Night Sky with Exit Wounds by Ocean Vuong

cjzpld1uyaazvd_

A few weeks ago, I spent a lot of time emailing people at Copper Canyon Press lobbying them to publish a book of poetry by a Vietnam veteran. Nobody there deigned to mention one of their newly published books, Night Sky with Exit Wounds (96 pp., $16, paper) by Ocean Vuong, winner of the Whiting Award.

It is possible that they don’t think of it as a Vietnam War poetry book? The author, Ocean Vuong, was born in Saigon in 1988. He now lives in New York City. But almost every page of this book has reverberations of that war in his country that continues to produce literature.

The cover photo shows a little boy sitting on a bench between two beautiful Asian women, one his mother and the other his grandmother, I assume. His yellow tee-shirt reads. “I love my daddy.” And, indeed, this book is filled with daddy references.

Ocean Vuong’s photo on the back cover shows us a pale, slight young man. So I wasn’t surprised to read this line in his book: “An American soldier fucked a Vietnamese farm girl. Thus my mother exists./ Thus I exist. Thus no bombs=no family=no me.” A powerful statement of identity.

This small book is one of the most powerful of the recently published Vietnam War-related poetry books, ranking right up there with Yusef Komunyakaa’s The Emperor of Water Clocks, which we reviewed in these pages.

I would recommend Vuong’s poem “Aubade with Burning City” to those who doubt this is a Vietnam War poetry book. In it, the reader encounters a soldier who spits out his cigarette as footsteps fill the square like stones; a bicycle hurled through a store window; a black dog lying with his hind legs crushed in the dusty street; a chief of police face down in a pool of Coca-Cola; snow shredded with gunfire; and a red sky with tanks covered with snow rolling over city walks.

A helicopter lifts the living just out of reach. The radio says to run, run. “Don’t worry, he says, as the first shell splashes/their faces, my brothers have won the war/and tomorrow.” This poem is interlarded with lines from a Christmas song that begins, “May your days be merry and bright….”

Vuong writes about entry wounds, amputated hands, and Agent Orange, about Ha Long Bay in ’68, napalm-blasted wind, and a “brown gook crumples under John Wayne’s M16.” We get dead babies, too, from a Grandma-told story, “In the war they would grab a baby, a soldier at each ankle and pull… Just like that.”

81xcdyuoscl-_ux250_

Ocean Vuong

There is much more in this image-packed book. The back cover blurb promises that Vuong aims straight for the ‘perennial ‘big”—and very human—subjects of romance, family, memory, grief, war and melancholia.” He does that and more.

This third-generation voice of the American war in Vietnam shows that an Asian perspective is worth reading. It also shows that, contrary to what we’ve been told, the young generation of Vietnamese, those born long after the war was over, has not forgotten war—and, in fact, they have been marked by the war.

The author’s website is oceanvuong.com

—David Willson

Rapture by Sjohnna McCray

51dk3sr4ebl-_sy344_bo1204203200_

Sjohnna McCray has published poems in Black Warrior Review, Calalloo, The Southern Review, Chicago Quarterly Review, and Shenandoa. He has an MFA from the University of Virginia and teaches at Savannah State University.  The citation from his Walt Whitman Award from the Academy of American Poets notes that McCray is “an ecstatic and original voice, and he lends it to family, history, race and desire in ways that are healing and enlarging.  Rapture announces a prodigious talent and a huge human heart.”

When I first saw the photo of the poet on the back of Rapture  (80 pp., Graywolf Press, $16, paper), I hoped this would be a book by an African-American dealing with his tour of duty in Vietnam. But this is not that book. It is a book that recounts, as McCray says, “a life born out of wartime to a Korean mother and an American father serving during the Vietnam War.”

The book’s title is a brave one, and it contains a poem called “Rapture.” You will find it at the end of the book, immediately after my favorite in the collection, “VI Civil Union,” which I’ll include here, as it is both a fine poem and it shows more about McCray’s art than I can with my pallid words.

No line will ever begin,

“As I lovingly look at my sleeping wife…”

At best, the winter keeps us mummified,

swathed in blankets and sheets.  I look over

at my partner—because he snores—

and I imagine us as soldiers

locked down in a trench under the tarp

of a foreign night.  Who else is there to consider

when the lights click off and there’s nothing left

but right-wing, warfare metaphors?  His snoring

as shrapnel, our farting as mutual,

biological terror, this continued

breathing as a sign of dual surrender.

cfx9_a6xeaady5x

Sjohnna McCray

War permeates this book of revelations torn from the author’s gut and is presented honestly to us—the reader. We are lucky to have these poems and better off for reading them.

