Editor’s note: Before I first saw the poem “Front Sight Manual” (above) I saw this note from its maker:
“My name is Terrell Fox and I am […] a former Marine with no skills in drawing, painting, singing, dancing, music, photography or sculpture, so I try to write as my way of artistic expression.
“I wrote ‘Front Sight Manual’ as a response to the clinical language in the Marine Corps M-9 service pistol manual. I went through and extracted words based on their frequency of use and then rearranged them to form an approximation of the standard issue sidearm.”
When I initially opened the file that contained Terrell’s “piece,” I was taken first by its shape, obviously. It recalled to me Floating Gun Sculpture by Michael Murphy. Seeing “Front Sight Manual”’s lines, as sleek as an actual handgun, with no artistic elements drawing my attention to any one particular spot, my mind got busy with multiple modes of consuming the work. As I processed the piece, my awareness went like this:
1. I see the image itself. It’s a gun. A pristine, well-crafted gun. You definitely have my attention.
2. I’m attracted to the distinct words that make up the image. I look closer, seeing specific words, counting them.
3. I’m reading across, to discover the order and meaning, the deeper narrative.
Finding the piece as part shape poem, part mantra, part recipe (or therapeutic exercise) torn from a gun professional’s notebook, I needed to know more. So I looked up the Marine Corps M-9 service pistol manual. Then I contacted Terrell to talk more about his work. Here is part of our discussion:
Terrel Fox: “I initially wrote ‘Front Sight Manual’ as a way to find some kind of beauty in an otherwise straightforward component of military life (in this case, marksmanship training — I used to be a pistol marksmanship instructor). I played around with acrostic arrangements and erasure, but ultimately settled on the removal and rearrangement of certain frequent (and, apparently) infrequent words.
“My initial intent was to take the shape of a gun, an already polarizing and powerful image in and of itself, and fill it with the words that help shape the act of shooting. There are phrases that I use both as an instructor and as a student that help overcome the stress and physical difficulty which surrounds consistent accurate shooting. I say, ‘Front sight, front sight’ and ’slow steady squeeze to the rear’ over and over in order to detach my (and my student’s) mind from the physical and mental act of shooting. I try to make it as natural as breathing; to exert such control over an unnatural act (shooting) as to make it a natural process (breathing). I tried to show how the words can take the reader (or the shooter) to a Zen-like state where one is relaxed and steady throughout the whole process. It was a juxtaposition of violence and peace.”
Stacy Muszynski: “The repetition and cadence, the peace and violence entwined. It sounds like the practicing of anything fully and wholly — with mind, body and spirit. Yoga, music or sport, for examples. I had never considered how necessary the connection would be for marksmanship.
“And so there’s your strange and beautiful juxtapositions combined with what you don’t include — what you don’t say, what’s left out — that tell your story. The actual juxtapositions, your word choices, I’d like to talk about in a bit. For now, let’s get specific about what you don’t include, what’s missing from your piece: I noticed while reading the Marine Corps M-9 service pistol manual that ‘Front Sight Manual’ is based on, some words you don’t include, words whose double entendre for me are emotional, metaphorical, spiritual, ethical. ‘Weight,’ for example. ‘Tolerances,’ for example. Also: ‘never’ and ‘free.’ Can you speak to their missingness in your work and how you want readers to see, feel, understand exactly what you see, feel and understand about the manual and what happens beyond the manual — in real life?
TF: “I tried to rearrange the words to reflect more about consequence, but, in the end, I changed the front sight to be ambiguous about the nature of the target, added a few words about control in the trigger section (based on the concept of shooting controlled pairs, the “double tap” into a target), and then the final hammer fall at the end (which can be read either as the actual hammer striking the firing pin or the fall of the gavel passing judgment, followed by the final sentence). I prefer to keep the questions of situation and consequence up to the reader.
