The Lice: Poems By W.S. Merwin

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W. S. Merwin is well known for his Vietnam War poems. He was was born in 1927 and has been awarded pretty much every possible prize given to a poet, including a Pulitzer prize, a National Book Award, and the Bobbitt Prize from the Library of Congress. He also served two terms as U.S. Poet Laureate.

This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Merwin’s The Lice, the poet’s 1967 response to “the atrocities of the Vietnam War and the national unrest of the Civil Rights Movement.”  Or so a blurb on the back cover of the latest edition of the book (Copper Canyon, 96 pp., $15, paper) tells us.

The book’s most important poem, “When the War is Over,” is printed on the back cover, following the blurb, so that the dullest reader will not miss it.

When the war is over

We will be proud of course the air will be

Good for breathing at last

The water will have been improved the salmon

And the silence of heaven will migrate more perfectly

The dead will think the living are worth it we will know

Who we are

And we will all enlist again

Not all of us. I was asked to re-enlist. My response was unequivocal. Not me, Sarge.

W.S. Merwin, at 90, is alive and living on Maui in a nature conservancy of rare palm trees that he planted. The cover of this beautiful book is a Larry Burrows Vietnam War photo showing smoke rising from a cluster of thatched Vietnamese hooches, following bombing and resulting fire from napalm in Viet Cong territory (a so-called free fire zone).

31iv0jleqbl-_ux250_“The Asians Dying” and “For the Anniversary of My Death” both seriously hit home.  “The Asians Dying,” for reasons I don’t feel like explaining, and “For the Anniversary of My Death” because my doctors told me that 2017 I’d have been dead for at least five years due to the effects bone cancer caused by being exposed to Agent Orange. I don’t plan to live as long as W. S. Merwin, but one never knows.

As Merwin warns us in his poem “For a Coming Extinction,” “One must always pretend something among the dying.”  We can’t deny the obvious; we are all both the dying and among the dying.

This is the most beautiful book of Vietnam War poetry published in 1967—and again in 2017.  Buy it and read it.

—David Willson

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The Smell of Light by Bill McCloud

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Bill McCloud dropped out of college in his second semester and volunteered for the Army. He entered the service on the ninety-day delay program, and was in uniform from September 1967 to September 1970. He served in Vietnam from March 1968 to March 1969 as flight operations coordinator with the 147th Assault Support Helicopter Company (the Hillclimbers) on the airfield at Vung Tau.

McCloud—who teaches U.S. History at Rogers State University and is best known for his book, What Should We Tell Our Children about Vietnam?—arrived in Vietnam just as I was leaving. He was stationed in a spot I thought of as an in-country R&R center for Americans—and for the enemy.

I wondered as I started reading his new book of poetry, The Smell of the Light: Vietnam, 1968-1969 as Told through Personal Poems (Balkan Press, 158 pp., $14.99, paper; $4.99, Kindle), how long I had to wait before there was a mention of John Wayne. Page sixteen rewarded my patience with an entire John Wayne poem, one of the best poems of the Vietnam War and certainly one of the top two poems I’ve read dealing with John Wayne

I present Bill McCloud’s “John Wayne” here because it will give you an idea about the high quality of the poetry in this book and because it is pithy and well worth reading.

 

We keep hearing rumors

That they’re currently filming

A John Wayne movie about Vietnam

Everyone’s excited now about John Wayne

Everyone’s excited now about going to Vietnam

Now it’s a John Wayne war

 

That’s a hard poem to top.

51abellxphl-_sx314_bo1204203200_1McCloud, a member of Vietnam Veterans of America, used his letters home as source material for many of these poems. I believe he was writing better and higher-quality letters home than many of us. Mining my letters for poetic nuggets would be a painful task, fraught with horror.  Not something I’m tempted to do.

McCloud deals with other universal Vietnam War experiences such as shit burning, but he does not weigh his poems down with this stuff. That is a  strength of these fine poems.

This book of Vietnam War poetry sits very near the top of the heap. Right up there where the star would go if this were a Christmas tree.

Thanks, Bill McCloud, for this beautiful book.

—David Willson

Poems in the Keys of Life By Kerry “Doc” Pardue

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Kerry “Doc” Pardue is a 100 percent service-connected disabled veteran. He is a former combat medic who served with the Scouts in the 2/47th Infantry of the 9th Infantry Division in Vietnam from March 1968 to March 1969.