There is nowhere else that a reader would find the following lines:

“the unassuming black and the Korean whore/in the middle of the Vietnam War.”

—David Willson

 

 

 

 

The Emperor of Water Clocks by Yusef Komunyakaa

41nam6ylayl-_sx330_bo1204203200_

The Emperor of Water Clocks (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 128 pp., $23, hardcover; $15, paper), Yusef Komunyakaa’s new book of poetry, contains no mention of the poet’s service in the Vietnam War. The only clue that Komunyakaa is a Vietnam veteran is that his book  of Vietnam War-themed poetry, Dien Cai Dau, is mentioned in the front of this book.

I have a copy of Dien Cai Dau (“dinky dau”) on my shelf. Yusef Komunyakaa signed it for me back in 1990. He dedicates that book to his brother Glenn, “who saw The Nam before I did.”

There are many allusions to war in The Emperor of Water Clocks’ almost sixty poems. But only one long poem confronts and dwells on the Vietnam War, and it’s buried under the title “Torsion.”  The poems in Dien Cai Dau don’t have to be ferreted out—they have straightforward titles such as “Tunnels,” “Sappers,” “Tu Do Street,” and “Saigon Bar Girls.”

nov-banner_03Some of the titles in the book under review are also straightforward. For instance, “The Day I Saw Barack Obama Reading Derek Walcott’s Collected Poems” is precisely about that. Even “the haze of Wall Street” gets a mention in this two-page poem. From Pussy Riot to Grand Master Flash, to the Great Ooga-Booga, Komunyakaa ranges through high, low, and popular culture to forge fine poems dealing with all aspects of life.

Komunyakaa has long since moved on from being the Vietnam War poet of Dien Cai Dau. He received a Pulitzer Prize of his book, Neon Vernacular. His fellow Vietnam veterans must resist trying to contain a poet who “soars to dizzying intellectual and poetic strata.”

Yusef Komunyakaa cannot be contained or stunted. He will go where he will, and his journey will always astonish the reader, yet carry him along in the momentum of music that he hears and puts down on the page with language we will never encounter elsewhere.

I highly recommend this latest volume by our finest poet.

—David Willson

Proud to Be edited by Susan Swartwout

517kjfaslkl-_sx337_bo1204203200_

I wish I was a little bird

So I could fly away;

I’d go to all the far off places

Where my daddy has to stay.

—Ashley Williams

The “far off places” in this anthology are battlefields from Sharpsburg, Maryland, to Kanduhar, Afghanistan, and many American wars in between. Stories and photographs from veterans are collected in the fourth volume of Proud To Be: Writing by American Warriors (Missouri Humanities Council/Southeast Missouri State University Press, 270  pp., $15, paper) edited by Susan Swartwout, who worked on the previous three volumes.

Swarthout selected the short fiction, poetry, interviews, essays, and photography with the help of a six-person panel of judges. “The War Within” is the only screenplay in the volume. It succinctly and cleverly presents a cast of character in two versions, one a proud Marine and one dealing with PTSD.

PTSD is also covered in an essay by David Chrisinger, who teaches veteran re-integration at the University of Wisconsin. This well-researched essay centers on Marine Brett Foley’s service in Afghanistan, where he witnessed an IED explosion that killed two and wounded several others.

Dealing with the horror two years later, Foley said: “At the end of the day, it all comes down to the fact that at times I wished desperately that I could simply erase parts of my memory so that I could just be normal again.” In addition to counseling and his wife’s support, “what helped Brett’s resilience was talking about his trauma and remembering the good men he served with.”

The essay, “Korea 1951–Marines Don’t Cry,” predates the study of PTSD and describes how trauma can be dealt with on the battlefield. To wit: “I slowly walked out into the woods. Alone, I couldn’t stop the tears. I reached into my holster and took out my .45. Self-pity turned into anger. I lifted the gun, holding it in both hands and aimed at the sky. I shot it over and over. A couple Marines came running out yelling, ‘What’s going on?’ I pulled my cap down over my eyes so they couldn’t see the tears, turned to them and said, ‘Just practicing.'”

The irony of war could almost be the theme of this compilation. One account describes an action in Sicily during World War II in which German soldiers captured a group of American medics despite the fact that red crosses were on their helmets. They were imprisoned because the Germans had heard a rumor that American generals hid howitzers in ambulances.

“Best Revenge” is a stunning piece of short fiction in which a Marine corporal and a staff sergeant meet during the corporal’s last days in Vietnam. The surprise ending made this standout my favorite.

Another must-read is the essay “My Vietnam Nightmare” written by a former Navy Corpsman. He writes: “Terrified, I think this could very likely be the last day of my life. This suicidal waltz is known as ‘doing your duty.'”

