Vietnam War Elegy by G. Lowell Tollefson

G. Lowell Tollefson served in Vietnam as a Marine civil affairs interpreter attached to an infantry battalion. He holds a degree in philosophy from the University of Washington and has taught philosophy at the University of New Mexico’s Valencia campus.

The long poem that makes up the book Vietnam War Elegy (LLT Press, 34 pp., $5.50, paper) “was born on a hilltop over forty-five years ago in Vietnam,” Tollefson tell us. “Time and the loss of this war have shown America that it was politically wrong in prosecuting it.”

Tollefson takes to task the use of H & I (harassment and interdiction fire) as he saw many innocent people die from that indiscriminate use of heavy ordnance. He says that it is time we owned up to it. “Let us admit the full measure of what we have done and learn from it,” he writes. “This is the reason I have written and am now publishing this elegy.”

Tollefson

There are some great lyrics in this elegy. Chapter 6, I believe, is the strongest example of Tollefson’s poetic gifts and moral sensibilities:

 

Along the copses of trees, the dense

jungle, beside the corn fields,

honeycombed like the damp-rooted rice

we set out ambushes and waited.

 

In the morning after the killing, we

washed the night away with sunlit

patrols.  The people were smiling, over-

joyed they could see us and to know

where we were.  They brought us

their broken-skulled, infected, rancid corpses.

 

We gave them candy, placebos, the stone

silence of force.  Fractured and folded in flat

fields under bombs, this peasant nation

endured, drawn to closure in a rhythm of

wounds, shadowed in movement like a snake come together,

come out of an old skin into one.

 

C. Lowell Toleffson is a new, strong voice in Vietnam War poetry. I look forward to his next work.

—David Willson

Song I Sing by Bao Phi

Bao Phi, the author of Song I Sing: Poems (Coffee House Press, 170 pp., $16, paper) was born in Saigon in 1975. He was raised in the Minneapolis suburbs and today Minnesota is his home base. Bao Phi’s poetry kicks ass; I have not read a more powerful book about the individual Vietnamese-American experience.

This is the guy I’d like to sic on the authors of Vietnam War books filled with name-calling of Vietnamese and Asians. I’d like him to shout his great poem “Vu Nguyen’s Revenge—Nguyen, Vu-Sacramento” at them. It begins: “Fuck you, Chavis Johnson, for pushing me down in ninth grade and calling me gook.”

The book is filled with references to Agent Orange, Oliver Stone, and other Vietnam War icons such as Senator John McCain. Bao Phi’s three-page poem, “Dear Senator McCain,” is a classic. It starts off with two quotes from McCain: “I hate the gooks. I will hate them as long as I live.”

The poems do not pull punches— in fact, they are punches, right in the face to those who have scorned and vilified Asians of all stripes and types. Bao Phi bravely calls out those who have sinned with their mouths and acts, and holds them accountable.

Some lines—among many—that stood out: “I write this letter on jungle leaves/and the skin of a white man”  and “I am gook,/I ate your motherfuckin cat.”

Bao Phi

Bao Phi’s CD’s are Refugiography and The Nguyens EP. They show off his abilities as a performance artist of what is called slam poetry. He is a two-time Minnesota Grand Slam champion and a National Poetry Slam finalist, and he appeared in the HBO series Russell Simmons Presents Def Poetry.

The blurb on the back of the book tells us that the poet performs across the country and works as an Asian American community organizer. That job is a known springboard to the presidency, so I have hopes Bao Phi will be our first Asian president.

Anyone curious about how Vietnamese Americans are getting along in America should buy this book. The answer is here.

The author’s website is www.baophi.com

—David Willson

Between Here and Monkey Mountain by Laren McClung

Laren McClung is a poet from Philadelphia. Her poetry has appeared in War, Literature and the Arts and other serious journals. In Between Here and Monkey Mountain: Poems (Sheep Meadow Press, 64 pp., $14.95, paper) she thanks the William Joiner Center and the poets Yusef Komunyakaa, Vinh Long, and Bruce Weigl, among others.

McClung also thanks her family “for their conversations, which made many of these poems possible.”  These thank yous are clues to her connections to the Vietnam War.

This poetry book has a creepy-beautiful cover from a famous painting that has nothing to do with the Vietnam War, but is suitably grotesque. The back cover has a long cryptic blurb from the great poet Bruce Weigl, who has written a Vietnam War poem or two.

The title contains the clue that made me hope and suspect that this book was a book of Vietnam War poems, even though the back cover showed McClung to be a very beautiful young woman for whom the Vietnam War is likely an event that concluded long before her birth. That is surmise. I also surmise that her father is a Vietnam War veteran.

The book has a large number of fine Vietnam War poems, perhaps having their roots in the above-mentioned family conversations or perhaps coming from the same wellsprings of imagination from which Stephen Crane pulled The Red Badge of Courage.

Section three, entitled “Monkey Mountain,” is all Vietnam War poetry. It consists of thirteen pages of excellent poetry dealing with the tour of duty of a grunt. Friendly fire, bouncing betties, morning ambushes, LZ’s, the red-brown clay of Khe Sanh, the South China Sea, R&R in Bangkok, Pleiku, and Qui Nhon all make appearances.

Laren McClung

There is also plenty of the Vietnam War and fine poetry elsewhere in the book. I loved “Lined up on Their Backs” and also “A Fable of Tuy Hoa.” Here is the latter:

Someone was shot in the free zone.

He said maybe a farmer, maybe

carrying a rucksack.  As he walked up to check

He saw her wedged under the Viet Cong.

Did she know enough to play possum in the grass?

When he rolled the body from hers

he said he caught sienna of eyes opening.

This one was alive.  He carried her

from the field to the firebase, his only

prisoner.  She was four, he said.