“As far as the words related to “missingness” go, I felt like certain words were overly charged with external meaning (free, tolerances, etc.) and they would add too much context to the situation, or perhaps add commentary about the nature of Marine Corps indoctrination beyond just the shooting element. I suppose it was more of a study in the moment, of the internal mental process (identifying and engaging the target) coupled with the external physical human process (aiming and squeezing the trigger) and the external mechanical process (firing the gun). The combat situations are tangentially mentioned in the M-9 Manual and there is little in there about the consequences of shooting beyond failure to stop the target (hence the training to follow up shots with more shots). I thought that it would be both truer to the intent of the manual and to my own vision for the piece to stay with words and structure that kept the reader in the moment.
“I could also go on all day about the conflict between what it means to be both a human and a member of the military (not that they are mutually exclusive) and how that balance is constantly in flux, especially in dynamic wartime situations, and how my opinions have shifted over these last 16 years about the wars in the Middle East and the government’s reasoning behind the use of military force, not to mention the militarization of police forces and the social consequences which follow. It is something I think about and struggle with on a daily basis.”
SM: “For you, what does it mean to be human and a member of the military? When are(n’t) they mutually exclusive?”
TF: “This is a difficult question to answer, and I don’t pretend to speak for all members of the
military. For me, to be a human and a member of the military, a Marine specifically, means that one must find humanity in the midst of such staggering inhumanity. It means taking care not to kill a donkey during a gunfight because that donkey is some family’s livelihood; it is all they have. It means smiling at people who are suspicious of you and treating them like your neighbor even if you come from completely different worlds. It means being able to flip a switch and go from laughing and joking with the local children to engaging enemy soldiers without any thought of a future beyond the next three seconds and then switching immediately back to laughing about which one of your friends fell in a wadi during the shooting all the while you are providing emergency medical attention to the wounded people who were just trying to kill you. The difficulty is maintaining that ability to exist in two mindsets. It is exhausting to make that switch over and over again over the span of months and years, and my fear was what if I could never switch back? The challenge, I suppose, is to never forget that the people on both ends of the gun are the same. Regardless of nationality, skin color, religion, ideology, sexual orientation or socioeconomic status, we all bleed red.”
SM: “In this way, you stand, fully human, at the intersection of technical professional, armed service member, artist. If we believe what E.L. Doctorow said — ‘Well, I think that the national soul is always the big story; who we are, what we’re trying to be, what our fate is, where we will stand in the moral universe when these things are reckoned. That’s always the big story.’ — what is the big story according to your piece? Or… is your piece telling a littler story?”
TF: “As for the big story/little story idea, which I love to think about now that you speak of it, I think there are two things happening simultaneously, both of which relate to the use of force by the military. The first, the little story, is the calming methods of an individual falling back on training processes and taking their first shot with a weapon. What did the shooter see? What prompted the shooting response? What were the thoughts going through the shooter’s mind? Do the words eclipse the thoughts or are the words the thoughts? ‘Front Sight Manual’ isn’t a very long piece but it does take some time to read because of both the structure and the words themselves, so the moments from target identification to shooting stretch and elongate. It takes longer to read through it than the actual act takes to perform, mimicking the time dilation that one may experience in intense life or death scenarios.
“The big story is about who orders the use of the weapon. Who put the shooter in that scenario, and
to what end? I think of it as a story about the individual shooter using a gun for a specific purpose (most likely unknown or obscured to the shooter), with the government using the individual shooter as the weapon. Guns are tools. The real weapon is who shoots the gun. My question is, who aims the weapon? Who decides how the tools are used?”
SM: “What’s the real weapon in times of war — the gun or the shooter? Is it different any other time?”
TF: “I believe the real weapon is the shooter or, I suppose in a broader historical sense, the warrior. The tools (swords and shields versus guns and body armor) and places (Greece, Rome, Europe, Feudal Japan, the Middle East) differ, but the people using the tools rarely change. It is the training, mindset, drilling, and physical conditioning that shape the person into a weapon capable of using any tool to accomplish an objective.”
SM: “In times of war, who’s in control of that weapon — the individual or the military?”
TF: “Tough question, especially in light of America’s all-volunteer military. I’ll use myself as an example again. I chose to join the Marine Corps but [the United States of] America chose to point the Marine Corps at the Middle East. Once there, despite all the missions and orders and requirements, it always came down to my decision to shoot or not. I think that conscience, or at least that ability to be able to look myself in the mirror and answer to myself for my own actions, plays the biggest role in answering the question of control.”
