Monsoon Blues by Elijah Imlay

Elijah Imlay’s Monsoon Blues (Tebot Bach, 88 pp., $14.25, paper) is a collection of poems drawn from the author’s experiences as an Army bandsman stationed at Camp Eagle in Vietnam in 1971. Imlay has arranged the poems chronologically, which results in a cogent poetic narrative of his time in the war zone. He uses a variety of styles in this book of short poems, making it fun to read.

This is a welcome book, as the literature of the Vietnam War relating to bandsmen is limited. The only other worthy published effort that leaps to mind is by Richard E. Baker, who went to Vietnam to play coronet but ended up setting ambushes.

When I tell people that I often stood formation in the early morning in Vietnam in the near darkness on a wet parade ground and had to leap out of the way to keep from being run over by a marching band playing a Souza march, that tale is often pooh-poohed. But the fact is that seventeen Army bands were stationed in Vietnam during the war. Imlay played clarinet with one of them.

In Monsoon Blues, we meet Imlay’s friend Bird, the man responsible for organizing a rock band to tour fire bases. We hear a lot from Bird. His is a voice worth hearing, conveying what it was like to be in the jungle with the First Cav.

Elijah Imlay

The book is arranged in four sections; each packs a punch. “Playing with the Band in Nam,” which appears near the end of the book, is my favorite poem.

It beings: “We sit on a hill/watching a firefight/while we eat supper”  One of the bandsmen plays “The Stars and Stripes Forever,” but the soldiers far below cannot hear “the throb of music/that rises out of their horror/into the sky’s abyss/from where they fall.”

The beautiful, fiery orange cover features band instruments and a bandsman, rather than the usual helicopter and beleaguered grunt that often adorn the covers of books dealing with the Vietnam War. The poems do not let down the hopeful reader. Buy and read this unique book of excellent poems.

—David Willson

Vietnam: Memories in Verse by Ken Williamson

Ken Williamson was an Army photographer in 1969. His fine photographs are on the front and back covers and throughout his new little book of poetry, Vietnam: Memories in Verse (Photo Gallery on the Net, 34 pp., $14.95, paper).

There is a great color photograph of Williamson taken at Cam Ranh Bay in 1969. He had just learned of his assignment to 815th Engineers in Pleiku. Later he was transferred to the 26th Public Information Detachment, USACAV. The color photos are a strong part of the book.

Williamson traveled the entire country of South Vietnam to document the operations of Army Engineers. He returned to Vietnam in 1998 and 2005 to revisit and photograph some of the places he’d photographed in 1969.

“The poetry in this book is a result of his emotional reunion with one of the most beautiful countries in the world and his coming to grips with the war no one wanted,” Williamson writes. No one? Someone must have wanted it.

The book begins with a four-page essay, “Why Poetry?”  In it Williamson writes: “I never thought of myself as a poet.” He credits a group, the Poet Warriors, with inspiring him to write poetry. He says he believes “there is a cleansing of the soul when one writes poetry.” Sometimes that happens when reading poetry.

There’s a baker’s dozen of short poems in this book. They cover a variety of subjects including the tunnels at Cu Chi, an orphanage, Highway 19, Hanoi, boots, Agent Orange, and napalm. One poem bravely offers up the idea that perhaps it was not a good idea to drop an A-bomb on Haiphong Harbor to put an early end to the war.

Williamson also includes short, cogent prose pieces that set the stage for the poetry and the photographs.

Soon another book by Williamson will be available: Saying Goodbye to Vietnam. This one will be comprised of 275 photographs taken in Vietnam in 1969, along with letters Williamson wrote home to his wife.  Because of the quality of Williamson’s photographs and his clear prose style, I look forward to that book.

The author’s website is http://kenwilliamson.biz

—David Willson

Once Upon A Time in Vietnam by Jerry Neren

The back cover of Once Upon A Time in Vietnam by Jerry Neren, (Pearl Editions, 104 pp., $14.95, paper), a fine book of poetry, informs us that the author “served in the United States armed forces.” No details are given about his service.

This small book, the winner of the 2010 Pearl Poetry Prize., features a beautiful and tragic cover by Marilyn Johnson that shows a stag in the forest with an arrow through his neck. This prefigures the tragic event that is at the center of the one long poem that makes up the book.

Neren’s Preface tell us that “the story tracks a young man from the time he is drafted into the Army right out of college; suffers a complete mental breakdown during his tour of combat duty; continues to struggle with his mental wound up to his return home; and finally finds a way to reconstruct his demolished life.”

The reader encounters “soldiers poisoned by Agent Orange” in the first section of the book, set in Basic Training, which gave me a jolt. That seems soon to me, both historically and in the hero’s time in the Army.  The phrase used to describe the victims of Agent Orange hit me hard: “their insides devoured like plankton by a whale.” I know firsthand how that feels.

Jerry Neren

The poet creates two characters: Eugene and Dominick, classical music-loving friends who graduate from college, are drafted, and are sent together to Vietnam. Dominick is killed. Eugene goes crazy. He then languishes in VA care from age 24 to age 41, that chunk of his life lost forever.

