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  • Writer's pictureJonathan Baxter

Review: "With a Pen" by Leo Jenkins

In his first poetry anthology, memoirist and former Army Ranger, Leo Jenkins, gives new meaning to the concept of veterans’ writing. While a few of the poems in this collection deal overtly with military themes and veterans’ issues, the preponderance of the pieces are reflections on life and living drawn from his extensive travel experiences. In this sense, Leo draws on a deeper meaning of the word, “veteran,” as from the Latin, vetus, meaning “old.” For Leo is indeed older than his years, having pursued careers as a Ranger medic, contractor, gym owner, hitchhiking globetrotter, vagabond philosopher, and bibulous bard of wine, women, and song. He brings the vitality of his experiences to this anthology, producing a work that is at once ebullient and despondent, parse and verbose, full of pithy insights and passionate affirmations.

In the first part of the book, titled “Love and Truth,” Leo explores these themes against the backdrop of his extensive travels and life experiences. From spirit quests in Peru to sketchy train rides across Portugal, he examines the truths he has acquired through a life lived with no limitations.

In “I’ve Seen Things,” he chronicles a few of his journeys, “Been high in Amsterdam/low down in the Grand Canyon…” He continues with a list of his travels before arriving at the revelation, “What I seek and sought unknowingly/is a love divine, till the end of time/and a heart filled endlessly.”

This theme of searching and living and learning permeates the book, and he juxtaposes much of his philosophical insights with the more commercial or self-centered values of modern society. In “Social Grand Design,” he observes: “Another bucket on the back of the overtaxed/while the others sip espresso/from behind the glass.”

In “The Internet is a Strange Place” he marvels at the unrelenting negativity of today’s social media-obsessed society. “Let’s get back to those obscenities/narcissistic tendencies/gender remedies/presidential depravities/leveraged generosities/oh please…even his holiness the Dalai Lama has Twitter.”

In “Conflicted,” he presents a litany of modern society’s desires for improving ratings, selling products, “hands gone groping for dopamine and prime ad space,” “plastic tits selling metal tombs,” and hillside mansions, “sitting vacant, overlooking desperation.”

In the second half of the book, “Whiskey and War,” Leo begins to address more military themes. In “More Than Our War,” he discusses military service and the challenge of assimilation into civilian society. “The ones returned still burned/this time, from the inside/night after sleepless night/begging to feel less alive.”

In “She’d Be About 13 By Now,” he remembers a baby encountered during a violent night raid and wonders what became of her, a sentiment that undoubtedly resonates with more than a few veterans of the Global War on Terror.

He concludes the anthology with “Another American Blockbuster,” which portrays the GWOT in terms of an expensive Hollywood movie production. “We’ve changed directors a dozen times/blurred the lines of our crimes/with foreign extras filling faded chalk outlines.”

With his anthology, Leo presents a chronicle of a life lived “one hundred percent and then some.” The lessons, regrets, loves, and truths he has acquired along the way are ample fodder for the poems of this anthology. In his hands, he takes the pen from the title and uses it as an edged weapon to cut as deeply as possible into his chest and pour out his innermost emotions onto the pages. The resultant blood, tear, and whiskey-soaked poems are a testament to his honesty, insight, and artistry and will ring with the authenticity that can only come from first-hand experience.

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