The final section of Proud To Be is devoted to poetry. I recommend taking quiet time to read these poems, especially the well-crafted “Dead Man’s Cap” and “The Flight of the Liberty Belle.”

I would be remiss not to mention the photography category. “Remembering Home” and “Iraqi Boy Sitting” are two I particularly enjoyed.

Finally, here is the poem “Proctors” by Kanesha Washington:

You signed your names on the front lines of war

Susan Swartwout

Susan Swartwout

You packed your duffle bags with manhood
Many only teenagers yet you knew what you were fighting for.
while putting away your adolescence
You left behind family, children and even friends
to become a protector of our nation
Adorned in a uniform of freedom and pride
you marched with bravery on the battlefield of uncertainty
By land, ship, or sea
you proudly and selflessly carried out your duty
You are the stars represented on our flag
America salutes you

for your future, present and especially your past

—Curt Nelson

Snapshots from the Edge of a War by John Buquoi

61w3odrxkgl-_sx331_bo1204203200_
John Buquoi was trained as a Vietnamese linguist at the Army Language School in Monterey, California, and then assigned to the Army Security Agency’s 3rd Radio Research Unit, a military branch of the National Security Agency in Saigon and its Detachment J in Phu Bai in Vietnam from 1963-65.  After separation from the Army he returned to Vietnam where he worked as a civilian for defense contractors for more than five years. During that time Buquoi traveled to virtually every province in South Vietnam.

Snapshots from the Edge of a War (CreateSpace, 138 pp., $9.95, paper; $4.99, Kindle) is a book of poems, written fifty years later—or, as Buquoi puts it: “This is a work of fiction.”  The back cover has a photograph of the author in the aftermath of the Brinks Hotel bombing in Saigon on Christmas Eve 1964. The photo and the poems demonstrate strongly that John Buquoi was a man who was there, “in the shit.”

The back cover blurb says it well: “The poems in this volume are, after fifty years, echoes of that experience in a series of reflective narrative vignettes which one critic has called, ‘first rate in every respect, resonating on all levels—emotional, personal, factual, historical, literary.'”

Buquoi’s six-page story poem, “The gifts of Christmas,” is the best piece of any kind I’ve read on the bombing of the Brinks Hotel, which served as a Bachelor Officers Quarters in downtown Saigon. Buquoi writes of “Mr. Xuan, the sapper santa” who  sat across the street and sipped coffee after the bombing, “Satisfied as he watched his plastique work explode.”  His 200-pound car bomb killed two and wounded more than 200 Vietnamese and Americans, civilian and military alike.

This story poem brings home the reality of a war that could kill you anywhere. You didn’t have to be “out in the shit.”  The shit could come to you—anytime, even on Christmas Eve.

This book also contains one of the best things written on Gen. William Westmoreland, whom Buquoi calls by his nickname, “Westy.” He was the general who seemed designed for photo ops and little else. He showed up after things calmed down for the heroic pictures that appear in most books and articles about him. Certainly the Westy I knew was a photo op general.

“Get a haircut,” he once told me.  I felt like asking, “Why?” since nobody was taking my picture.  I just said, “Yes, sir.”

vn2basa2b3rd2bat2brifle2brange

John Buquoi (in steel pot, center right) outside Saigon in 1963

The language of this poetry seems written to be read aloud, what this poet calls a “talkie poem.”  We encounter Terry Southern, Jack Kerouac, “john fucking waynes without no brains,” Wile e. Coyote, Bob Dylan, and in person, Raymond Burr, who shows up to buoy up the troops by out-drinking all of them.

I loved every page of this book of poems and highly recommend it to everyone not just to poetry fans.

—David Willson

The Dark Side of Heaven by Robert G. Lathrop

9380616_g

 

Retired Marine Corps Capt. Robert G. Lathrop’s The Dark Side of Heaven (AgeView Press, 68 pp., $24.99), as the title suggests, is a dark book. Lathrop, a former A-4 Skyhawk pilot, arrived in Vietnam during the  1968 Tet Offensive. In fifteen months, he flew more than 275 missions. His squadron, VMA-311, flew 54,625 sorties and dropped some 9 million tons of bombs.

We’re told this record will never be broken. I believe it. This is a book for those who believe that if we’d only dropped more bombs on Vietnam, the outcome of the war would have been different.

Lathrop was tortured by his role in the Vietnam War and he wrote some moving and powerful poems about what he viewed as war atrocities.  “He wrote them to honor the men and women who served,” the book’s collaboration Jeanette Vaughan writes.