He tells us that he began to write poetry “to bring about healing” and “to deal with PTSD.” And that he learned two things in Vietnam: Men will die, and no matter what he did, he couldn’t change that. His writings have taught him, Pardue says, that “we did the right thing by going to Vietnam.”

When Kerry Pardue received his notification to report for his physical, he decided “it would be better for me to pick my field rather than be on the front lines as an infantryman.” Why he assumed that would happen, he doesn’t explain. The recruiter suggested that he go for medic training, and that most likely he’d be stationed in some nice hospital. Sounds perfect, doesn’t it? The recruiter didn’t inform Pardue that medics also served with the infantry in the thick of the fighting.doc_pardue

As a result of his decision to become a medic, the poems in Poems in the Keys of Life: Reflections of a Combat Medic (PublishAmerica, 100 pp., $29.95, hardcover; $14.99, paper; $9.95, Kindle) are not about serving in that nice hospital, but about combat. There are titles such as “In the Heat of Battle,” “Playing Chicken with Mortars,” “Gooks in the Wire,” and “Daddy, Why Didn’t You Tell Me About War?”

Here’s a representative poem, “Happy Thanksgiving”

May your turkey be plump

Your potatoes without lumps

Your gravy nice and smooth;

And may your pumpkin pie

Stay off your thighs

I wish all Vietnam War poetry was this straightforward. It is not.

I respect honesty and good old American values. That’s what the reader gets in this small book of poetry.

Kerry Pardue’s website is kerrypardue247.com

—David Willson

Dreams, Vietnam by Marc Levy

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Former Vietnam War Army medic Marc Levy’s Dreams, Vietnam (Winter Street Press, 112 pp., $12, paper; $2.99, Kindle) is the most amazing and surprising book to come out of the Vietnam War. That is my opinion based on having read thousands of books related to the war.

I completely agree with the blurb on the back cover, which notes that the book “is a rare gift.” It goes on: “Using a spare style that startles with its directness, Marc Levy transforms the dreams of almost forty years into what often feel like surreal prose poems, with disturbingly realistic details of war juxtaposed with domestic details of childhood and civilian life. One minute the dreamer is in Vietnam, the next he’s in a childhood park; he’s a schoolchild, an adolescent, but simultaneously a soldier.”

The writer of the cover blurb, Martha Collings, gives profound thanks to Marc Levy for his trust in sharing these dreams with strangers. They show us how deep the wounds of war go. They cut very deep.

One example, this quote from a dream from February 22, 1999:

“I’m in a war. A plane of unknown origin flies overhead. It’s identified as hostile and anti-aircraft guns open up. The plane circles in the cloudy sky; it begins to drop bombs. The sharp explosions create fountains of earth that shoot up and fall to ground. There’s a firestorm of smoke and flame. I run but get caught in the haze. I find a clearing. I find my dog.”

I find many of the details of this dream interesting, but what intrigues me most is that it ends with Levy finding his dog. I am a dog lover, and my little dogs bring me much comfort. My dog Arlo often slumbers on my lap and enables me to get an hour or so of much-needed shut-eye despite the intense bone pain that usually prevents me from getting any deep sleep. Levy’s dreamer finding his dog brought tears to my eyes.

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Marc Levy

I found this book of dreams to be as beautiful and moving as I did the stories in Marc Levy’s book How Stevie Nearly Lost the War and other Postwar Stories.  Both are powerful and deserve to take a place among the best books of our war.

Thanks to Marc Levy for being brave enough to put these visions in print and to make them available to us in beautiful editions. His dream book also includes his excellent drawings. I would have liked to see more of them.

Marc Levy’s website is medicinthegreentime.com

—David Willson

Old Songs by Neal M Warren and Adam Lizakowski

Neal M Warren served in Vietnam with the U.S. Marine Corps from 1966-67. Adam Lizakowski is a Polish-born poet, translator, essayist, and author whose literary work has been translated into many languages.

Warren and Lizakowski are co-authors of Old Songs: Anteroom Poetry in Both English and German (Outskirts Press, 148 pp., $14.95, paper). Many of the poems and prose pieces in this little book comment on war, especially Warren’s. The story of his that impressed me most is “Imagery of War—1967 (The Story).”

