All Present, Unaccounted For by Robert Flanagan

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Robert J. Flanagan was born in Mississippi in 1936. He entered the Marines in 1953 and served seven years in the U.S., Panama, and on the Caribbean and Mediterranean Seas. He left the Marine Corps in 1960, joined the Army Security Agency, and put in sixteen additional years of military service. He retired from the Army in 1976 as a Chief Warrant Officer.

From 2001-12 Bob Flanagan published six books, including a trilogy of novels based on his ASA service. His nearly five decades years of journal-keeping has influenced much of his published writing. Flanagan, a life member of Vietnam Veterans of America, is currently assembling a new collection of non-war-related poetry. His recently released poetry collection, All Present, Unaccounted For (Connemara Press, 126 pp. $22, paper), on the other hand, is heavily war-related.

The book’s first poem is entitled “Vacation in Vietnam, 1964.”

Small brown sappers, hard core

Of the VC Three-Ninety-Fifth Battalion—

And equally vulgar aspirants to the title—

Dash ashore in the night wash of the South

China Sea at Vung Tau

Orchestrated, choreographed…not a ballet:

A quiet time-lapse jitterbug.

They don’t know that alien planners

Will name this place in-country R-and-R.

This poem gives a fine taste and sample of the selections in this collection. There are more than a hundred pages of such poems, all of them worth reading and all of them beautifully written—and related to the American war in Vietnam. They deal with topics such as heat rash, immersion foot, and crotch rot, as well as Operation Ranch Hand, Agent Orange, John Wayne, Tarzan, and Graham Greene.

This fine book ranks right up there at the top with W.D. Ehrhart’s recently published poetry collection, Thank You for Your Service. With these two poetry books on your shelf, you will have a good start on understanding the totality of Vietnam War poetry.

For ordering info, go to the author’s website, connemarapress.org

—David Willson

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Thank You for Your Service by W.D. Ehrhart

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W.D. Ehrhart joined the U.S. Marine Corps right after he graduated from high school in 1966 and served on active duty for three years. He arrived in Vietnam in February 1967, and went on to experience an eventful thirteen-month tour of duty. He was awarded the Purple Heart for wounds received in action in Hue City during the 1968 Tet Offensive, among other decorations.

His service in the Marine Corps in the Vietnam War became grist for the poetic mill that enabled Ehrhart to produce hundreds of fine poems dealing that subject. Of course, talent and hard work combined with Ehrhart’s experiences to come up with the collection of poems that fills most of the pages of his latest book, Thank You for Your Service (McFarland, 310 pp., $35, paper)

I tried hard to select a few lines from this group of chronologically arranged poems to convey the totality of Ehrhart’s talent, but I failed in that attempt. It was just too difficult to choose among so many outstanding poems.

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Bill Ehrhart in County, 1967

If I had to list his best work (if, that is, an editor asked me to do so), I would name the following poems: “Scientific Treatise for My Wife,” “More Than You Ever Imagined,” “Afraid of the Dark,” “Waking Alone in Darkness,” “Desire, “The Fool, “ “Sins of the Fathers,” “Letting Go,” “Golfing with My Father,” “Home on the Range,” What Keeps Me Going,” and “How History Gets Written.”

If I had to choose a poem to quote some of Bill Ehrhart’s best poetic lines, I would go with “What Keeps Me Going”:

Pressed down by the weight of despair, I could sit for hours idly searching the ashes from my cigarette, the darkness of silos, the convoluted paths we have followed into this morass of disasters just waiting to happen,

But my daughter needs to sleep and wants me near.  She knows nothing of my thoughts.  Not one missile mars her questioning inspection of my eyes; she wants only the assurance of my smile, the familiar places just so:

Brown Bear, Thumper Bunny, Clown.

These are the circumference of her world.  She sucks her thumb,

Rubs her face hard against the mattress

And begins again

The long night dreaming

Darkness into light.

Ehrhart’s book is filled with such poems and I delighted in them.

Thanks, Bill, for another great collection.

—David Willson

Tributaries by Tim Ralston

When Tim Ralston died in 2010, his wife Mary Kay Keller Ralston and daughter Mariah Ralston Deragon went through his thirty-plus years of poetry, which he often scribbled on the backs of receipts or on other scraps of paper. They chose a group of poems for a book of his work, often needing a magnifying glass to read the words.

