Chris Collins saw a lot of bad things on his tours in Afghanistan and Iraq. Explosions. Injured soldiers. Dead civilians. But what haunts him most is the image of a young Afghani boy, about 8 years old, who had stepped on a land mine.
He was manning a checkpoint when a man rushed up carrying the screaming child. The boy lifted what was left of his leg. It was a shard of bone. Both legs had been blown off. Two of his men who were EMTs treated the boy on the spot, trying to stop the bleeding, until the medics could take him away.
“I don’t know if he lived or died,” Collins says. “It was a centering moment for me. He makes an appearance in a lot of my poetry.”
Collins is one of the lucky ones. He survived his tours and returned home undamaged, at least physically. To treat the damage inside, he turned to poetry. He says it’s a way for him to “order the disorder” he experienced in his 12 years as a reserve officer.
“It’s therapy,” he says.
Collins got his start as a writer when he was studying business at Thomas More College. In his sophomore year, he took a creative writing course from the Franciscan writer Fr. Murray Bodo. The course—and the priest—changed his life. “I never had someone tell me I was good at something,” he says.
Collins changed his major to English, graduated in 1998 and taught at a Catholic school while studying at Xavier for his teaching degree. He graduated in 2001 and was commissioned a second lieutenant in the Army. Then Sept. 11 happened, and he was sent to Afghanistan for eight months. He did two other tours in Iraq and left the Army in 2011.
Collins pursued poetry throughout his military career. It was while studying for a Master of Fine Arts from Murray State University that his poetry became linked with war. Now Collins is studying theology at Xavier and teaching high school English in Cincinnati. But he keeps writing.
His work has been included in two poetry anthologies, and he published a chapbook earlier this year titled Gathering Leaves for War: Poems. The title refers to the pressed fall leaves his wife and son sent him while he was in Afghanistan.
In the title poem, the father dies with the pressed leaf still in his pocket. In another, a child’s foot grazes a curb before exploding into mist and confetti. Yet another imagines cauterizing the memory of the injured boy’s legs. The poetry is helping him overcome his anger.
“I hated God for a long time,” Collins says. “How can God allow a little child to be blown to pieces? It’s always the civilian element that suffers.”
[divider] From Gathering Leaves for War [/divider]
Offering us tea
after destroying your door—
At the table of warlords
we sat cross-legged
before a whole chicken
stuffed with rice, dried
apricots and berries.
Our bearded host commanded
Khwrem, and soldiers
shoveled their fingers
into the chicken’s ass
then to their mouth
and back for more.
The young private, eighteen,
part of the security’s detail
said, “Sir” as if apologizing
for his appetite’s loss, averted
his eyes, lowered his head.
Leaning close I whispered
or we’ll die going home.”
A child’s torso
like a speed bump only slows
the crowded market.
[Gathering Leaves for War can be purchased through Finishing Line Press.]