Here’s an excerpt:

“Journal Entry—Sun—30 March 1986. My contribution, I used a weapon that could maim as well as kill. A projectile loaded with an explosive would be dropped down a reinforced tube by me and be propelled as far as four thousand meters. It was easy to be ignorant in the position I held. The more ignorant I was, the greater the burden of truth when it arrived.”

He goes on to say that time does not heal all wounds. That’s saying a mouthful.

I’ve noticed that myself about war. Because Warren was in country during the same time period I was, his words hit home more than those of Lizakowski. My favorite piece by Lizakowski in this book is: “The poet should be a dog who pokes his nose in the garbage can smells the roses in the emperor’s garden barks and howls at the moon even if it ignores him.”  Who can argue with the wisdom in those words?

I’d quote one of the German poems in this book, but it’s a struggle for me to translate even a short one as my high school German class was long ago and far way in the Yakima of the 1950s.

Warren’s prose poem, “Imagery of War,” is worth the price of this little book. It’s twelve pages of truth, poetry, and the best journal entries I’ve stumbled upon in the pursuit of writing book reviews.

I highly recommend you buy this book and read it.

—David Willson

Inside Out & Back Again by Thanhha Lai

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Thanhha Lai was born in Vietnam and moved to Alabama at the end of the American war.  She now lives in Kansas with her family.  Inside Out and Back Again (HarperCollins, 277 pp. $16.99, hardcover; $7.99, paper; $4.99, Kindle) is written in free verse.  This children’s book—a bestseller that won the National Book Award when it come out in 2011— tells the story of Ha and her family’s journey from Saigon to America.

Thanhha Lai decided to use poetry to tell her story rather than a novel or short stories. It starts in Saigon in 1975,  the Year of the Cat. The reader gets a poem dated February 11, Tet, in which everyone eats sugary cakes and wears new clothes. It is a time for starting over.

The next poem is dated February 12, and the reader realizes the book is written as a journal in poetry.  At the end of the book we are on January 31, Tet, once again. In between, we get a year of Thanhha Lai’s life, her journey, and that of her family.

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Thanhha Lai

 

Here’s a brief sample from “Life in Waiting,” one of the poems that offers a taste of the author’s voice and great talent.

A routine starts/as soon as we settle/into our tent.

Camp workers/teach us English/mornings and afternoons.

Evenings we have to ourselves.

We watch movies outdoors/with images projected/onto a  white sheet.

Brother Quang translates/into a microphone,/his voice sad and slow.

If it’s a young cowboy/like Clint Eastwood,/everyone cheers.

If it’s an old cowboy,/like John Wayne,/most of us boo/and go swimming.

The Disney cartoons/lure out the girls,/who always surround/Brother Vu,

begging him to break/yet another piece of wood.

I can still hear them begging/when I go sit with Brother Khoi,

who rarely speaks anymore/but I’m happy to be near him.         

This is a fine book, both sad and funny–and not just for children.  Read it.  The Vietnamese point of view is elusive and seldom appreciated.

—David Willson

Prisms of War by Joe Labriola

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Joe Labriola served with the First Marines in Vietnam and received an honorable discharge. He also received the Bronze Star and a Purple Heart and is confined to a wheelchair. He has been incarcerated for thirty years.

His book of poetry, Prisms of War (Schulman Press, 83 pp., $15, paper), is divided into three sections: “The War Poems,” “The Prison Poems,” and “The Love Poems.” Each section has about a dozen poems; many contain strong images and words worth saying. I liked the prison poems the best and the love poems least. The book itself is a beautiful production with an eye-catching cover.

“The Bush” is a fairly typical poem, although its shorter than many.

The Bush

We awoke to the sound

of the helicopter blades swooshing

and parting the grass in circles.

Dawn came up fast, too fast.

The light burned tired eyes

as we locked and loaded

wondering what hell awaited today.

The praying lamp was lit

for those who still had Gods

while the Sergeant checked quietly

making sure each man has ammo.

Nothing more needed to be said.

Nothing more could be said.

It was a day for killing.

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Joe Labriola

Most of the poems—like this one—are plain spoken. The love poems get a bit more flowery, as love poems sometimes do.

If you like to read Vietnam War poetry, there are a few pieces in this book that are worth your time and effort. These poems are not doggerel, far from it.

To order, write to Joe Lab Defense, PO Box 84, Hopedale, MA 01747 or go to freejoelab.com

—David Willson