The story of Eugene and Dominick is told in four sections: The Prologue covers boot camp. Part One, “The Battle Front,” deals with how the killing is done in Vietnam. Part Two takes us to the “Home Front,” and deals with war wounds. Part Three briefly shows us the “New World.”

This beautiful, lyrical narrative poem touches many of the same bases that many memoirs and novels and short stories do, including Agent Orange and the taking of human ears. But in this poem we get “oceans of Agent Orange” and “necklaces made of human ears.”  We learn the story of Eugene, who, like a chameleon, “took on the color of Vietnam: the color of insanity.”

If I were still teaching college course on the Vietnam War, I would make Once Upon a Time in Vietnam a required text. It is both accessible and relentless in communicating the insanity of war as only a fine lyrical poet can.

Neren out-Whitmans Walt Whitman with his lists of the bad things that happen in war. Neren ranks right up there with Whitman as a poet of war. There is no higher recommendation than that.

—David Willson

Returning Soldiers Speak edited by Leilani Squire

The prose and poetry in Returning Soldiers Speak: An Anthology of Prose and Poetry by Soldiers and Veterans (Bettie Youngs Books, 160 pp., $16.95, paper), a small anthology edited by Leilani Squire, includes testimony from veterans of World War II through the war in Iraq. Squire facilitates weekly creative writing workshops at the West Los Angeles VA Hospital and Wellness Works in Glendale.

I first looked at the book’s table of contents for clues for how it was organized, perhaps in sections pertaining  to a particular war. But the table of contents left me in the dark. Next I read Squire’s introduction, but found no clues there either. So it was only after reading the entire book that I discovered how it was organized. Returning Soldiers Speak starts with pieces related to World War II, then pieces about the Vietnam War.  And so it goes.

The World War II entries were strong and affecting, but I was primarily focused on the Vietnam War sections.  So I read John Rixey Moore’s story, excerpted from his memoir, Hostage of Paradox. This small piece of that huge book focuses on his search through a wilderness of devastation and carnage for a lost Starlight Scope.  Nobody has written better of how we laid waste to Vietnam than Moore has.

Leilani Squire

Next I read the poetry of R. S. Carlson, one of the best Vietnam War poets. He has three powerful poems in this anthology. I recommend Carlson’s book, Waiting to Say Amen. It is a fine one.

Jeffrey Alan Rochlin has four poems in this anthology. “God Bless America” is one of the most powerful poems I have read. Quoting from it does not do it justice, so I suggest buying this book so you can read it.

The book also contains one of the most honest and well-written short pieces on the Vietnam War that I’ve ever read, “Titles,” by Earl Smallwood, Jr. He was brave to write this, as it deals with a very sensitive Vietnam War issue—the fact that most of those who served in Vietnam were not grunts, nor were they Green Berets, Rangers, Marine recon, or SEALs. There were men and women, too—WACs, who spent their tour as clerk typists. How many were there? Solid statistics are elusive, but there were thousands.

As this entry shows, upwards of eighty percent of those of us who served in the Vietnam War were not in direct combat. We supported the combat troops. Smallwood does a brilliant job representing those unsung folks and describing the steps he took to ensure he would be a clerk typist in Vietnam, not a grunt.

“Dogface Soldier” by William Galloway is one of the best modern military stories I have read anywhere. This story is a model of good, clear, powerful writing—storytelling at its best. I would love to read a book written by Galloway. His story of a soldier with a bad attitude—an attitude so bad that his superiors would not ship him out to Iraq—really hit home.

I have tried to give a flavor of this anthology and how worthy it is. The high price that warriors pay for America’s commitment to war is evident on every page of this fine book. I thank those men and women for making the effort to tell their stories in this excellent, hard-hitting book.

The book’s website is http://returningsoldiersspeak.org

—David Willson

Last Lambs by Bill Bauer

Bill Bauer’s National Guard unit was activated during the race riots of 1968. He was sent to Vietnam the following year. Bauer served in the 4th of the 9th Infantry along the Cambodian border in Tay Ninh Province. For the first four months of his tour he wrote daily combat reports “in the office of the general at the headquarters of the 25th Infantry,” he tells us in the second edition of Last Lambs: New and Selected Poems of Vietnam (BkMk Press, 120 pp., $14.95, paper).

There is a great cover on Last Lambs, which I assumed was a photo of Bauer. It turns out that it’s not him, but is a famous photo by Mark Jury, “GI at Fire Support Base Wood.” I was slightly disappointed as I’d hoped this manly specimen was a poet.

There are sixty-four poems in this small book. It starts with an extensive author’s note in which Bauer tells us why he wrote the poems. “I am a poet by nature and writing poems from life is what I do,” he says. “I wrote these poems in anger at those who perpetuate the war out of arrogance, self-promotion and greed.”

