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Poems from the Dirty Road: Jonathan Travelstead’s Conflict Tours

By Mike Murphy.

Review of Conflict Tours by Jonathan Travelstead

Jonathan Travelstead, Conflict Tours (Cobalt Press, 2017)

Remind me to never vacation with Jonathan Travelstead. His latest book of poetry, Conflict Tours, takes us to places we may not want to go. The migrant-strewn Sonoran desert. Lonely Appalachian mountain trails. A Ukrainian brothel. Chernobyl. But what makes his poetry interesting is the place he ultimately takes us back to: ourselves.

Travelstead is an Iraq veteran, a medic and a firefighter. He rides motorcycles and turns exotic woods and human bone (yes, human bone) into custom-made pens on a lathe in his rural Illinois home. He is a craftsman with an eye for detail. The result is an adrenalin-fueled poetry that spits out words like a Triumph Thunderbird speeding down a country road, so fast you need to slow it down to catch the scenery, taking the turns tight, always just a line or two away from laying it down on the asphalt.

His opening poem ‘Field Worker’ is a timely one, examining and contrasting the plight of the exploited Mexican laborer with that of the author’s coal miner great-grandfather and his own teenage fast-food job. The more things change, the more they stay the same for the poor, the powerless, the other. It’s the way it’s always been; today’s “bad hombre” is just yesterday’s “No Irish Need Apply”:

My friend Oliver says the field workers die by the thousands of
a mystery kidney disease, but the owners say

pesos for a study would be a waste. Say the workers
drink tequila
, say they stay out late, say they only bring it
on themselves
. Oliver says his uncle chews

cane pulp instead of food, swings his machetes
through lunch. I’ve been on this bus too long not to care,

and so I mistake the low-flying crop-duster
for something holy when it glides by, streaming parathion,
paraquat, in contrails from its wingtips,

which spreads over the men in a blue cloud
so you could believe the cane is harvested by the dead.

He is no minimalist – these are meaty poems. Travelstead’s writing occupies the interstitial spaces between poetry and narrative and prose. He avoids the war-as-gauzy-dream vernacular in favor of a literary realism that accurately depicts the mundane chores of war – his first collection, How We Bury Our Dead, was full of it. Conflict Tours is, in contrast, about the aftermath – it reads like a personal travelogue of a man on the run searching for his next fix, a journal of tiny moments captured.

Despite their detailed grittiness, Travelstead’s poems also chronicle his search for human compassion. The poem ‘Injunction’ deals with his work while patrolling the U.S.–Mexico border and an encounter with a Mexican man, his sick wife and moral choices needing to be made:

I remember the jet-black of her hair, hung 
like the buckshot-peppered rags of rattlers strung over barbed wire.
The rasp of her moistureless breath,
shoulders rising in fits and starts.

I may never learn how to say this,
how sometimes the Great Divide is not a landmark
so much as the boundary
where you decide between giving more than regulations permit
and how much sleep you need at night.

A wet towel and water.
An orange he kneaded in cracked hands,
punctured with his thumbs, then split apart
like opening a book to its middle.

Cancelled radio traffic.
A finger, pointing two clicks North.

The poems dealing with the border are the strongest and most impressive in the collection. By the time Travelstead takes us to Eastern Europe, then to Chernobyl and the Restricted Zone, we have entered a post-apocalyptic world populated not with people but only with radioactive forests and wild animals. The writing becomes colder and greyer, more technical, filled with terms like “plutonium”, “strontium-90” and “cesium-127.” Yet Travelstead is still searching for the human within the calamity. From ‘Proximity’:

A bull moose feeds between two buildings that once housed
thirty-thousand workers and their families. We stand
in a doorway entrance at the ground level, unworried,
sure his rack’s girth won’t allow him entrance.

Alert now to our presence, he lips the fallen willow twigs
into his mouth. Oksana says wolves and even
the black bear have moved into the lonely nuclear city,
seem civil as people. Alone on one of the tenement’s

upper floors where she often came to journal, 
reclining on a sill, she occasionally watched the tame things
wandering where trees broadened over 
the once-manicured lawns. She says it’s not curiosity

or pride, but time and nearness that make us forget
what is truly dangerous.

The poem ‘The Liquidators’ pays touching but chilling tribute to the Ukrainian firefighter and first-responders who died battling the 1986 reactor meltdown. Travelstead’s day job is never far from his poetry and proves a fertile and sometimes gruesome field to mine.

The drunk driver thinks he will beat the train. Does not.

That’s how it happens, too fast for the Director to shout the order.
Too fast to scramble the engineers and operators in time to trigger actuators, 
insert the retarding boron rods to slow the fusion 
when the unexpected spike in demand for power indicates the reactor to increase output,
which it does in a cascade of heat which vaporizes the remaining water, 
warping the rods so they cannot seat in the graphite block,
cannot slow the core’s runaway reactions. 
The world buckles at a point in the Ukraine.

Other poems in the collection touch on subjects ranging from the loneliness of the thru-hiker in ‘Ridgerunner’,

It’s a solitary process, and the user prefers using alone. Adrenalin
and oxygen mixed in the correct ratios. The runner’s high scored
by sprinting always over, or around his solitude until the body
throbs its pleasure-rattle, releases its cortisol, and self-medicates.
This is his real sweet tooth: Hurtling always towards something he
mistakes for bliss.

to the quiet misery and obsessive-compulsive confusion of another type of self-medication while wandering a grocery store in ‘Analysis Paralysis’:

Check email. Facebook. Thank you, no, the penis pills didn’t
work the first time. Pocket phone,
forget to check time and figure,
but now floaters dance 
like amoebae across your vision, alphanumeric symbols
unwinding as they hike across the label,
mountainous over beef.
A word said thirty times loses 
its meaning’s hard edges, lies dumb on the tongue.

Value. Isn’t that what this is about? How much it costs us
living this way.

On the surface, his poems are about place, but they are really about the people who exist within these places: Oksana, the red-haired Ukrainian tour guide returning again and again to the dead city of her youth; anonymous migrant workers who appear as wandering leather-skinned desert apparitions shimmering in the heat; the lost men of the Pripyat Fire Brigade. He is not afraid to look inward as well as outward, honestly chronicling the small and damaging things we do to ourselves, our bodies, and to each other – and the things the world does to all of us.


Mike Murphy is a writer and poet from Baltimore, Maryland.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, May 23rd, 2017.