Firing Pins by Jo Young

-Reviewed by Fiona Moore-

A reviewer couldn’t make a better start than by quoting the author’s own introduction to Firing Pins: “The soldier is someone who falls in and out of love, gives birth, battles her body, argues with old school friends… finds a joy in soldiering and matches it with a despair of battlefields, feels homesick and has very mixed views about authority figures and geo-politics. Nevertheless, she soldiers.”

This pamphlet both is and isn’t on the same shelf as war poetry written by men. Its subversion of gender roles both is and isn’t predictable (in a good way), mingling humour, pathos, female solidarity and political commentary. If you want to know what the army regulations are for male and female make-up, the opening poem, ‘L’Oréal Paris Infallible Gel Crayon Eyeliner in Browny Crush’ is your source. Your eye may skate over the branding language, but return to “Infallible”. Is anything in war infallible? The poem is a sort of self-portrait, with a warning not to fall into the speaker as reliable poet error; and a poetic manifesto:

I want a hard horizon, a darkening
stripe, a hungering gaze, I want to pull
on a respirator and for you to know
I’m blinking behind the foggy panes.
I want to squint through more than one layer.

It’s the subject matter, a British servicewoman’s experiences of training, of Afghanistan, the aftermath of combat, that makes this pamphlet stand out. Here it feels as though we are being asked to look beyond whatever our war poetry assumptions might be. We get a sense of the job — scanning horizons, checking out light and shadow, struggling with equipment — all while the “hungering” goes on inside in the unmoored nature of a soldier’s foreign combat.

The sequence ‘Lost Things: Afghanistan (i-vii)’ includes ‘The Entire Green Spectrum’, ’19 Pounds’ (body weight) and ‘Any Romantic Tendency’. Other themes are insomnia, a schoolfriend “lost twice over” and husbands, which

is one of the better-bad-things
especially if the husband 
Is himself a Bad Thing.

a dick in Dundee doing a Delilah,
and more than one baby-face
Helen of Troy in trousers letting down
his fellow-man and his woman-at-war.

Also lost are ‘A Pair of Louboutins and a Dress of Midnight Silk’, a bridesmaid’s costume. Midnight silk would have been just right for a soldier familiar with night operations. ‘Lying in a Dark Ditch and Concerned About Your Photoreceptors?’ features a series of instructions on how to stop night flares destroying your vision and ends “we must find something to say about the horror of dark ditches.”

Many of the poems recall waiting and training for action rather than fighting; boredom, banality. Fear seeps up between the lines, helped by some striking images: sleep is “hard and horse-like” rifles are “a good nursing weight” black pillow fuel-tanks are “like huge, noxious pannacotta”. The language is plain, direct, vivid and hard-hitting. Yet the meaning is not always straightforward – the reader has work to do – there’s a sort of deliberate awkwardness in both language and juxtaposition of subject matter. Line breaks give a flatness to the tone: a counterpoint to tense and traumatic content.  

Most poems are in free verse but there’s a skilful villanelle and a golden shovel from a manual for unarmed conflict that consists of “Two-point-six-million words and not one of them love”. Young adopts and subverts military language habits, and appropriates terms and characters from classical military history and myth.  The title poem, addressed to some female co-soldiers, turns a piece of Cold War military doctrine about behind-the-lines sabotage into a rather lovely swords and ploughshares metaphor. A prose poem, ‘Flexitarian’, quotes from a medical study of female soldiers, interspersed with a commentary on stresses of soldiering.

[she takes the pill, pack after pack with no break and lies about her drinking]… higher risk of Muscular Skeletal Injury… […she rubs her hand over her neck muscles and it’s like touching someone else’s shoulders.  She feels like a dazzling sculpture that she can’t see and can’t make sense of]. 

A few of the poems are set in the aftermath of war. In one of these, the speaker considers how to comfort a former co-soldier who has post-traumatic stress syndrome.  The poem, in the form of guidelines, is brutally honest about the pitfalls:

but whatever happens don’t let this slide into a fuck – 
he won’t do it nicely and he’ll think he’s found an answer
where answers don’t fit.  

A list of the man’s anger-generating subjects is a socio-political commentary:

Try not to mention Premier League football,
Syria, oligarchy, house prices, 
potholes, paedophiles, 
your ideas on the legacy of Churchill

Above all, I found Firing Pins immensely readable, and was drawn from page to page, partly because the subject matter was so interesting. This is a memoir-in-poetry pamphlet in which the speaker and her fellow soldiers move from being hastati, the poor, young and ill-equipped front line in Roman battles, to battle-hardened triarii.  More important was the vivid sense these poems give of the emotional battles of which the speaker of these poems is a veteran – the best poems are the ones with the highest emotional charge.