I wouldn’t have thought that a young woman who had never been anywhere near the Vietnam War could write that poem, but what do I know?  Not just anyone can write a truly great Vietnam War poem, but Laren McClung has done it. In fact, she has written several.

“Many of the poems are mysterious, passionate love poems,” the poet Stanley Moss says on the back cover, “and there are war poems.” That’s an understatement.

Buy this book and read it and add it to that small shelf of Vietnam War poetry books that are worth reading, savoring, and saving.

—David Willson

Inverted Flight by Don Mercer

VVA life member Don Mercer graduated from USAF pilot training in 1970. He flew the Cessna O-2A flying out of Bien Hoa Air Base as a Forward Air Controller during his 1970-71 tour of duty in Vietnam. His call sign was Rustic 41 in flying combat missions supporting the Rustic Operation over Cambodia.

In the foreword to Flight: A Collection of Verse (Xlibris, 208 pp., $31.99, hardcover; $21.99 paper) we are told that the verses in this book were “inspired by the events and emotions of the year Don spent in Vietnam serving both his country as well as the Cambodian nation.”

The largest and most important section of the book is entitled “The War in Southeast Asia.”  It contains thirty-two poems in rhymed verse in the manner of Robert Service. This section contains poems with titles such as: “Arrival,” “The Good Men,’ “My Peashooter,” “A Water Buffalo Has the Last Laugh,” “Arc Light,” “Shot Down,” “Nui Ba Dien,” “Body Count,” and “Hanoi Jane.”

A reader can infer from the titles that the author covers many of the same subjects that seem to obsess many other Vietnam veterans who write books. I expected to find a poem on Jane Fonda ranting that she was a traitor. I was not disappointed.

In the verses “The Vet,” “What Price Paid,” “Midnight on the Mekong,” and “In My Face” we encounter some of the other often-voiced concerns of returning veterans, particularly the airport interaction with an push antiwar protester. In this encounter a “peacenik” calls a returning Vietnam veteran a babykiller and offers him a flower, which is rejected with the threat of leaving the peacenik with a stump if he did not withdraw the insulting flower.

Don Mercer

In “Who Should Fight” Mercer kicks both LBJ for his undeserved Silver Star during World War II and John Wayne for being a “reel” hero rather than a real hero.

There are lighthearted verses about Alaska in this collection, along with the Vietnam War poems. My favorite was a short poem about how Mercer loves dogs but does not have time for cats.

There are also a lot of verses dealing with Mercer’s love of flying. They are among the best in the collection. I’d buy this fine-looking and well-designed and edited book for them alone.

The author’s website is www.rustic41creations.com

—David Willson

The New Oxford Book of War Poetry Edited by Jon Stallworthy

The New Oxford Book of War Poetry (Oxford University Press, 448 pp., $29.95) starts with the Bible and works its way to modern times. The youngest poet I spotted in this book was David Harsent, who was born in 1942, the same year I was born. He is in the age group referred to in English literature classes as “young poets.” I hope he feels younger than I do.

The book, edited by Jon Stallworthy, contains fewer than a dozen poems by Vietnam War veterans. The arrangement of the poems in this large book—with no subject categories—makes it difficult to determine exactly how many deal with particular wars. The book is arranged roughly in chronological order, but the lack of subject arrangement is a serious lapse and does not make this an easy reference book to use. Nor does the fact that it’s printed on cheap paper.

Patrons come into a library looking for poems that deal with a specific war or wars. To find them in this book, you need to know the name of the poet associated with a particular war. Yes, birth dates help, but not a lot.

I used the birth dates of the poets as a rough guide to locate poems dealing with specific wars. Doing that, I generally found that the book included most-often-cited poets for each war.  For the Vietnam War, for example, there was the work of Yusef Komunyakaa, W. D. Ehrhart, Bruce Weigl, John Balaban, along with one unusual suspect, Ngo Vinh Long. This group gets a total of seven poems between them.

I read the introduction to find out why the volume contains so few poems by Vietnam veterans. Editor Jon Stallworthy—a poet and Professor Emeritus of English Literature at Oxford University and a Fellow of the British Academy—explains it clearly: “For demographic and socio-historical reasons,” he writes, “the ratio of poets to other servicemen and women was less than in either world war. Most American intellectuals disapproved of the Vietnam War, and men of military age, particularly white men of military age, could avoid conscription by signing up for university education, and many did.”

Jon Stallworthy

As a university-educated white man and an intellectual who disapproved of the Vietnam War, where do I begin to take issue with this explanation? Is Stallworthy saying that those of us who served in Vietnam were too dumb or uneducated to write poetry?  I think he is—albeit hidden inside a velvet glove.

Since I wrote poetry while I was in Vietnam—just as many World War I poets wrote poetry during their war—I accuse Stallworthy of either not doing enough research or not reading enough Vietnam War poetry. Tens of thousands of university-educated men and women served in Vietnam. What’s more, many other men and women who took part in the war and who did and did not have university educations wrote worthy poetry after coming home from Vietnam.

I found nine poems by Wilfred Owen in the anthology. Many Vietnam veteran poets wrote nine or more worthy poems. You will not find them in this book.

The American poet of the Vietnam War who Stallworthy singles out for the most attention is John Balaban. He served in Vietnam as a conscientious objector, and is a fine poet, a very brave man, and an old friend.  One of the best memories of my life is the day he showed up to read poetry to my Vietnam War class. But why not a few words about Bill Ehrhart?  Space constraints, no doubt. Ehrhart was a Marine in Vietnam.

Don’t look in this anthology for much in the way of poetry dealing with wars since Vietnam. There is one fine poem by Peter Wyton, who was born in 1944, “Unmentioned in Dispatches,” that deals with the Iraq War.

—David Willson

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