The poems often moved me to tears, as did reading Gene Lathrop’s biography and how he spent his time after the war. He was born in Walla Walla, Washington on June 8, 1942.  He graduated from Dayton High School in 1960.  This overlap with my own biography and the skill of his writing, often made me feel as though I could have easily ended up in his shoes.

His being the exact same age as I am—and being born and raised in Washington State—was often on my mind as I read his verses.  The old cliché, “There but fortune go I,” dogged me throughout the book.

After the war, Lathrop endured PTSD and sought treatment at the VA’s American Lake Hospital near Tacoma, Washington, where many of my close friends also have  been treated. Lathrop spent much of his retirement “in periods of solitude,” writing down his memories of his experiences in Vietnam, seeking “answers and meaning to the controversial questions, occurrences and mysteries that took place during the Vietnam Conflict.”

vma311a4

An A-4 Skyhawk in the skies over Vietnam

Lathrop was a lucky man, in that he married the love of his life, Joy.  “She was his confidant and supporter as PTSD threatened to unravel Gene’s mind and destroy relationships with friends and family.” Gene Lathrop died on June 13, 2012, “while out on his farm doing what he loved, working the land in solitude.”

This small book of verse is dark and honest and tormented. The titles of the thirteen poems include  “As I Lay Dying,” “After Mission 186,” “The Field of Despair,” and “The Phantom Battalion.”  It’s difficult to quote from a book of this sort, so I won’t even try, but the language of war and of pilots has never been served better in any book I’ve read.

“All of the missions described in this work are purely from the imagination of the author,” Vaughan writes. “Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.”  Okay, I buy that, but Gene Lathrop paid the dues that made each of the poems seem to me to be the purest of truths.

The pen and ink drawings by Laura Brown and L. Lederman are perfect to support and amplify the poems. This is a book that everyone concerned about the costs of war should read.

—David Willson

 

 

Whispers in the Woods by Richard Kraft

51onxrrl1vl-_sx331_bo1204203200_

Richard (Doc) Kraft served twenty-two years on active military duty—half of it as a Navy Corpsman—and eight years in the Fleet Reserves in Vietnam and elsewhere.  He is a life member of Vietnam Veterans of America.

Whispers in the Woods: A Compilation of Poetry (CreateSpace, 182 pp., $9.99, paper, $3.98, Kindle) is a sizable collection of verse on a variety of subjects.  Kraft divides the book into six sections:  Enlightenment, Love and Family, War and Soldier, Nature, Silly and Lighthearted, and Inspiration. Doc Kraft writes nonspecific rhyming verse of an old-fashioned kind.

Even though there is a section called “War and Soldier,” war images appear elsewhere. In his poem “Now I Lay Down to Sleep’” Kraft goes to  “A place of cordite hell and fret-full fear.”  He goes on to say that “Sleep carries him away to a scary place,/ A place I’ve been before.”  I don’t doubt that place is wartime Vietnam.

I thought I might encounter specific imagery from Kraft’s experience in Vietnam in his poem, “A Firefight in Hell in Vietnam,” but there was more about Hell and Satan than there was about the war. It brought to mind John Milton’s poetry rather than the work of many Vietnam War poets.

To wit: “Satan appeared and with smoke and fire he roared/And showed his ugly face.”  Later in the poem we find out that “Our blood that night was very light,/As God was on our side.” The poem ends: “We faced the devils,/One on one,/And sent them straight/To hell.”

“Two-Nine on the Line—Hell in a Helmet” begins: “Hot and steamy was the day,/When through the jungle,/We found our way./Our mission was simple,/or so they say./But we knew that/Some would die that day.”

And: “In the bush, we forced our push/V.C. we did find./A fire fight ensued the night,/With the corpsman on the line.”

Some of the members of that little group of seven ended up with their names on The Wall. Some were rewarded with “Purple Hearts and Stars of Bronze.” Kraft writes: “I was that corpsman at the rear/And felt the sting of steel.” He “stopped the blood from bleeding/But with death it was a ride./I did my best but will never rest,/With this horror deep inside.”  Kraft dedicates this poem to the Ninth Marines.

tet010

A Navy Corpsman ministering to a wounded Marine in Vietnam

More typical of Kraft’s poems is “The Last Patrol” in which men die after fighting well. “We carried them home where the buffalo roam/And people live without fear.”

I hope I’ve given a strong taste of this book so that those readers who take pleasure in reading verse of this sort can buy it and support a veteran who has worked hard for years to help other veterans and their families. That includes his program, The Ground Pounders, which provides financial help to veterans.

Doc Kraft also creates and sells decorative key fobs, which represent past and current wars. After he retired as a Chief Corpsman he went on to serve twenty-years with the U.S. Postal Service.

—David Willson