Savage Pastures by John Partin

Savage Pastures: Poems of Strife and the Vietnam War (71 pp. $8.99, paper; $4.99, Kindle), by John Partin is a collection of poems about the war, bookended by verses about struggling to survive working in the red-dirt rural South. From 1966-72 Partin was a finance officer for a bank on contract with the Marine Corps. That work included duty as a financial liaison for U.S. Marines in South Vietnam and their families back home. That put Partin in contact with many of the men in-country, as well as families of those who didn’t make it home from the war.

In “A Train to Catch,” a young man has enlisted in the military and preparing to do his part in the Second World War:

As the world blackened in war,

A cancerous presence that so radically changed our lives.

And then:

Into the gathering darkness.

The time was here.

The train was coming.

Almost eerily, the trees changed into looming immobile spheres.

Long shadows draped Warren, a horrible enveloping foreboding.

Once we arrive in the Vietnam War, there is “Pastures to Lie In.”: Medics in helmets of white crosses/Screaming-pushing multiple compresses to/Land mined ghosts of legs

In “Homeless,” a Vietnam War veteran is wearing an Army green coat, faded, frayed/Sargent striped remembrance of life

All the while, he is living in An America grown silent/To men of war

In “War Death”:

And the go-go bars of Court Street in Jacksonville,/Where Vietnam comes back/In black light and pulsating probe,/Illuminating the dancers

In “Dragonfly”:

A dragonfly

Hovering in iridescent bluish splendor.

The flurry of wings

Etching a beating helicopter blade memory

Rooftop staccato rhythm to belching bullet casings

Blazing streams into Vietnam rice paddies

The mounted door gun a death appendage

Hunting peasants working, defecating in fields.

The first killing an ethereal horror

That evolved to lust.

In “Distant Thunder”:

War cannon lighted nights

Explosive chaos.

Fear.

And deserted prayer.

Prayer screamed in horror

Until the heart closed to faith.

Lost. Abandoned. Devoured.

By war.

In “Butterflies of Vietnam” we read these hauntingly beautiful lines:

Menacing cobra head in a bottle

On a half-broken shelf

Once in a brothel in Saigon,

The brothel a searching last hope of angel’s touch

To minds no longer able to feel

And eyes no longer able to see

The unseen coiled terror of days.

And now,

The chopper landed

And butterflies returned

Floating white to the field.

There is death in John Partin’s poems—in combat and in the rooms of a VA Medical Center. This is a short but solid collection that holds up well on rereading.

–Bill McCloud

Airmail: A Story of War in Poems by Kathleen Patrick

Airmail: A Story of War in Poems (144 pp. $9.99, paper; $4.99, Kindle) by Kathleen Patrick is a great example of how letters and conversations can be turned into stunning poetry. Patrick shares the words and thoughts of seven uncles who served in the military, five of them in Southeast Asia during the American war in Vietnam.

This is “a book about going off to war, a book about coming back home,” she says, “and a book about those who are left behind.”

The forty poems are divided into three sections: Leaving, Airmail, and Surviving.

In “Letter to Seven Uncles,” she writes:

I remember the map of Vietnam

on our kitchen wall in Iowa.

Each morning Mom listened to the news,

read blue airmail letters,

and moved stick pins from one place

to another. I was nine and wanted

to stop that color-by-number war.

In “Photo Interpreter,” one uncle explains his job this way:

Photo mapping, target analysis,

bomb damage assessment.

I reported to Westmoreland each morning,

read those photographs, hell,

like a Gypsy reads an old man’s palm.

One war-experienced uncle gives advice to a younger brother as he prepares to leave for Vietnam in “Chain Link.”

Just keep your head down little brother

and you’ll be all right, you hear me?

Keep your head god damn on the ground.

In “Bad Time” she writes about men being attacked by tigers who “were being napalmed/and driven into madness.” She says that a death by tiger would be reported as a death in battle, just as a death by fragging was.  

In “Aftermath,” young boys simulate combat with fireworks. “Terry and Tim/took the string of Black Cats out behind the straw stacks/and divvied up ammo for the war.”

