Art Elser’s We Leave the Safety of the Sea (Finishing Line Press, 64 pp. $12, paper) is a tiny book that contains a dozen and a half small poems that deal with the American war in Vietnam. There’s lots of pain in these poems and swallowing two aspirin won’t alleviate it. When Elser, for example, follows his shrink’s instructions to chase away nightmares by trying to remember something pleasant in his life, he wakes up with a body next to him that “has bloody stumps where legs should be.”
Art Elser retired from the Air Force in 1979 after serving for twenty years as a pilot, including a 1967-68 tour of duty as as a Forward Air Controller in Vietnam. Elser’s war experiences left him with powerful memories that have ended up in his poetry,
Walter McDonald describes Elser’s poetry as “fierce.” McDonald, a former Vietnam War USAF pilot and an acclaimed poet, ought to know. Hell—he does know. Most of Elser’s poems have” flashbacks so intense they don’t let me go. And isn’t that the point?” McDonald asks. Yes, that is the point.
“Helicopters carrying memories” could have been written by me about my life here in Maple Valley, Washington—if I were a better poet.
As I write on the patio, I hear the whine
of an approaching helicopter.
It doesn’t have the quiet whoosh
of a Jet Ranger carrying executives
to a business meeting downtown,
And it doesn’t have the noisy
wop wop wop of the ancient Huey,
a sound that carries me back to Vietnam,
and to painful memories I can’t forget.
It has the heavy, straining sound
of a Blackhawk the kind that hauls grunts
into combat in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Years from now that sound
will carry them back to fire fights,
explosions, loneliness, fear and
painful memories they can’t forget.
Elser’s poetry summons up my war memories as effectively as those noisy helicopters do. More so.
Elser’s A Death at Tollgate Creek: Songs of the Prairie (Walker Doodle Press, 91 pp., $12.95, paper) is proof that he can write excellent non-war poetry. Still, the poems in this collection are also filled with images of sadness and loss.
I guess I should have expected that from a man who spent two decades as a pilot, including a combat-heavy tour in the Vietnam War.