That book, Tributaries (Buffalo Commons Tavern, 106 pp. $16, paper), is a labor of love.

Tim Ralston enlisted in the U. S. Air Force in 1970. He served as an English language instructor in South Vietnam, and received his honorable discharge in 1974. He wrote poems during the long period of time between his service in the Vietnam War and his death.

There are many poems in this book, a few of which deal with the Vietnam War. Early in the book, I encountered these lines:

Not in the ample list

But in the crossing outs

By a rougher, awkward hand

(Were they what was

Bought, or what

Couldn’t be afforded?)

Perhaps the last gasp

Of a dying world

Being medevaced far away.

These words made me hopeful that I would encounter much more in the book about—or at least flavored by—the Vietnam War. But I found very little more that dealt with the war.

Still, there was a lot well worth reading, including a poem with Norwegians eating lutefisk and lefse, and folks eating “Gooseberry pie/Puckered with rhubarb sauce.”  My poetic hunger was more than satiated by these references and many more that were equally powerful.

Buy this beautiful little book and savor the many flavors of poetry that Tim Ralston engraved on scraps of paper—and left for us lucky readers.

For ordering info, send an email to Buffalo Commons Tavern.

—David Willson

We Leave the Safety of the Sea By Art Elser

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.

Some days it seems as though helicopters of one sort or another spend all day flying over my house in Maple Valley. You’d think I was in the flight path of an airport in a major war zone.

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.

—David Willson

Ghost of a Person Passing in Front of the Flag by D. F. Brown

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The poet D.S. Brown served as a medic with Bravo Company in the 1st Battalion of the 14th Infantry Regiment in Vietnam in 1969-70. He is the author of three poetry collections: Returning Fire, The Other Half of Everything, and Assuming Blue. His poetry also has been anthologized in American War Poetry, Carrying the Darkness, and Unaccustomed Mercy. 

In his latest collection of poetry, Ghost of a Person Passing in Front of the Flag (Bloomsday, 88 pp., $16, paper), the text is augmented with appropriate photographs. This beautiful book—with cover art by Randy Twaddle and interior photos by T. J. Amick, a 196th Light Infantry Brigade vietnam War veteran—is filled with one damned fine poem after another.

Brown starts off with a bang and does not let up. This is the first poem, “Ghost of a Person Passing in Front of the Flag”:

 

When I was king in Vietnam

they loved us for the body count.

We choppered everywhere

searching for some peace with honor

These four lines pack a hell of a punch. “Fractured Fairy Tale,” which comes next, presents words that have resonated in my head ever since I first read it:

“teenagers posing johnwayned

them in fucking salad suits

hand to hand in syllables

and no bread crumbs

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Brown

These fractured lines and invented words communicate the madness of the Vietnam War better than any well-ordered, regimented format ever could do. W.D. Ehrhart, the poet and Vietnam War Marine Corps veteran, seconds that thought.

“War is chaos,” Ehrhart says about this book. “Combat is an incoherent jumble of grunts and screams and shards and fragments and flashes and fears. It is not linear.”

Thanks for that comment.

I served in Vietnam, but never saw combat as Brown and Ehrhart did. This book gives a taste of the confusion and chaos of battle that would have gob smacked me.

Read D.F. Brown to experience the disorder of war. Prepare to be disturbed.

—David Willson

A Shadow on our Hearts by Adam Gilbert

Writer and historian Adam Gilbert’s purpose in A Shadow on Our Hearts: Soldier-Poetry, Morality and the American War in Vietnam (University of Massachusetts Press, 304 pp., $90, hardcover; $32.95, paper) is to deepen our knowledge and understanding of the Vietnam War through an examination of the poetry produced by those who fought in the conflict. Looking at the poetry “through the lens of moral philosophy,” Gilbert notes how historians of the war have all but neglected it.

He quotes from almost 400 poems by more than sixty “soldier-poets.” I know many of the poets and have met many of the others. I should note that I am predisposed to love this book as my name is in the index, and the author writes positive things about poets and poetry I have a high opinion of.

With a book of this sort, I always first go to the index and look for my name. And there I was. Next, I look for the name of my closest friend, a poet of the finest sort, but one often overlooked because he is a novelist and poet-novelists often are unfairly given short shrift.

