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
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