SM: “Have you ever made a decision that, afterward, you couldn’t look yourself in the mirror? And what about that possible consequence, regret?”
TF: “I’ve made decisions that I regret, sure, but they were more of a product of being in a situation
where I had to choose the least worst decision for that instance. The responsibility for making those particular decisions was mine alone and any emotional or physical consequence was mine to bear. I
accept it. Sometimes I think about what I could’ve done differently but that is from a standpoint of having more information available to me now than at the time of the decision. I can still look myself in the mirror and tell myself that today is a new day and maybe I can try to help someone’s life be a
little bit better in even the smallest of ways. My antidote to my past regrets is a combination of hopefulness and helpfulness. Maybe I can smile at someone at the store and say hi, or give a commiserating nod to someone next to me as we stand in the rain together waiting for a bus. I can use what I’ve experienced in the past to shape how I approach the present.”
SM: “Control. Control of self. Control of action and articulation. Control of language. And with that, we enter into the part of our discussion about juxtapositions and word choices in ‘Front Sight Manual.’ We can see your major question in the center of your piece:
allow allow progressive knowing / correctly alongside important / elements accurate accurate aim / designed weapon weapon control / purpose controlled pair pair / ensuring shoot
“At the end, while you, as you mentioned, ‘prefer to keep the questions of situation and consequence up to the reader,’ your words direct (admonish?) readers to:
squeeze sight grip / mechanism grip aim / joined second front / three two two / one one front front / firing firing firing / firing firing firing / firing firing firing / squeeze firing firing / squeeze firing squeeze / firing firing hammer / falls fire
“Typing the words puts me in that Zen-like trance you mentioned — as if I’m the shooter actively preparing, breathing and firing 14 shots in a row. And I experience the final hammer fall at the end as both ‘the actual hammer striking the firing pin’ and ‘the fall of the gavel passing judgment, followed by the final sentence.’
“What’s more, to your point earlier about the reader bringing their notion of consequences, I do just that. I see in the juxtaposition — ‘hammer / falls fire’ — direct cause and effect. I see the human situation: first, the hammer; next, the falling target; then the fire, metaphoric and actual.”
TF: “It’s interesting to me that you read the multiples of ‘firing’ as individual shots. I chose to put
the ‘firing’ string of words together as a representation of the trigger squeeze, of how much time seems to elapse during that slow steady squeeze to the rear. My intent was to use the word ‘firing’ as a measure of time, as a metric of the process rather than the final round in a list of shots. For me, the only shot in the piece comes at the final ‘fire.’ Everything else occurs between the initial target identification and when the hammer falls.”
SM: “Because you are the marksman and the M-9 pistol expert here, can you speak to other word choices you made, other juxtapositions — including what you said earlier about ‘shooting controlled pairs, the “double tap” into a target,’ and other choices?”
TF: “The controlled pairs and double tap are the mental reminder to the shooter that one shot might not be enough. The shooter needs to prepare for the possibility that the target may need multiple rounds fired at it before it is neutralized. I wanted to show not only the physical actions of taking that first shot but also a snapshot of the mindset and thought process that goes into accurate shooting, especially to prepare oneself for a follow-up shot, a controlled pair. The numbers, the ‘three two two / one one front front’ are what I use sometimes when I shoot. They are a way to calm my mind and count down to an action; a way to center myself and focus on the front sight. The word choices are meant to float back and forth between the mental and the physical, and to show that they are intertwined despite the juxtaposition. I placed the words ‘firing’ and ‘fire’ towards the end (the grip) because that is generally the last step in the shooting process. Shifting the words towards the trigger area would free up some space for a tactical consideration known as follow-through, where the shooter gets the sights back on target as quickly as possible.
“Regarding the sight area: Accurate shooting, at its most basic parts, is all about two things: sight alignment and trigger control. The manual (and my instruction, I suppose) focuses on properly aligning the sights to the target in such a way that the front sight is crisp and focused while the target is blurry and indistinct. In training, I instructed my students to first think through all the steps, and then repeat the steps until they no longer had to think about them. Their eyes and hands would work independent from conscious thought; when the target and sights line up, their finger would squeeze on its own. If done correctly, the shot comes as a mild surprise.
