Corrina Wycoff Reviews Crysta Casey’s “Rules for Walking Out”

This review is forthcoming in Raven Chronicles Journal, Vol. 24, HOME, out July 7, 2017.

Cave Moon Press
P.O. Box 1773, Yakima, WA 98907
2017, paper, 86 pp., $12.95

Rules for Walking Out—Crysta Casey’s second posthumously released poetry collection—chronicles Casey’s life during and after military service. Her poems stretch from the Parris Island boot camp where her enlistment began in 1978, to the Seattle Veteran’s Hospital where her life ended thirty years later. She rarely editorializes. Instead, with journalistic distance, Casey juxtaposes her experiences, revealing their complexity, and creating a deeply authentic, poignant memoir in verse.

An enlisted woman in the 1970s, Casey lived the sexual politics of Marine culture. A boot camp poem quotes the chaplain, who derides the all-female troop as “lesbians [and] whores” while the drill instructor asks, “How many of you joined because love is a pain in the ass?” This ambiguity between exploitation and agency recurs in several poems written about her time in active duty. In one, Casey’s “legs [are] spread open to officers who . . . ask [her] to suck / them like a cherry popsicle, only hot / like corn on the cob.” In another, she confesses, “I needed the money. They tipped well. I only knew them as fellow Marines; I had my own male friend off-base.”

Casey serves under Captain Bowman. It is Bowman, ultimately, whose false allegations of Casey’s suicide attempts result in her commitment to the military hospital’s psychiatric ward. His authority as a male officer means more than the inaccuracies of his accusations. The volume’s preface, “A Curse—for Captain Bowman,” explains: “You told them I was slitting / my wrists . . . . You said, ‘In the bathroom / in her room . . .’ The toilets were down the hall. / You didn’t even know / how enlisted people lived . . .”

While his mendacity seems clear, Bowman’s sanity does not. Casey and other female lance corporals clean his office. One poem describes discarding plastic spoons they find in “coffee cups, where dried noodles / claw the sides like ivy,” only to be shouted at, via intercom, “Where are my spoons?” Bowman “orders a detachment . . . to find some spoons.” A prolonged scavenger hunt ensues for replacement spoons of the specific weight and thickness Bowman requires. Not long afterward, still on base but threatened with commitment to the psych ward, Casey aptly claims, “I am on the psych ward . . . The truth is, I am.”

Once literally institutionalized, Casey receives a schizo-affective disorder diagnosis and begins “writing furiously in a new notebook” about the fellow soldiers she meets on the ward. Like Casey herself, they seem no more insane than the uninstitutionalized Captain Bowman. Anne, a fellow Marine, refuses to take the prescribed medicine. Casey writes, “I already swallowed mine. / Anne is sure I’ll die.” And Anne’s worry isn’t wholly wrong. Casey writes that her “thoughts are more exciting when [she’s] not on meds.” The meds trample and circumscribe her imagination. “On medication,” she writes, “I think of vacuuming the carpet.”

Casey relocates to Seattle in the 1980s after her honorable medical discharge. She is an indigent military veteran struggling with mental illness, yet poems about these post-military years remain keen and clear-eyed. One wryly describes Jim, the homebound, depressed Vietnam Vet who one day decides “to go downtown to the VA Regional Office and make sure he was going to get an American flag on his coffin,” only to be told, by the clerk, that military records already list him as dead. Another observes a five-year-old boy playing by a fountain, pretending to have been shot in the head. She writes of a Marine killed in Iraq and of a middle class civilian woman who, when asked why a nearby flag flies at half-mast, suggests Orville Redenbacher’s death. She writes of her friend Kim, a cross-dresser and former bomber pilot, living in shoddy transient housing, directly across the street from the municipal campus where the courthouse stands.

Casey, also a self-taught painter, overlays these baldly rendered situations with deliberately colored images. One of her active duty poems mentions a visit she makes to her family during a Christmas leave. There, she receives a gift of acrylic paints: “red, yellow, blue, black, and white,” all the colors needed to replicate the American flag and the Marines logo. Casey employs this palette as a central motif. On the psychiatric ward of the military hospital, she writes of living among “black sheep, white artists and poets.” There, she will sit in the dayroom and “stack white, / blue, and red poker chips / into a tower, knock it down with dice, then pile the chips again.” She writes of a Black female Marine found murdered in the barracks.

Sometimes, she mixes pigments. Writing of a literal self-portrait, she describes: “I wear a camouflage shirt . . . Only black nylons cover my legs . . . My feet are partially covered by black, open-toed high heels.” She writes of the “green cammie shirt” she buys at a garage sale when, as a veteran, she finally declares herself “Private/General of [her] own Army.” Finally, at the VA hospital, in yet another dayroom, she will “refuse to paint green or gold” on the paint-by-numbers set. She paints another self-portrait instead: “pink cheeks, red lips.” She paints a hand below the portrait, paints numbers on its fingernails, “each with purple hues.”

Describing her expression in this self-portrait, Casey deems it “sad as a baby’s hunger.” But a baby’s hunger cannot always be assuaged by bottle or breast. The keening continues without protecting the listener’s comfort, without assigning any blame, and without offering any advice. Rules for Walking Out is just as unapologetic, as innocent, and as discomfiting.

Corrina Wycoff is the author of two books of fiction, O Street, a novel-in-stories (OV Press, 2008), and Damascus House, a novel (Spuyten Duyvil, 2016). Her fiction and essays have also appeared in many journals and anthologies. She lives in Seattle and teaches English at Pierce College.