Dennis Etzel, Jr.’s deeply inspired My Secret Wars of 1984 is a wholly original collection. Each page contains an untitled prose poem, which add up to 366 alphabetized sentences, one for each day in 1984. That year is emphasized on every page, as song and film titles from that time take on new meaning. For Etzel, it was a “cruel summer,” and the way he and his family were treated was a “neverending story.”
Each poem feels like a jumble, a burst of thought—perhaps a representation of how a sensitive young boy’s mind might work. As I worked my way through the book, the significance of Etzel’s form became clear: “By drawing a panel for my story, a box surrounds me” (29). Indeed, comic books and superheroes play a huge part in this book, starting with the title, a reference to the 1984 comic book series Marvel Super Heroes Secret Wars. Etzel, “a scholar of origin stories” (26), finds comfort in “the walls of comic books” (42), where he feels safe from wars both global and personal.
Etzel contrasts huge political events—“Reagan says” is a refrain that appears in more than twenty poems—with seemingly smaller personal events. However, the message this book conveys so beautifully is that no war is more or less important than another. The ache of transitioning “from middle to high school, from thirteen to fourteen” (19), of being bullied, of not being able to protect one’s mother, is as palpable as any Armageddon. Rather than dwell in painful moments, Etzel reveals flashes. His gym teacher tells him, “I hope you fall in life” after he falls from the chin-up bar. The Topeka ice storm, “the most damaging…in the city’s history” (50), is both literal and figurative; after Etzel’s mother comes out, “the neighborhood pushes us to the far side of the block, out of bounds” (72).
Another theme of this book is language as a lifeline. For writers, language is all we’ve got to make ourselves heard, but it’s so imperfect: “If language induces a yearning for comprehension, for perfect and complete expression, it also guards against it” (46). However, Etzel shouldn’t worry. His experiment with form—his 366 alphabetized sentences—is in no way gimmicky. Rather, it adds a layer to an already profound collection. In My Secret Wars of 1984, Etzel has found order in the chaos.