Where They Meet is a brilliant collection of poems by one of OAF’s own—the hard hitting, word slinging Cokie Actual.
The duality I got from this read is striking. It’s hard to picture a former Scout Sniper turned PMC, tatted up with ink that would make the Commandant blush, set his rifle down for a quill and parchment. But he does it. It seems impossible that a contractor glorifying rolling up Terry with his mobile murder squad would live day to day as a humble Christian. But he does it. Experience and stereotype says that grizzled veterans with wartime careers aren’t usually creative spirits or seminary students, but Cokie is.
One might think that the mask of a pseudonym inhibits a reader’s ability to attach to an intimate persona, but Cokie’s words will make you laugh, cringe, cry, and strive to improve your own personal greatness as he takes us on a journey of death, love, and life from the battlefields of Afghanistan and Iraq to rural Indiana. These lines help us begin to understand Cokie’s complex duality:
The tribes and the beasts of our frayed foes’ desires
surely contrast with these angels of ours!
But what if that checkerboard held no white knights,
no ivory pawns, the darkness to fight?
As a veteran whose enlistments were in my teens and twenties, I was never what Cokie called in his poem “The Old Hand” though I had many of those fatherly figures throughout my career. I’ll never forget the wisdom imparted on me by my first gun chief to meet others’ needs ahead of my own, my team leader’s advice to grow and learn in my twenties as much as I can, and my cultural instructor’s passive advice on finding ways to live beautifully even when times are tough. Cokie has been around the block for a while, and his rhythmic wisdom from being one of these “Old Hand” figures resonated with me in the following lines:
So Newbies, you listen to Veteran’s growl,
and do what he says with the utmost of cheer.
He’ll teach you to live through the worst of the war.
His instructions are harsh, but deadly sincere.
The seven lines of Cokie’s “(you never forget your) First Kill” take the reader through the emotional irony that his first kill was an unemotional experience he’ll never forget. This contrasts with “The (abridged) Afghan” whose stereotypes are humorously laid out in a creative page that any veteran would appreciate.
The latter half of the book takes more of a religious tone. His addition of Christian principles and family values alongside other wartime lines narrows the duality of this cutthroat man of God as we start to better understand his character and motivations. I grew up in a cult and usually keep my walls up when religious topics appear in my life, but Cokie’s words were warm and did not come across as too preachy or charlatanistic. These lines from “Old Deployment Bible” struck a chord with me, because in the cult we were not allowed to drink coffee or use tobacco products. When I left for the Army, I found more solace in the hard drinking, smoking, Terry-slaying, steel-jacking, tattooed hitters who always had my back than the desert-dwelling Jesus-loving charlatans who were ready to discard me or anyone else who didn’t toe the line. To me, those experiences made the following lines even more beautiful:
A deployment gift, I stole it for free
from a chapel in that dusty FOB,
and carried it everywhen and everywhere
for blessings and edification.
The years carved themselves upon the yielding gray
cover stained with spilled coffee
and Copenhagen-darkened fingers,
the pages with ink and tears.
As lines written for his son transcend time alongside words learned from our longest war, the book wraps up into a heart-wrenching and hopeful poem I dare not spoil, tying up feelings about death, life, family, forgiveness, and God’s compassionate love for all mankind. This rewarding read is definitely a niche journey for fathers, Christians, veterans who want to relate, and civilians who seek to understand. I don’t particularly picture this book being appreciated by the gentrified city slicker liberal arts crowd. With that being said, if it sounds like this book fits your style, it will be Five Spades one of the best GWOT poetry voyages written by our own OG OAF hitter.
Cop yourself a copy of Where They Meet at cokieactual.com and take the journey with this unlikely poet. You won’t forget it.