Gilbert makes the point that he deliberately has not included certain sorts of poets, and I am one of them. I was not a “soldier” according to his standards, even though I was drafted into the U.S. Army and served in the Vietnam War. But I was a REMF. In his eyes, I was far removed from the role of soldier. It hurts my feelings, but I won’t let that cause me to say bad things about this fine book.

Few “real soldiers” have suffered more pain that I have during the last ten years while I’ve been dying from Multiple Myeloma, but I was not in combat in Vietnam. Agent Orange, which caused my bone cancer, was there in Vietnam during the war for all of us.

I found it pure joy to read what Gilbert has to say about DS Lliteras, W.D. Ehrhart, R.L. Barth, Horace Coleman, David Connolly, Yusef Komunyakaa, Leroy Quintana, Dale Ritterbusch, Bruce Weigl, and many other poets I have met, spent time with, eaten dinner with, given readings with, and so on. I loved this book and think others will too, while learning a lot about the Vietnam War and about what its veterans think about it while we are seriously reflecting and pondering upon it.

Vietnam War veteran Bill McCloud recently reading his poetry to a veterans group at an Oklahoma Corrections Center

I apologize for making this review so personal, but I fear that if I don’t, potential readers will turn away from the book, thinking it too scholarly and serious to be fun to read. Yes, much of this book was far from fun to read—and wasn’t intended to be fun—but the book still is engrossing and even enthralling in parts.

I highly recommend A Shadow on Our Hearts to all who have a serious interest in learning more about the Vietnam War and about the people who went off to that war, not knowing what to expect, but dealing with it when they got there the best they could.

—David Willson

Vietnumb: Poems by Fred Rosenblum

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Fred Rosenblum served in the Vietnam War with the 1st Marines. He says that his first book of poetry, Hollow Tin Jingles, “began as an exercise in expurgation.” His new book, Vietnumb: Poems (Fomite, 104 pp., $15, paper),  is a result, he says, “of my inability to retch-up and rid myself of that entire toxic mass that’s kept me bellyaching all these years.”

Rosenbloom sees his poems as “a lyrical analgesic to others who bear some degree of residual shame for that era.” He goes on to write that “the war machine thrives today as it has never thrived before.” I can’t argue with that.

This short page book of short poems deals with many of the same issues Rosenblum dealt with in Hollow Tin Jingles, but it is well worth reading and revisiting those subjects. I started noting my favorite poems as I read the book, until I realized that I had marked most of the poems in the book. Finally, I winnowed out poems until I had just two favorites:  “Confessions of a Recluse” and “The S.O.B. Was Just Like Me.”

“Confessions of a Recluse” grabbed me because of the lines “I am a bearded man/with a long moustache that collects debris from meals

My hair (what’s left of it)

Is in a constant state of dishevelment

I wear overalls that are filthy

And grimy from my war in the woods

With the beavers who are trying to flood my property

My wife hounds me about my slovenly nature

And if I am not wasted I will submit to her requests to clean-up

Brush my teeth,

whatever

She keeps records of my medications and dispenses them

Per the prescribed instructions

It is too difficult for me to remember what pill and when

It should be taken

 

The man in this poem is not exactly me, but he’s close enough so that I don’t need to write that poem myself.

The other poem deals with the Seattle VA, a place where I’ve spent a lot of time having my head examined—and if not my head, what’s left of my feet. Fred Rosenblum says that the place is “sort of institutional dump that had the feel of incarceration.” He nailed it, for sure.

In his poem, he runs into a friend from the past, just as I have several times. I was born in Seattle, educated in Seattle, and drafted in Seattle, so it’s no kind of miracle that I’d bump into folks at the VA that I’ve known off and on for fifty years.

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Rosenblum

Rosenblum describes a mutual acquaintance of ours: “Lester was mad as a hatter/and had croaked from the fusion/of alcohol and pharmaceutical inclusion/that one might imbibe and ingest in those days

The concluding stanza is:  “a kid I’d known/yet the S.O.B. was just like me/ancient, anhedonic, Vietnumb

There it is.

Thank you, Fred Rosenblum, for writing these poems.

He refers to “the Duke” in these pages, the man that many young men sought to emulate by becoming Marines. Sad fate for them, which reminds me that Lee Ermey just died—the Drill Instructor  in Full Metal Jacket, from the book by Gus Hasford, a man I’ll never run into at the Seattle VA, as he’s long since dead.  RIP Lee and Gus.

—David Willson