John Borling, the author of Taps on the Walls: Poems From the Hanoi Hilton (Master Wings/Pritzker Military Library, 176 pp., $19.95), is a retired Air Force Major General, an Air Force Academy graduate who spent 37 years in the Air Force. He was a POW in Vietnam for more than six-and-a-half years.
The poetry in this book was composed during his captivity and was “mentally composed and memorized over the course of his imprisonment,” Senator John McCain says in the book’s Foreward. Borling explains in his moving introduction that this poetry helped save him during his imprisonment. He was treated as a “war criminal” for many years, and communication was not allowed between prisoners, so they devised a tap code to use on the walls. Borling tapped his poems.
“Each man had to find his own way to use time,” Borling says. His method was to “mentally create poetry.”
Borling had had a “good dose of the liberal arts” at the Air Force Academy. He had always loved English literature and had acquired “a modest appreciation of poetic structure and pattern.” Those skills stood him in good stead during his long imprisonment in the Hanoi Hilton.
I’ve been highly interested in POW literature since it began coming out in the 1970’s because of my awareness that Richard “Skip” Brunhaver was imprisoned in the Hanoi Hilton. He and I grew up in Yakima, Washington, in the 1950’s only a few blocks apart, and he was only two years my elder. I’ve hoped for years that he would produce a book about his time in captivity. I’m beginning to think that will not happen, and am glad to have this book.
Very little of the poetry in this book is directly about the experience of being imprisoned in the Hanoi Hilton. This is not a criticism of the book. When I first held the book in my hand and examined the cover—which features a barred cell window surrounded by rusty eroding concrete walls—I imagined the book would contain poems and observations using the nicknames of the prison guards and describing how those guards chose to make the lives of the POWs miserable. There is none of that in this book. Most of the poems relate to flying and freedom, which makes perfect sense.
The book is arranged into four sections: “Strapping on a Tailpipe,” “POW and Other Dark and Bitter Stuff,” “The Holidays and Hollow Days,” and “South East Asia Story.” All four sections contain worthy poems.
My favorite poem in the book, austere and powerful in its imagery, is “Beneath Thin Blanket.” In it, Borling confronts his captivity head-on, expressing resolve in the face of horrifying circumstances. I’ll just quote a bit of it to give a sense of its power:
Sick lungs suck deep, asthmatic deep
It’s cold controlless shakes
Across the chamber
Beneath thin blanket.
This poem made me feel the cold, the isolation.
The tour de force poem of the book is a very long one in the “Southeast Asia Story” section. It’s not John Milton’s Paradise Lost, but it is almost as demanding of the reader in its use of special language and in its abstruse and arcane imagery and language. It will help if the reader is a flyer. A glossary of eight pages is provided at the end of the book, and I’m grateful for it, but it let me down a few times. I found myself wishing for footnotes.
The author’s advice to read the poem aloud is useful since some of its meaning is made clearer by doing that. And, anyhow, poetry is best heard in the air, off the page—kind of like an airplane, no longer parked, but airborne.
I love how the poet uses and elevates real American speech to the realm of poetry. Such as: Me and my jalopy, drink our fill, bend your ear, high horse, hair shirt, hunky-dory, green stamps, max no-sweater, not too hairy, me and the horse I rode. Not to mention hundreds of other wonderful all-American references, including Johnny Cash’s great song in which his mother tells the kid not to take his guns to town.
Of course, the kid ignores his mother’s sage advice. All of us could have benefited from listening better to that mother. Johnny Cash, by the way, is another fine poet who served in the Air Force.
A few of the expressions remain mysteries to me—not a bad thing with poetry: multi-boobs, props to feather, pass was bunny, we’ll Aqua-Lung, some shoe clerks laughed and like a greased owl leaving. Wonderful expressions. Borling’s genius with the language is in full play throughout this magnificent poem.
Borling provides the reader with a two-page Afterword in which he briefly talks about his trip to Vietnam with his wife in 2002 when he met General Vo Nguyen Giap, the famed North Vietnamese Army commander. They spoke French and General Giap “took my hand and together we walked into his conference room,” and they spent an hour together.
Borling describes “a strange warmth between them.” Perhaps that warmth came from their both being poets, rather than from their both being generals?
This is not the usual book of “poetry” by a Vietnam veteran. It is poetry, not doggerel. It challenges the reader and takes him to worlds that he has not inhabited or experienced, which is the goal of all fine poetry.
I highly recommend this book to those who are looking for a very different take on the POW experience. There is actually no universal POW experience, just as there is no universal Vietnam War experience: each is different.
The book’s web site is www.tapsonthewalls.com