Benjamin Busch, author of the new memoir Dust to Dust (Ecco, hardcover), writes with the precision of a stonemason, the courage of a combat veteran, and the inquisitiveness of an artist, which makes sense, because he is all of those things. Busch is a visual artist, photographer, and filmmaker, and he served two tours in Iraq as a Marine Corps infantry officer. But Baltimoreans will most likely recognize him from The Wire, as Officer Colicchio, the officious narcotics officer with the unfortunate haircut. Busch returns to Baltimore this week to talk with WYPR-FM’s Tom Hall about his memoir at the ninth annual CityLit Festival at the Enoch Pratt Free Library. (Other guests on the roster include Steve Jobs biographer Walter Isaacson and poets Edward Hirsch and Tom Lux.)
Dust to Dust is, as Busch puts it, “an entirely new design for memoir.” While the events within each chapter are roughly chronological, the larger narrative is not. Busch has instead organized the book by elemental themes—Blood, Water, Stone, Ash. In the chapter headed “Bone,” Busch takes the reader from a childhood encounter with a dead deer to a debilitating high school football injury to a mass grave in Iraq, among other memories. The format makes for a story that repeatedly folds back on itself; each chapter contains memories from throughout Busch’s life. As a result of this arrangement and of Busch’s lyrical prose, Dust to Dust is as metaphysical as it is biographical, with lines that resonate long after they’ve been read. “We are content only because we live lives too short to register the speed of ruin,” he writes at one point. All told, a haunting meditation on time, memory, and death.
City Paper spoke with Benjamin Busch by phone as he began a 197-city book tour.
City Paper : Why did you decide to organize the book as you did, by chapter headings, rather than chronologically?
Benjamin Busch: In building this book, my intention was not so much to create a portrait of me but to create a portrait of my perspective. What I mean by that is that I wanted readers to find their own stories by reading mine. . . . I hoped if I could create these pathways into memory following the elements, that everyone would find a way to relate in some way to their own childhood. . . .By following these elemental paths, I’m replicating the way we remember. . . . If we think of planting a daffodil with our mother, every time we see a daffodil in any part of our life for a brief moment we’ll be reminded of that. So I took the things that most impressed me in my youth, which were stone and water and soil and wood, all these things I had interacted with. I was a very tactile child and my adventures, my curiosity always took me into nature. . . . And I remained grounded in those elements from my childhood all the way until now. So I was able to find my story literally by retracing my steps through the elements.
CP : One thing that struck me about your memoir is that it’s pretty sparsely populated. Your parents are there, and you mention your wife and kids and your fellow soldiers, but places are fully fleshed out, almost like characters themselves. Can you talk about what place means to you?
BB: Place is everything to me. The book is about our place in time and in the universe. It’s a book of me yelling at the universe and hoping that the reader will join me. . . . The idea of permanence and impermanence has always haunted me because I wanted things to be permanent. And it’s why I became a stonemason. I thought for many years that stone could be the medium by which perpetuity could be achieved, and of course I find myself in the desert at war, surrounded by sand, which, of course, I realized had been mountains. And that even stone is part of a cycle that is much larger than me and makes me even more insignificant. My labors to place something in the world that lives beyond me are simply mocked by the natural cycles.
CP : What did you think of your father’s [author Frederick Busch] profession when you were a child? Did you want to be a writer?
BB: Not at all. I wasn’t a reader or a writer. I was very kinetic, I was out in the woods, and that was the only language that I understood, the language of the tangible landscape. . . . I never thought I would write a book. But language was something I came to in war, actually. I had no other way to express myself. I was such a visual person, and in war I wrote home once a month trying to kind of explain my situation, the situation in war, and I knew from my father and mother that I had to choose my words carefully. . . . That one letter home a month to my friends and family really began my true understanding of the power of language to transfer experience. . . . And it was after that I wrote an essay, which ended up being picked up by Harpers, which was the first real piece of writing I had done. And that was the seed for what became the book.
