Back of the Envelope by Greg McBride

Reviewed by Anne Harding Woodworth

Back of the Envelope
By Greg McBride
Southeast Missouri State University Press
A Copperdome Chapbook
ISBN: 978-0-9798714-98

Link to purchase

Back of the Envelope is a chapbook of 24 poems that fold a man’s life into itself. From childhood to the Vietnam War to life in the family kitchen, Greg McBride writes out his life on the back of an envelope. And there is an abundance of experience to write down. McBride examines the migrations of his military family: Yokohama during the Occupation, on the road in the backseat of a ’48 Plymouth, Texas, Okinawa, Oregon. The child is always growing up, growing up. He plays sports, gets hints of sex, and makes love.

And then, there’s Vietnam.

In Saigon, the poet sees the stars over “the street and the girls too young in the night.” He is an Army photographer, “safe/behind his camera,” entering the intimacy of the operating room. And there’s an eerie practicality, which of course is what helps a guy survive in those circumstances. In “The Army Thought of Everything” he writes:
I focused my lens, asked that the surgeon

lower a shoulder, checked on the color
temperature, all to preserve the distance
between them and me. How their bodies heaved

under machines! Intubated, chest-tubed,
they lay tethered to possibilities
of unbridled breath.

The memory of war does not go away with time. At LaGuardia Airport, the poet’s iPod idle, he sees new
Marine recruits.
Their strident left right left so like

the Huey rotor’s chop and chop hammering
at our bones, unlike our trudging gait
into the Delta, taking fire, hauling gear

high on our backs.

These evocative poems go between the “I” and the “He.” But there is never any doubt who is speaking. In “Kitchen Duty” a man has to inject a woman, using a syringe that turns into a bayonet. This is what war does to the mind. And Greg McBride has touchingly exposed the marriage of reality and memory in this fine chapbook.

Anne Harding Woodworth’s most recent book is Spare Parts, A Novella in Verse (Turning Point, 2008), and her most recent chapbook is Up From the Root Cellar (Cervena Barva Press, 2008). Her essays and poetry have appeared widely in US and Canadian journals. She is a member of the Poetry Board at the Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington DC, where she lives part-time. The rest of the time she is hiking in Cedar Mountain, NC. Visit