We witness a mind trying to sort things out in this stanza from “Robert M. in the Doorway”:

You got to understand the smell of a campfire—

it never leaves no matter where you go

or what jungle you remember he is always with

you that friend on the nicest day of spring when

you take a deep breath and then hear him joking

before it is all over it is never over you are never

alone again.

My favorite poem, “Decisions,” is written with an intentional repetition:

Anyway, I have twenty-one months to decide

what I’m going to do twenty-one months

before I need to sign need to sign

on another line

so I figure no sweat for now

It’s always cool to see letters sent home from war turned into poems. They become letters from America sent back to America. Kathleen Patrick shows us what it can look like when it’s done poetically and done right.

Patrick’s website is patrickpoetry.com

–Bill McCloud

From Darkness to Light by James E. Hackbarth

From Darkness to Light (152 pp. Mill City Press, $16.99 pp.) by James E. Hackbarth, is a book of poetry that focuses on one man’s journey with post-traumatic stress disorder. Hackbarth, a member of Vietnam Veterans of America, served as a U.S. Army Huey helicopter door gunner from 1968-69 with the 1st Cavalry Division’s 229th Assault Helicopter Battalion, in Vietnam.

In “Destiny,” he writes:

“Am I living tomorrow today?

Have I been here before?

What is waiting for me behind

those doors?”

In “Men of War”:

War is not about men

Telling their story

Nor telling of past glory.

War is about a minute of one’s

Life filled with terror

It doesn’t go away because

You see it every day in replay.

The most memorable poem in this collection, “Soldier’s Wind Chime,” has this opening stanza:

Do you hear it?

Listen closely be still

Now can you hear it?

The soldier’s wind chime

It is whispering to me

Telling his story

A sad war story

Of a place, we know too well

Generously, Hackbarth includes a handful of poems written by friends. A stunningly gorgeous poem, by Joy April DeNicola, “I Wish I Were Vietnam,” includes this stanza:

If I were that place I would be seen by him.

I would be known if I were Vietnam.

He would want to discern every way and why of me/

He would dream of me, feel me in the root of himself.

He would think me, drink me, breathe me in, if I were Vietnam.

Hackbarth’s “We Demand More,” with this gut-wrenching opening stanza:

Have I not bared my soul for you?

Have I not shed enough tears to please you?

Must I carry this weight upon my shoulders to make you see me

Did you not see the real person upon this stage?

Must I bleed, must I break down and beg for your approval,

your pleasure

Is it not enough that I have done as you ask?

Is there more you ask

That’s all you have they say

Have we used you up so soon?

We demand more we demand more tell us the truth.

It’s been said that poetry is the most personal form of writing. In this collection James Hackbarth digs deeply into himself and uses poetry to express all that his heart, mind, and soul are pouring out.

–Bill McCloud

Lessons Learned by Dale Ritterbusch

Dale Ritterbusch’s Lessons Learned: Poetry of the Vietnam War and Its Aftermath (Viet Nam Generation, Inc./Burning Cities Press, p. 125 pp., paperback), which was published in 1995, comes with a strong endorsement from—among others—W.D. Ehrhart, the most accomplished American poet whose work has been influenced by serving in the war. Ritterbusch served in the U.S. Army from 1966-1969, including a tour of duty as a lieutenant in Vietnam War. He recently retired as a professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater.

The first poem in this strong collection, “When It’s Late,” creates a great sense of loss:

I bury each night in the shadows,

turning a spadeful of war

over and over

In “Geography Lessons,” Ritterbush returns from war to a “land I cannot recognize as home.”

Also of note: the first two stanzas of “Choppers”:

Always the sound of choppers,

Chinooks, Cobras, Hueys,

A sensual drone of smooth, flashing blades

Cutting through air,

Churning acrid, Asian heat.