“The shooting process should be such that you train to respond physically the same way every time so that if you are in a situation where conscious thought goes right out the window, your body will still know how to react to a threat and you will be able to take the same steps to engage the target. It is about making the unnatural natural. It is interesting to me just how those natural body processes get conditioned to do something so unusual, like taking a piece of machinery and using it as a physics problem to harness an explosion and send a little shard of metal at something faster than you can even think about it. The human [eye] can’t really focus on more than one thing at a time, so focusing on the front sight helps you to steady both the shooter mentally and the firearm physically. The blurring effect on the target provides a psychological distance. It’s a strange paradox where the less you focus on the target the more accurate you will be in hitting the target. I hoped to capture some of that paradox with this piece while using the singular moment of seeing/shooting as a way to reconcile the juxtaposition of the words and thought processes involved. It’s why I chose to group the words in a way that leads the reader through the process.
“The string of ‘nonfiring nonfiring nonfiring nonfiring’ is there to show that the shooter is settling in, getting to the right mindset. It transitions to a whole line of ‘fingers finger’ to show how the shooter tightens his or her grip with the thumb and three lower fingers while leaving the trigger finger loose and separate from the rest of the hand. The words flow from longer strings in the upper slide and lower receiver area to the shorter groupings in the trigger group and grip as a way to highlight the compression of thought and time and physical action.
“The last part, the mix of ‘firing firing squeeze firing’ is there to show how a shooter’s thoughts bounce back and forth from a steady squeeze to the front sight to squeeze to sight until the gun fires. For me, it’s almost a spiritual chant. In the midst of uncertainty and chaos, these words and processes can be oddly calming. That’s what I was trying to convey, at least. I hope I was successful.”
SM: “Terrell, you have walked us into the crux of the heart of the eye of the thing: The compression of thought and time and physical action plus the human battle of self plus spiritual chant puts this action you’re expert at in the realm of what … ? Faith? What do we call it? And because you mention the spiritual, I ask: Where, if anywhere (in ‘Front Sight Manual’ and in the life) does God reside?”
TF: “I suppose I meant spiritual in the transcendent sense, in moving beyond the past and the future and existing solely in the moment, achieving the same state of mind as with surfing or yoga. I fall a lot in yoga and I was never a good surfer but I enjoyed taking my longboard out and trying to catch a wave or two. Surfing forced me to let everything go and to focus on the immediate present. I had to be wholly there in order not to tumble off the board and drown. Shooting, good shooting, is like that. There is a moment where everything comes together — training, mindset, reflexes, body conditioning, body positioning — and the rest of the world slips away. I think God might exist in those moments, in that blink of an eye that draws out into eternity. I don’t know what to call it exactly, but I know it when I’m there. I think everyone tries to find that moment in their own way. Nowadays, I try to find it while shooting at the range. It’s in honing something where no matter how good you are, you can always be better.”
SM: “Terrell, tell me more about one of those moments where and when God might exist.”
TF: “At the risk of sparking controversy, I would say that being in the flow of the process and lining up a shot at the shooting range that strikes the target perfectly is one of those moments. It is for me at least, and it is a rare thing to accomplish. It’s one of the reasons why I keep at it and why I practice as much as I can: to get to that moment when my body is settled, I’m in the rhythm of the physical manipulation of the firearm, my breathing is controlled and regular, the voices of the other shooters around me are muted, and my own interrupting conscious thoughts are silent. [It’s the meditative training state I like to find, not a glorification of violence.] It’s the moment of feeling total connection between my quiet mind and relaxed body, like with surfing, only I don’t get water in my ear.”
TERRELL FOX is in his final year of the MFA program in Creative Writing and Poetics at the University of Washington Bothell. His portfolio includes fiction, creative nonfiction, and prose poetry. He is a Pacific Northwest native who enjoys reading about astronomy, emergent technology, military history, and the history of Washington State. A former Marine officer, Terrell is crafting his experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan into a collection of short stories.