Soldier's Mother Bridges Distance with Poetry

When Frances Richey's son deployed to Iraq in 2004, their relationship was strained by their very different views about the war. While her son was gone, Frances Richey wrote poetry about her own experience and her son's. Richey speaks with NPR's Guy Raz about her poems and the bond they helped renew with her son.

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GUY RAZ, host:

From leaders now to the soldiers who follow them into war. When Ben Richey first deployed to Iraq in 2004, he left behind a strained relationship with his mother, Frances. They had different views about the war, passionate views. Major Ben Richey served two tours in Iraq as a Green Beret, and while he was gone his mother wrote poems, poems meant to bridge the distance.

Frances Richey joins us from our studios in New York to share some of that poetry. It's compiled in a volume called "The Warrior." Welcome to the program.

Ms. FRANCES RICHEY (Poet): Oh, thank you. Thank you for having me.

RAZ: What gave you the urge to pick up a pen and write poetry about what you were feeling?

Ms. RICHEY: Well, my feelings were so overwhelming. It's such a feeling of powerlessness when someone you love is truly in harm's way and there's really nothing you can do to protect them. So aside from work, writing somehow was the greatest help. Because when I was writing, even though Ben wasn't here and even though our relationship was strained, I felt a little closer to him.

RAZ: Did you ever send any of your poems to Ben while he was deployed to Iraq?

Ms. RICHEY: No, no, no. No, because he was in combat and our relationship was strained, and these are not sweet poems. They're truthful, and they express what was really happening for me at home imagining what might be happening for him over there, and it was an observation of what we were going through but from a very deep place inside me.

And I really didn't think that he needed to go to that place while he was in combat.

RAZ: Frances Richey, you say that there was a strain in the relationship between you and Ben. It was over the war.

Ms. RICHEY: It was. It was actually over politics and world view and really, it wasn't a problem until he was in Special Forces training and then getting ready to go to Iraq. Because then, you know, it's real; you're not arguing in the abstract. I was arguing with someone who was going to go and whose life was going to be in danger every day.

RAZ: Did the poems you wrote help in any way to bridge that gap between you and Ben?

Ms. RICHEY: It did, it did. It's been sort of a miracle to me. When he started reading them after he came home from this second tour of duty, our relationship started to just slowly get better. And we were talking about the poems, but it was getting easier to just talk about everyday things. And that strain that had been in our relationship was just gradually lifting.

And it took a while for me to realize that probably the poems had something to do with it.

RAZ: And normally on Memorial Day, we honor those who have fallen in battle. Your son survived both of his tours in Iraq. But there's one poem you wrote that struck me. It's almost in anticipation of a memorial. The poem's called "One Week Before Deployment."

Ms. RICHEY: This particular poem is the result of a visit that I made to Ben's home in Colorado Springs before he left for his first deployment.

RAZ: He was at Fort Carson.

Ms. RICHEY: He was at Fort Carson and had just bought his first house. And he said, you know, I want you to come and see my house, you know, to see you before I leave, but you have to promise not to cry. And so my way of finding a way not to cry was I asked him to go through all his plans with me, all the things that he had to pack, all the things that he had to do before he actually deployed.

So this six-part poem, One Week Before Deployment," was the result of his actually saying, yeah, sure, I'll go through everything with you.

RAZ: Would you read the beginning of it for us?

Ms. RICHEY: Sure.

One week before deployment: packing. There was something about the helmet in a pile of gear by the fireplace. Once another soldier's, now my son's, it called to me the way the dying do when they can no longer speak, an irresistible pull like gravity or love. I wanted to touch it.

Two pairs of desert camo boots stood beside the black recliner. They shouldn't have been beautiful, shimmering like suede, lightweight for easy movement, never worn. A man can't wear another man's boots. They mold to his feet, carry his scent, his sweat absorbed in the hide. They take on the shape of his bunions, his burdens, the soles worn down with his rhythms, his weight when he walks.

I've seen pictures of those makeshift totems in the desert. They call the name out three times, three times the silence. A pair of boots beside a rifle, its nose in the sand, the barrel standing for the soft ribs of a body.

RAZ: A mother's anticipation one week before her son deploys to Iraq. That was Frances Richey reading from "The Warrior: A Mother's Story of a Son at War." Frances Richey, thanks so much for being with us.

Ms. RICHEY: Oh, thank you.

(Soundbite of music)

RAZ: Up next, the story of another poet, one born 100 years ago today.

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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