The sound mnemonically beats its way into the night

Cutting through darkness like a bayonet

Through the top of a C-ration can,

Through a block of C-4

In “Somme,” Ritterbusch ponders an earlier war:

You kind of wonder every year or so

On hearing of a farmer killed

By plowing up an old artillery shell

Somewhere in the fields of France,

The shell working its way up

Within reach of the silver tines

And exploding after all these years;

You kind of wonder if they ever change

The numbers in any recorded history of the war

And add one more to the list of the dead.

In “After The War,” Ritterbush has returned home and his car strikes a flock of birds:

He looked back at soft mounds of feathers

Scattered across the pavement,

The sound still in his ears like the sound

A bullet makes when it hits flesh

The poetry is often blunt and to the point, as in “Search and Destroy”:

Two gooks popped up

And we got ‘em running across the field,

Nailed ‘em before they hit the trees.

In “Winning Hearts and Minds” a Vietnamese man is struck in the face so hard with a rifle that it breaks the weapon’s stock:

She sobs; her eyes sing hate; her child,

Clutched tighter, cries above the flames.

My favorite poem is “On the Gulf of Siam,” which contains these evocative lines:

There is a passion in this stillness

Trees with blossoms orange as monk’s cloth

Shelter merchants resting

Before returning to the sun

Selling bathers Pepsi and bananas

Red fish braised on sticks and love

Dale Ritterbusch pulls no punches in his writing, creating poems that are blunt, coarse, raw, and often beautifully expressed. These poems are written by a disciplined hand and deserve to be read.

–Bill McCloud  

So Frag & So Bold by Randy Brown

Randy Brown’s So Frag & So Bold: Short Poems, Aphorisms & Other Wartime Fun (Middle West Press, 76 pp. $9.99, paper; $1.99, Kindle) is a brief collection of short, experimental wartime poetry. Brown served in the Iowa Army National Guard as a civilian journalist in the war in Afghanistan in 2011. He is the author of the acclaimed Welcome to FOB Haiku: War Poems from Inside the Wire, and is a co-editor of the 2019 Military Writers Guild anthology Why We Write: Craft Essays on Writing War. Full disclosure: I know Randy Brown and admire his work.

Some of the poems in his new collection have appeared in two veteran-and military-oriented literary journals, Collateral Journal and The Wrath-Bearing Tree. There are 55 pages of poems, some of which contain poems within poems. I found it interesting to read a few of the poems backwards for a new jolt of understanding.  

The outstanding poems include “frag out!”, which reads in toto:

every poet

has a heart filled

with shrapnel  

Sometimes one of Brown’s titles is also part of the poem, as in “timing”:

the line between a poem

and a joke

One of my favorites is “Clausewitzian nature poem”:

the only thing

war ever changes

is the uniform

Then there is “Catch-23”:

If you want peace,

prepare for war.

If you want war,

prepare for war.  

Some are mind-blowing, such as “pauses, for effect”:

Why do you hate America?

Why do you hate, America?

One of the poems that almost physically grabs and shakes you is “tell me how this ends”:

what happens when your war

is old enough to enlist?

what happens when your war

is old enough to leave home?

what happens when your war

is old enough to vote?

Another outstanding one is “defensive driver”:

I never understood

why some Joes startled

at every blowing grocery bag

until I came home myself

and found the camels hiding

in cornfields

behind bridges

everywhere

The best personal war poetry, no matter what war it’s written about, will basically ring true for all other wars. That’s what Brown’s work does. There is a place in the world for very short poetry and Randy Brown has found himself at home in that place.

Here is the book’s final poem, “all this will be yours”:

‘all this

has happened before’

&

‘all this

will happen again’

–Bill McCloud

Dear Diaspora by Susan Nguyen

Susan Nguyen’s poetry collection, Dear Diaspora (University of Nebraska Press, 78 pp. $17.95, paper and E-book), tells the story of a young Vietnamese/American girl growing up in a new land and in a home without a father. It’s a time when she is coming to terms with her sexuality while reckoning with memories and stories she’s been told about her past.

In “The First Language,” “Suzi” is growing up in Virginia and recalling her father, who has “disappeared,” including teaching her how to catch tadpoles in her hand. “The trick wasn’t just to stay still but to stop breathing.”

