, and the poet believes their relationship is now stronger than ever.

"When [soldiers] ... have to be in combat, they have to close down," she says. If they don't, "they may not come home. And even if they do close down, they still might not come home."

Ben was one of the lucky ones who did come back. A 1998 graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point, the 33-year-old is a Green Beret now stationed at Fort Carson. Richey says now that Ben has served his country for almost a decade, including two tours in Iraq, he plans to separate from the Army at the end of July to head to business school at the University of California, Berkeley.

A former anti-war activist, Richey needed time to accept Ben's role in the war. After Ben returned from his first Iraq tour, she recognized that he needed her support. She didn't want him to think she disapproved of him or didn't have faith in him. Her writing became the outlet she needed to process what was going on inside her.

For The Warrior, she filled 22 large paper tablets and wrote two times the number of poems than were finally included in the book, which Viking Adult released on April 10. Richey, who is also a yoga instructor, says writing is part of her spiritual practice.

"Every poem I write is driven by something that just won't let me go," she says. "Or it's a moment I just want to ingrain inside me so it's always inside of me, so that I never forget."

She adds, "These poems are like children to me. I kept them all in a notebook and I used to hold the notebook. That was my way of holding him. A way to stay connected to him."


Poetry reading by Frances Richey
CC's Worner Campus Center, 902 N. Cascade Ave.
Wednesday, April 30, 5 p.m.
Free; for more information, call 389-6607.
To read Frances Richey's poetry, visit csindy.com.
To Get the Book:The Warrior

Frances Richey's poetry

The Powerlifter

Arvin Gym, West Point, 1998

The doors swung open on the smell of baby

powder, sweat and chalk

Disks of steel crashed

to the court, their thunder echoing

from the high beams down

through the bleachers where

the fathers receded

on the sidelines, and the mothers,

like nervous schoolgirls, laughed,

gossiped, while they waited for their sons

to take the floor.

Jean Good, whose shoulders I rubbed that night,

is dead. She wore a wig, her hair

just growing back from chemo.

She wanted to live

Through Ring Weekend,

her sons graduation.

Most of them too small

to be football players for Army

they were the powerlifters,

full of combustion, desire

to show someone:

a father? a mother? They could

carry the whole goddamn family

on their backs.

One kids pec split open on a lift.

Another broke his wrist. I watched

my son deadlift

five hundred pounds, drag the bar

up his powdered legs,

right palm up left palm down,

the lock,

his face red and twisted

as it was the night his father left:

he pulled himself up,

gripped the bars of his crib,

refused to be held.

Hed asked us both to be there

his father smoked at the gym door;

I held hands with Jean

and screamed his name.

He got a rush from it,

but his eyes bled,

and he wouldnt stop,

his body his to sacrifice.

I didnt look away.

It would have been betrayal

The hours hed spent building

his tolerance for pain

He was prepared, right there,

in the middle of the gym,

to crush his heart.


Love you. Thats how she knows

his girlfriend didnt send

the gift for Mothers Day.

If it had said, Lots of love,

or Youre the best,

she would have known

it wasnt him. Love you

lasered on a plain white card

in the basket of sponges

and candles, bath beads,

teas with names like Zen

and Calm, Tranquility.

Hes incommunicado.

Shes been instructed to stop

Sending packages

and letters. Hes leapt

into the ether, where all things

go that vanish. Nowhere

and everywhere,

a mountain cave, the Tigris

Love you

on her mind, in her heart,

in the shoulders of the sailor

she follows for a block.

Hes incommunicado,

a Greenie floating

over fields and fires

or melted into sand

with other Greenies: wrapped

in scarves, or bald,

or with a beard like Krishna,

hidden under robes

He could be anywhere,


thats what happens

when you vanish,

you become ubiquitous:

a ghost a god.

Reprinted by arrangement with Viking, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., from The Warrior by Frances Richey. Copyright (c) Frances Richey, 2008.

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