CP : You’ve approached war from more angles than most people. You played war as a child, acted as a soldier on TV, trained with the Marines, and finally went to Iraq. Did any of those simulations of war prepare you for the realities of it?
BB: No. I mean, I was prepared for it, I think. The way I handled my place in war was not as uncomfortable as it should have been. There was something about it that I found fascinating. The things you learn in war are the things we learn at the end of days, our inability to have much control over our fate. The confrontation finally, directly, with mortality. The idea of death and death are two different things, and war brought me death. I returned from war on my daughter’s first birthday. She didn’t know who I was, and I was a father. And within months my own father died. And so I went from being a child, to having a child, to not being a child anymore. No one’s child. My mother followed my father within a year. And all those things happened almost at the same time.
I had a lot of people killed around me in Iraq—I lost a good friend there. And it was a saturation—the evidence of mortality that was the end product of that final deployment to war. I think at that point I realized both how strong the child was in me and how important memory was, because in losing my parents I lost our family archive; I lost all the things that they knew and knew about me. . . . And when I lost them—and I had lost so many friends—the child in me disbelieved it. Because you can’t convince a child of their parents’ mortality. . . . That’s the great magic of childhood is that no one dies, and the child won’t die. There’s no death. A pet might die, but that’s a consequence of the fact that it’s a different creature. Other things die, but people don’t, not people you love. . . . Somewhere underneath all these layers, there is an absolute disbelief in certain truths, which we come to find in our later life.
And it was at this point, in my late 30s, having been to war, having seen the cycles so exposed, that somewhere inside of me I was sure it was not happening. I was defiant about these things. As my mother died, I was defiant. I thought I would save her, because of course I could save her. My father’s death was still improbable, despite the fact that he was dead. . . . There’s no reason I should have been, but I was stunned. And the book was born of all those things, the fact that in thinking back, in trying to find who I had been, I found them again. I was able to restore my parents and bring them back to life. . . . What I hope is that as people read, they’re gonna get me necessarily because it’s my perspective. But it’s not a biography of me. . . . If you, when you read my book, were thinking about when you were younger, then I win. The most important person in my book is the reader.
CP : Is the book also another sort of attempt at permanence?
BB: Oh yeah. That’s the thing I learned from my father, if anything. He is gone physically, but not really, because he left books. He left much of his head on the page and that language endures. I think I realized that language had in it incredible endurance. That was my father’s work, where I was building in stone thinking that stone would be the thing that was most perdurable. I looked at the pyramids and thought to myself, Well, they knew what they were doing. But I’ve also seen the pyramids decay, I’ve seen the damage done to them over time. . . . We know the stories of the Greek philosophers yet much of their beautiful cities are ruins. The language is what survived. And I think I came to that very very late and my father was ahead of me on that.
CP : How do you define yourself now? Are you a writer, an artist, a soldier, all of these things?
BB: I’m all of those things. I don’t think definition does me much good. . . . We like compartmentalizing things. We like things to be simple in America now, which I think is unfortunate. I am, and I have always been, many things, if you were to divide what I do into categories. But I’ve always felt them all to be intertwined, interdependent, and inseparable. Each different profession that I pursue relies upon the others. The artist made me far more aware of my environment in Iraq, which is useful to a Marine. I noticed things which were not pronounced, because I’m always looking for the subtleties, the nuances of a place. And sometimes those subtleties happen to be bombs. And as an artist, I think sometimes the focus, the sense of purpose the military builds, which in art is very useful. When I’m working on something, I give it that purpose and then I fight it with everything I’ve got. Sometimes it results in a book, sometimes it results in a film. . . . So I think all of these things inform all the others in one way or the other. I never know which one is speaking loudest, but they all have a chair at the table.
The CityLit Festival takes place Saturday April 14 from 10 A.M.-5 P.M. at the Enoch Pratt Central Library, 400 Cathedral St. Benjamin Busch appears at 12:30 P.M. in the Wheeler Auditorium. For more information, visit citylitproject.org.