Four poems have the title, “Letter to the Diaspora.” In the first, a line about “the american dream,” is crossed out, a dream in which Suzi “walked my dead dog with a diamond leash.” In “Cicada Summer,” she is

careful not to crush

the winged insects beneath her feet, fearful of littering

the ground with broken glass.

In “Beast Angel,” she is dreaming in her sleep.

I open the garden of my body

Let loose hunger. Let loose the nest of field mice

and the coiled snake. In this light, I pray

to hold stillness like a gun.

In “If I Say My Body Is Grieving,” Suzi’s mother tells her, “Our country no longer exists.”

In “Wish List,” Suzi earns money by plucking hairs from her mother’s armpit. This is the same mother who we later learn “tapes her eyes wider each day.” In other poems Suzi practices leaving lip-imprints so she can add one to her signature in a boy’s yearbook and struggles with learning the sadness of fireflies gone dark.

In “The Boat People,” a separate section in the middle of the book, Suzi considers the great number of deaths in Communist reeducation camps after 1974, as well those who died in attempts to flee Vietnam “On open water.”

They traveled on small fishing junks

origami boats

arms and legs folded

one over the other

trawlers

smuggling thousands of

bodies

searching for international

water

living on empty

for weeks and months

looking for coastline

that did not push back

In “Suzi Searches for Ecstasy,” she fails to find it in the backseat of a car.

in his hands she wants to be a bird opening its wings, spreading them from car door

to car door, she wants to feel the tremor of his throat, to sing through her feathers

Susan Nguyen

Susan Nguyen has a unique style in which she frequently separates words and phrases—not with punctuation or typical line breaks, but by using empty spaces. Her poetry collection is an all-encompassing expression of history, memory, and longing as they come together in Suzi’s mind.

As with the best poetry, this collection is both enlightening and challenging.

Susan Nguyen’s website is susanpoet.com

–Bill McCloud

Winter Phoenix by Sophia Terazawa

The poems in Sophia Terazawa’s Winter Phoenix: Testimonies in Verse (Deep Vellum Publishing, 140 pp. $16, paper; $15.20, Kindle) serve as witness to a series of war atrocities. A poet and performer of Vietnamese-Japanese descent, Terazawa holds an MFA from the University of Arizona and is the author of two award-winning poetry chapbooks.

The poems in the Winter Phoenix—some of which were published in The Iowa Review, The Cincinnati Review, Salt Hill Journal, The Seattle Review, and Sundog Lit—are a form of found poetry based on veterans’ testimonies during internationally publicized events, including the Winter Soldier Investigation held by Vietnam Veterans Against the War in Detroit in 1971, and the Bertram Russell International War Crimes Tribunal in Stockholm in 1966.

Terazawa says these poems are about her “ongoing survival as the daughter of her mother.” The book can be read as eighty poems, or as six poems, or even just one long one. There are several different forms of poems, and poems within poems. Taking the overall form of a war crimes tribunal, the poems speak of accusations and allegations, atrocities, violence, trauma, and witness. Each consists of an opening statement, witness oaths, exhibits, supplemental diagrams, testimony, cross-examination, redactions, bylaws, a final report, and a closing statement. In all, they are “a cry for justice.”

These lines that jumped out at me during multiple readings of the book:

She was shot before they called her young.”

“Our trials happened but we never happened.”

“Stars inside my mouth” and the men kept changing places, “Slapping high-fives.”

“How do trials make another body absent?”

“women, hunted, were first shot then stabbed—each comma,/here, most crucial to our story, hence, delineating men from action/during war—a woman, hunted, was then killed upon another hill./These facts are very simple.”

“Losing count of war crimes meant a war crime never happened. Therefore, I was tortured.”

“Then all was silent in your

language, and my language”

“Somewhere in a thicket

There were rabbits screaming. Stop.”

“Uphill, in a country not my own, I found her body, sir.

From that body I could write our book of testimonies. But I could not write this by myself.”

“Why did you just stand there and say nothing?”

The final poem includes an alphabet running backwards, as if it’s leading us back to a time before there was a language to describe the atrocities of war. But even then there would be a witness and a silent accusation: Why did you not do something?

