Love Poems for Cannibals by Raymond Keen

Raymond Keen spent three years as a Navy Clinical Psychologist, with a year in Vietnam from July 1967 to July 1968. Love Poems for Cannibals (CreateSpace, 166 pp., $9.95, paper) is Keen’s first book of poetry, although he has published poetry in twenty-two literary journals. The book consists of about 140 pages of poetry with a few prose pieces at the end, about ten pages worth.

The book is arranged in eight sections. The first, “The Vietnam War is not dinky dau. (1967-1968),” was of the most interest to me as a Vietnam War veteran and author. There are a half dozen poems presented in this thirteen-page section. I loved them all.

The section starts off with a long poem, “Dream Frag of Robert Strange McNamara.”  It’s a dream come true for this veteran, a poem in which McNamara deservedly gets fragged for his part in designing and prolonging the Vietnam War, which resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands. Of course, McNamara lived a long, healthy life, and cashed in on the war with a best-selling and self-serving book of too-late apologies.

The poem begins powerfully, with the lines, “McNamara, with his shit-eating grin/McNamara shit out of luck,” and gets better from there. Keen displays a “Keen” facility with Vietnam War jargon, used to great effect. In a short space we encounter: wasted, R&R, ticket-punching, Donut Dollies, rack, FUBAR, skull fuck, absofuckinglutely, and Dogpatch.

The other poems in this strong section also demonstrate Keen’s poetic and effective use of language. These poems take place at 1st Med Battalion, some of them in the neuro-psychiatry hut, in Danang.  My favorite in this section is “Grabass With China Beachball Here In A Sitdown: On Point With The REMF.”  Because I am the author of the novel, REMF Diary, this poem held a lot of interest for me, and I read it with great care.

It starts off this way:We got it covered/Here in the rear/Because we’re in the place you want to be./Here in the rear we are AKA/The Rear Echelon/Mother fuckers./Do you have a problem with that, Bushman?

Raymond Keen

Actually, the grunts did have a problem with that, as attested to by rants in hundreds of memoirs and novels written by combat troops about REMFs and their entitlements: good food, sex, beach volleyball, air-conditioning, regular mail, clean sheets, etc. Keen addresses that and more in this great three-page poem.

I enjoyed the poems in the other sections of this book, too, often sensing the influence of the Vietnam War in the words and tone of poems such as “Still Life with Shit in a Wine Glass,” “Irony Is The Cross Upon Which Meaning Is Crucified,” “In the Ronald Reagan Lounge,” and “Why Aren’t More People Screaming in the Streets, America?”

I highly recommend this beautifully written and edited book.

The cover features a watercolor by Francesco Clemente called “Fire.” Keen chose this amazing painting of a clown-like human face for the cover, he tells us, because “it embodies the mysterious luminosity, exquisite vulnerability, and a bit of the enigma of being human. I only hope that some of these poems come close to doing that.”

They do come close, and for that reason, I want you to buy and read this fine book of poems.

The author’s website is raymondkeen.com/the-book

—David Willson

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