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“Faith and Fire Siren” - A Review

A necessary and intimate memoir-in-verse that fills the void in the collective memory and historical accounts of this First Gulf War. Fifty Miltonic sonnets link the poet’s experience as a medic and firewatcher and the repercussions on his own life and of his family’s and community. This sonnet sequence weaves the hopes and despairs of a young Indigenous, Mexican American man of faith, dreaming of his wife and daughter and creating a “basketball team of nothing more than very tall children”—that “Aztec-inspired game.” From Texas Longhorn track-runner to Operation Desert Storm veteran, the unfolding portraits in each sonnet cumulatively illustrate the devastating historical, physical, emotional, psychological cost of war. Fourteen enjambed pentameter lines in each stanza—a technique used by Milton in his epic sonnet sequences exploring political and spiritual themes—carry us through graphic interior and exterior terrains and sacrifices of modern war. I was among a spell bound audience in early 2022 when this recent Poet Laureate of Corpus Christi (2019-2020) first read excerpts from his accounts of Desert Storm, and there couldn’t have been a dry eye in the house. Reading the whole collection gathers one into a solidarity of resounding gratitude, as well as shock and awe that Juan Pérez and veterans of Desert Storm, and all wars, ever make it out alive to tell their tale.

The anaphoric opening line of each stanza, “Thirty Years Ago. . .”, links each cinematic sonnet of this poet’s journey to adulthood and becoming a husband and father. We are swept into a soldier’s sense of isolation, fear, and insecurities, and beyond this depth into unspeakable courage and humanity. From the first patient, a Senegal soldier for whom the Christian medic salvages the Qur’an, we are inside the vortex of the medic’s Desert Storm and must pray for forgiveness, for “moving about religious relics/ despite their baptism by jet-fueled flames/ for tearing off his skin, busting his bones. . .” in order to treat his life-threatening wounds. One-third in, the poet turns to the direct impact of war on family where PTSD nightmares emerge: the veteran still hears firehouse sirens, yet can’t hear or remember screaming at his beloved wife from under the bed “to get down, to stay alive.” Other layers of grief and loss compound a sense of being abandoned—a brother dying of an overdose; a broken-hearted mother; betrayals from a fellow soldier and friend, a cruelly dismissive family and society; a bottomless remorse and regret for missing the first anniversary of his baby’s birth.

Juan and Malia Pérez

The poet suffers other great personal loss, vision in one eye, hearing in one ear, leg injuries, ideations of “going flying today/nose-dive right into blue skies without wings.” The quiet homage to John Milton’s Paradise Lost reflects more than unrhymed sonnets. The veteran medic is still “staring down sand/death, matching blow for blow,” wandering in the desert thirty years ago, “still there in my gas mask and lost.” While he remembers observing God’s creation through a transport helicopter about to lift off, arresting beauty in the chaos and uncertainty, he doesn’t surrender to even a hint of glory. There isn’t a resolution or redemption here for war and its vast, repeating tragedies, only a stark and steely chronicle of reality that spearheads the First Gulf War into our collective consciousness. The poet allows us inside a personal desert storm of remarkable sacrifice and love, and in doing so, invites a deeper connection with our veterans and a vital recognition of the profound personal and communal cost of war. The sense of responsibility to do our small part in shifting consciousness to a way of living without violence becomes more urgent. Juan’s poems are faith and fire siren to guide our way.

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