This is a consciousness-raising work of literature.

–Bill McCloud


Remember by Roger Raepple

Remember (Brilliant Press, 76 pp. $45) by the photographer Roger Raepple is a vivid collection of photography and verse honoring those who paid the ultimate price while serving in our nation’s military. It’s a beautifully produced coffee-table book with 32 photo plates, some on extended fold-out pages. Most are accompanied by a few lines of prose or poetry. Most of the images are of grave markers, war monuments, and statuary. Raepple served in the U.S. Army in the mid-1960s.

On one page there’s the line from Frederic Weatherly’s “Danny Boy” that reads, “I shall sleep in peace.” It begs to be compared to Mary Elizabeth Frye’s poem a few pages before, “Do Not Stand at My Grave and Weep,” with its famous lines:

I am not there I do not sleep.

I am a thousand winds that blow.

I am the diamond glints on snow.

I am the sunlight on ripened grain.

I am the gentle Autumn rain.

Accompanying a photograph of the Faces of War Memorial in Roswell, Georgia, are these lines from a poem by Michael O’Donnell:

I kicked up the stones

Along the alley way behind the house

And tapped a stick I found

To no familiar rhyme …

I was not going to think about you …

You were all I thought about. …

Alongside a truly stunning photo of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., Raepple writes, “If one place can evoke every emotion, this place can: anguish, contempt, remorse, bitterness, hatred, love, betrayal, fondness, warmth, forgiveness.”

A nice surprise for me was the inclusion of the complete lyrics of the song “Boxes” by my good friend, the Texas singer-songwriter Sam Baker. In “Boxes” Baker writes that among the keepsakes a woman has held onto for many years—photographs, trophies, and drawings—is a letter informing her, “Your first lieutenant is not coming back.” The book also contains poems by Raepple, Morgan Ray, Josephine Pino, and others.

Among the photographs are Raepple’s images of the “Three Servicemen” statue at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. (below), the U.S. Marine Corps War Memorial (aka the Iwo Jima Memorial) in Arlington, Virginia, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery, and the Vietnam Women’s Memorial in D.C.

Facing the page with a photograph of the “Follow Me” statue at the National Infantry Museum and Soldier Center at Fort Benning is the famed World War I poet Siegfried Sassoon’s “Suicide in the Trenches,” with its blistering final stanza:

You smug-faced crowds with kindling eye

Who cheer when soldier lads march by,

Sneak home and pray you’ll never know

The hell where youth and laughter go.

A second poem by Michael O’Donnell, written a few months before he was killed in action in Vietnam, includes the following lines:

And in that time

When men decide and feel safe

To call the war insane,

Take one moment to embrace

Those gentle heroes

You left behind …

This book encourages—indeed, insists—on such remembrances. Remember would make a great gift. I hope this book gets picked up by libraries, and believe it would also fit well in waiting-room areas of offices dedicated to helping veterans and their families.

The book’s website is remember-vets.com

–Bill McCloud

Tramping Solo by Fred Rosenblum

Fred Rosenblum’s new book of poetry, Tramping Solo (Fomite Press, 84 pp. $15, paper; $4.99, Kindle), would fit neatly into a backpacker’s pouch—physically, emotionally, and mystically. The book contains 35 poems averaging 50 lines each. That’s mid-length poetry, which should make for comfortable reading for most people. These verse are comfortable, that is, until you get to the subject matter.

The poems cover a three-year period in which Rosenblum—who spent 1968 as a U.S. Marine in South Vietnam—was out of the military and hitchhiking up and down the Pacific Coast from California to Alaska. He used that time to hide out from his past while also trying to deal with it. The poems’ titles include “The City Snarled,” “Jamming With Dead Russians,” Mending Seine,” “Sundown Jungle Texarkana,” and “Under a Bridge in the Pouring Rain.”

Dreaming of “a Londonesque sketch/of adventure,” Rosenblum trades Southeast Alaska and its adventures for those he had had in Southeast Asia. He refers to the journey as “the period of jazz cigarettes and psychedelia.”

