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.
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.