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

Everyday Mojo Songs of Earth by Yusef Komunyakaa

Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Yusef Komunyakaa’s new book, Everyday Mojo Songs of Earth: New and Selected Poems, 2001-2021 (Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 288 pp. $35, hardcover; $16.99 (Kindle), contains a dozen new poems and more than a hundred from his five previous volumes with the same publisher. It does not include any of his classic work published by Wesleyan University Press, such as Dien Cai Dau (1988), his book of Vietnam War poetry, or Neon Vernacular, which received the Pulitzer Prize in 1993.

Komunyakaa is an Army veteran of the Vietnam War. He received an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of California, Irvine, and teaches at New York University. War as part of the human experience continues to be a major theme in his poetry. But Komunyakaa is no longer writing about the Vietnam War; he is now considering war throughout all of time, from the prehistoric years to the present—and beyond.

He dedicates this new collection to his daughters and granddaughter, who receive a reference in the first poem. When that poem mentions “Lucy,” we realize we’ve been taken back to the Australopithecus beginnings of human existence.

In the early poems Komunyakaa writes about working in the fields, “unearthing what we live to eat.” There are “Lessons of earth,” a mention of “the first tongue,” and “storytellers drunk on grog.” Then, quickly, there are blues to be played and highways to be walked.

We were young as condom-balloons

flowering crab apple trees in double bloom

& had a world of baleful hopes & breath

A reoccurring theme is the sense that life is a race to try and get as much done as possible before the end comes and we meet the maggots. In “Ode to the Maggot,” for example, we read: “no one gets to heaven/Without going through you first.” We encounter the use of torture in the human experience, but there also is desire—and nymphs and sex organs, real and manufactured.

The line “I deal in cosmic stuff” follows others about jazz greats sniffing gasoline and Sylvia Plath’s head going into her oven. Those and other tragedies abound in these verses—including the failings of the human body, mutilations, and massacres.

There are lines clearly aimed at engaging with the reader, such as: “The day opened like a/geisha’s pearl fan”, “How did the evening star/fall into that room?” and “Her skin is now a lost map.”

Komunyakaa

In “The Towers” the words are printed on the page in such a way as to resemble the actual Twin Towers on that fateful day in 2001. The poem mentions people writing e-mails, dead cellphones, exploding windows and, finally, search dogs.

He also writes of “flirtatious mermaids,” people who are “born to teach horses to dance,” and “late April kisses.”

Yusef Komunyakaa is known for his use of the ampersand in his poetry instead of the word “and” as a stylistic decision to move a poem ahead at a slightly faster pace. Its use is a point of minor controversy among contemporary poets.

Some of Komunyakaa’s work is considered to be difficult to understand, but I’ve found that it’s best to relax and read every word and, subliminally, you’ll understand more than you think.

It’s poetry you feel in your bones before it gets to your heart or brain. It goes deep and stays with you. Komunyakaa is a master.

–Bill McCloud

It Looks Like What I’ll Take to My Grave by Emerson Gilmore

Emerson Gilmore’s book of Vietnam War poetry, It Looks Like What I’ll Take to My Grave: Viet Nam Fifty Years Later, a Memoir in Verse (106 pp. $15.99, paper; $2.99, Kindle), moves beyond the borders of the war to consider the effects of armed conflict in general and the unfortunate fact that war is apparently a consistent part of human existence.

Gilmore served in the U.S. Army in Vietnam from January 1970-February 1971 as an interpreter and interrogator. The book’s title refers to the fact that his war memories will stay with him for his entire life.

The book gets off to a great start with the first line of the first poem: “None of us was meant/to war.” Gilmore writes that Basic Training at Ft. Jackson taught him how to “guard empty buildings/with empty rifles.”

On his way to Vietnam, he writes, “I stopped in to fill my stomach with beer,/drank for nearly a year/and landed in Bien Hoa, Vietnam.” That was not Gilmore’s last beer, as he admits, “I drank the war.”

He also tells us through his poetry that he “never fired or was fired upon” and he spent much of his time in “the clubs of Saigon/where the whores/knew my name.” Gilmore sometimes writes disparagingly about street prostitutes calling out offers of sex, “Their breath tainted with rat and dog.”

There’s a great poem about both sides during the war singing “the ageless G.I. blues,” with a nod to the 1960 Elvis Presley song and the lyrics to a similar song in James Jones’ great World War II novel, From Here to Eternity, as well as the Hollywood movie version of the book.

Gilmore’s poetry gives us much to think about. Such as: “I will never fight another war/even if God says.” And:

“History without wars bores,

shortens the books,

drains the blood from professors’ careers,

and politicians’

cuts the balls from

man after man

Why Adam and Noah

if not for war?”

Several of the poems are written with a rhythm that would make them especially interesting to be read out loud. Some, if you read carefully, are love poems to lost buddies. Some are straightforward in their story telling; others make creative use of symbolism. A few are fairly light-hearted, but most are as serious as the idea of endless war.

I admire Emerson Gilmore’s poetic efforts to reduce the numbers of American casualties in the war: “If I turn on the radio,/sons will die. The man/will say so. I have not/turned on the television for/months, saving countless lives.”

There’s also serious PTSD at work here, along with occasional glimpses of possible redemption.

I read through this volume three times and different things jumped out at me each time. This book of poetry is alive and I encourage you to engage with it. It’s one of the good ones.

–Bill McCloud