Some of these poems appeared in Bauer’s earlier books, The Eye of the Ghost and Promises in the Dust. Bauer writes small poems packed with verbal power with images that stick in the reader’s mind. The poems in Last Lambs have titles such as “War God,” “Ambush Patrol,” “Sniper,” “Shrapnel,” “Second Tour,” “War Dog,” “What the War Was About,” and “Stung.”

Reading “Stung” provides a sense of how Bauer delivers a poem.

Scorpions maim by instinct

Once stung, so too those stung

Like brother scorpion,

I hide in nightmare jungles,

finger curled to ambush

men of power and gold

who order other men

to kill and maim:

I, who strike in daydreams

without remorse or fear

now that I am numb

                 Bill Bauer

There is a four-page interview with Bauer in the back of this book in which he connects the book’s title to William Lederer’s A Nation of Sheep. The interview contains a reference to the Animals’ classic song, “We Gotta Get Out of This Place.”

This is about the only time that Bauer’s book intersects with the usual clichés of most Vietnam War novels and memoirs.

There is also a list of questions for discussion and a five-page section of “special terms.”  Agent Orange leads the list and is well explained.

I taught a Vietnam War class at a community college for many years. If I were still teaching that course, I would use this book as one of my texts. I highly recommend it to poetry readers, to veterans who wish a refreshing and different take on the tour of a grunt—and especially to teachers looking for something special with which to challenge their students.

Bauer’s website is http://billbauerpoetry.com

—David Willson

Coming Home by John Wilson

John Wilson served as a Navy journalist in Vietnam supervising radio news for the Seventh Fleet’s Saigon Detachment from during his 1968-69. tour of duty. After Vietnam, Wilson worked in law enforcement for thirty-two years. He is the author of 203 Reasons Not to Vote for Barack Obama, and is working on two more books about the Obama Administration.

Coming Home: Reflections of Vietnam (CreateSpace, 98 pages, $5.77, paper) contains forty-two rhymes and verses (the unkind might say doggerel) that deal with many of the perennial concerns of Vietnam veterans. I keep a detailed list of recurring motifs I have encountered in the hundreds of books by Vietnam veterans I have read. I wondered how long it would take me to get a reflection on “baby killer.” I did not have long to wait.

I first encountered it on the back cover. To wit: “Those who survived returned home to the sight of protests, flag burning, chants of ‘Hell no, we won’t go,’ and unfeeling questions of ‘So, how’s it feel to be a baby killer?’ The author goes on to tell us he was asked this question at his first job interview after he returned. The reader encounters this story again at the end of the book in the four-page epilogue.

Wilson leaves the question unanswered. I would have liked an answer. If I’d been asked that question in a job interview, I would have asked a question or two back. Something like: “How does it feel to send us over there to kill babies?” Or: “What part of the necessity of war to kill don’t you get?”

These sincere, heartfelt rhymes decry flag burning (I lost track of mentions at about eleven), the treasonous Jane Fonda, hippies, protesters, and no parades or appreciation from the American public. That oldest of clichés even showed up, the friendly Vietnamese barber who is a VC at night, treacherously slitting throats of those he barbered during the day.

Wilson bravely acknowledges that there were Vietnam veterans who demonstrated against the war, including members of Vietnam Veterans Against the War. But he then says that they committed slander against “our troops.” Presumably, he means against themselves, as they are one and the same.

For those who are eager to read a book of rhymes dealing with these and other familiar concerns, I suggest you read this book. If you do, you’ll be treated to rhymes such as:

This was Vietnam

And a war that we could win

But instead we chose to lose

By Presidential pen.

I am going to order Wilson’s book on Obama.

—David Willson

Do You Hear God Talking? by John Nicolazzo

John Nicolazzo is a Vietnam War veteran. He also is a retired boxer and an ex-boxing coach who “has been battered and beaten by the trials put before him,”  as he notes in Do You Hear God Talking? I Do and So Can You by John Nicolazzo (CrossBooks, 98 pp., $8.99, paper). Nicolazzo tells us that God is the author of this collection of prose and poetry, and that he “had the privilege of being selected to write the words down.”

The book is arranged in sections: “Inspirational Messages Spoken to Me by the Holy Spirit,” “Poems from the Holy Spirit,” “Praise and Worship Songs to Our Creator,” and a conclusion.

On page eighty-five Nicolazzo talks about his  “troublesome sleep stemming from my Vietnam experiences.” This is the author’s most direct reference in the book to “the horrors of the war.”

He tells of a miracle that happened while he was dreaming about being back in Vietnam pursuing an enemy soldier. Nicolazzo got him in his sights and pulled the trigger. He then awoke in his own bed, smelling gun powder, having been gunshot. “Blood was gushing out,” Nicolazzo writes, saying he was “filled with an unexplainable peace.”

No gun is mentioned in this section. So how did he get shot? We are not told. No bullet or bullet fragments were ever found. The author simply says, “this was truly a miracle.”

Vietnam veterans looking for a book of prayers and meditations from the hand of a Vietnam veteran need look no further. Join with John Nicolazzo as he explores his connections with God and his Savior, Jesus Christ.  

—David Willson