He remembers times in Vietnam when he was as “fatigued as/Jesus ascending Golgotha.” Then he recalls:

“the piss yourself

apprehension of the firefight

rainforest mist.”

“The sweltering, sulfuric air

held the steaming metallic stench

of blood and evacuation,

married to the jungle’s rotted

respirations of floral decay.”

Then the truly unforgettable sounds and smells of “nightfall’s napalm raining.”

“ – those silver satanic angels

with their ravaging

Phantom strikes, to this

very day still strafe me,

deep into the stygian abyss

of my sleepless nights.”

In “Enamored of the Art,” Rosenblum writes that he’d been drawn to Alaska by its:

“Klondike-like affect,

home of restless longings

 — a white fang wealth of yearning

churning in my chest.”

A lot of this is bare-chested, big-muscled adventure writing as Rosenblum reports on traveling through areas where bears outnumber people and works in a pulp mill and on commercial fishing boats with rag-tag crews for his “paltry share of the take.” He also travels the American Southwest on a Greyhound Bus noting:

“The thick,

acrid air of perspiration

and flatulence

permeated the scenic cruiser.”

This is outdoorsy stuff. It’s not an accident that, along with Jack London, we get mentions of Woody Guthrie, Jack Kerouac, and Sonny Barger of the Hell’s Angels.

Don’t be overly concerned by the fact that this book is presented as poetry. The poems serve as the launching pad for Fred Rosenblum’s memories and the stories they have turned into.

Drop the book into your pack the next time you’re going to spend some time in the great outdoors. It’s there that you’ll enjoy the companionship of these poems most.

–Bill McCloud

Learning War by R. L. Barth

R. L. Barth’s Learning War: Selected Vietnam War Poems (Broadstone Books, 72 pp. $18.95, paper) is a powerful collection of poetry based on Barth’s experience with the Marines during the war. This book brings together poems from a half dozen of Barth’s previous collections. He is also the author of No Turning Back: The Battle of Dien Bien Phu (2016), a group of poems related to that seminal battle in the French Indochina War.

The 74 short poems included here—some epigrams, some couplets—average a mere eight lines each. But that’s enough to get the job done.

The book is divided into three sections with titles such as “A Child Accidentally Napalmed,” “A Letter to the Dead,” “One Way to Carry the Dead,” “Don’t You Know Your Poems Are Hurtful?,” and “Tonight You Bitch …” A handful of poems appear as though they were written from a War, a Staging Area, the Bush, an Observation Post: Near An Hoa, and the World.

Here are three complete poems.

“War Debt”

Survive or die, war holds one truth:

Marine, you will not have a youth.

“Initial Confusion”

A sergeant barked, “Your ass is Uncle’s!” though

It wasn’t clear if he meant Sam or Ho.”

“Epitaph” 

Tell them quite simply that we died

Thirsty, betrayed, and terrified.

In another poem Barth uses the phrase, “War’s war,” and then we find ourselves sharing a World War I trench with the British poet Siegfried Sassoon. These are poems of the infantry. Fighting takes place under a “leech-black sky.” Life and death decisions are sometimes based on a roll of the dice.

The troops deploy. Above the stars

Wheel over mankind’s little wars.

If there’s a deity, it’s Mars.

Patrolling silently,

He knows how men will die

In jungles. I am he.

He is not I.

At night, such lovely ways to kill, to die.

Even suppose a man is brave one time –

Is truly brave, I mean – will he be brave

A second time?

Two poems that could have served as bookends for this collection are these:

“Saigon: 16 VI. 1963”

In chaos, judgement took on form and name:

The lotus flared; more men burned in your just flame.

“Saigon: 30 IV. 1975”

We lie here, trampled in the rout,

There was no razor’s edge, no doubt.

Though the poems are short, I suggest not to read them quickly and then move on. This is not a book to be rushed through.

Read a poem, then read it again. Give it your full attention. There are things to be learned in these short poems, things to never be forgotten.

Read ‘em and weep.

–Bill McCloud