Images from Hell by F.L. Riker

F. L. Riker was just like many Americans who served his country during the Vietnam War. He returned to “an unfriendly country” where he suffered from PTSD, as Riker puts it in Images from Hell (AuthorHouse, 84 pp., $11.45, paperback), a collection of his poetry.

No details of Riker’s service are given in the book, but this small volume contains after action reports, one of which deals with a battle that took place in Vietnam on April 11, 1968, that involved the 3rd Battalion, 22nd Infantry of the 25th Infantry Division. The base camp of the unit involved in that battle was Dau Tieng. Many died in that battle and the reports contain a long list of weapons and equipment recovered from the enemy, hundreds of whom died.

I assume that this battle and others like it fueled the poetry in this book. But we are not told that straight out.

This book contains a few dozen poems with titles such as “Savage Country,” “A Victim,”  “Death of a Captive,” “The Fear Inside,” “Angels Above,” and “One Way Out.”

Typical of Riker’s brief poems about the effect of the war on him is  “Duration.”

In these close dark spaces of my mind

I feel the deepening horror,

Digging blood dripping pitchforks

Torture me throughout my whole,

Empty blackening walls they now surround me

Reaching hopelessly for a single blood soaked door,

 

In this dreadful while of time

I’ll now spend with the devil in my soul

Never ending hell is all that’s left for me

Nothing left of the world I knew

From now I’ll never see.

Images of Hell takes its place among other collections of poems about how the Vietnam War has taken a toll on the soul. I recommend it to young people who are considering joining the military. It will provide food for thought and reflection.

—David Willson

Wartorn Heart by Kathleen Trew Swazuk

Kathleen Trew Swazuk was an Army nurse at the 93rd EVAC Hospital in Long Binh during her 1969-70 tour of duty in the Vietnam War. Her “scars have taken years to heal,” she writes in Wartorn Heart: Poems and Art Inspired by the Vietnam War (Blurb, 48 pp., $41.49)

This large, thin, and beautiful book contains very short poems bolstered by art work by many different artists. The poems and the art resonate with, and support, each other. And they resonate with the reader.

The poem that spoke loudest to me is  “Agent Orange.” It’s almost as if the poem was written for me, or by me.

Agent Orange

Sprayed orange in a yellow war.

Breathing in and out the pixie dust that coats the air…

Seeping into body trying to destroy the soul.

 

I am old now.  The body is racked with pain

bones soft and bones broken.

Lungs no longer willing to expand

and let in the reborn air of spring.

Inert too long, I must climb out of this

bunker I have built,

to isolate my wornout

body to try and heal my war torn soul.

 

There will be no choppers to rescue me.

Escape must be on my own.

I wave the white flag of surrender

so that I can move into the light.

I walk toward the sunrise

and brightness of a new day.

 

A new beginning…A new landing zone

where the dust is no longer orange.

 

The book contains many photographs of the people and the work done at 93rd Evac during the author’s time there. The horror and pain of the butcher’s bill of war are well communicated in this book. It takes a place of honor in the literature of nursing in the Vietnam War.

—David Willson

Tales from the Teamhouse, Vol. III by Jim Kelley

Tales from the Teamhouse Vol. III (Old Mountain Press, 263 pp., $4.99, Kindle) is third collection of stories edited by Jim Kelley and written by members of the Special Forces, all of whom also are members of the Special Forces list. All of contributors are active duty or retired. Some are departed.

The book is arranged in subject sections and contains stories, humor pieces, and poetry. The stories range in size from a tiny anecdote to a long short story. They range also in quality. Some are sketchy at best, written by soldiers who had stories to tell but little notion of how to tell them. Others are superb tales that hold a reader’s attention and make him want more.

One of the better stories is “Big Boys” by Command U.S. Air Force SMAJ William E. Edge (RIP). It’s an account from his time in the Korean War with the First Cavalry Division. It deals with holding back the North Korean Army along the Naktong River.

Another fine story, “Pepsi From the Sky,” written by Rolf R. Kreuscher, deals with the evacuation of a village of about 1,000 souls in South Vietnam. This story embodies virtually all the themes and tragedies that were in place in the Vietnam War.

“Tet ’68″ by John Blevins also is an excellent piece. Blevins was sent to Saigon during Tet to get supplies for his team, and got stuck in Can Tho.

“Baby Killer!” by Reg Manning tells a funny story of how Manning dealt with a guy who made the mistake of hollering “baby killer” at him while riding a bike. “I never got spat upon, but I did get called a baby killer once,” he writes. I think that what happened to that ill-advised fellow should have happened to more of his ilk.

“Attack on the Camp” by Rudy Cooper (from his autobiography, Seed of Endurance) made me want to read his entire book. It was an exciting recounting of an attack, very well written, and emboding the values of the Special Forces.

“Barry Sadler in Panama” by Bill Coombs is a story about the former Green Beret on stage in 1965. Staff Sergeant Barry Sadler (above) was his billing and he made the point that he could not be paid “or accept any money for his appearances” while in uniform. I wish Barry Sadler had made it to one of the places I was stationed in 1966-67. We had to settle for Hank Snow.

The stories use language and themes that are often encountered in Vietnam War literature: Get the hell outta Dodge, cowardly ARVNs, the odious ham and lima beans, and so on. I encountered the notion that we were doing fine in Vietnam, and that we gave up fighting due to “a bunch of weak-dicked politicians who represented us.” There is a great glossary in the back of the book, more useful than most.

This book will please any aficionado of the Special Forces. I have not seen or read  Volumes I or II, but I’m sure those tales are as good or better than the bunch selected for this book.

—David Willson

The Secret of Hoa Sen by Nguyen Phan Que Mai

Nguyen Phan Que Mai, the author of The Secret of Hoa Sen (BOA Editions, 208 pp., $16, paper), was born in 1973 in a small village in what was then North Vietnam. She has published many poetry books and has won many honors.

I could not read the Vietnamese versions of her poems, but had to depend on the translations she did with Bruce Weigl, who also translated this volume. Weigl, who wrote Song of Napalm (1988) and other books of poetry, served with the 1st Air Cavalry in Vietnam from 1967-1968. He is one of the most honored poets who took part in the Vietnam War.

In The Secret of Hoa Sen we first get a poem in Vietnamese and then, on the next page, the English translation.  Many of the poems deal, directly or indirectly, with the American war in Vietnam.

“With a Vietnam Veteran, for BW,” is my favorite in this small book. Two people are eating pho with chopsticks, and steam rises from those bowls of hot noodle soup.

“He can’t explain the reasons for the war

the reasons why my relatives had to fall,

and why so many children are imprisoned

in the pain of Agent Orange.

Nguyen Phan Que Mai

“Quang Tri” is another powerful one, a poem of loss and death. It should be read by those who are ignorant of the human cost of the war for the Vietnamese.  “Babylift” also brings home, in a hard-hitting but poetic way, how good intentions often sow tragic consequences.  “Vietnam Veterans Memorial” mentions Agent Orange, as well Nick Ut’s iconic photograph of Phan Thi Kim Phuc, aka, “the girl in the photograph.”

I agree with the poet that the Vietnam Veterans Memorial is “Black, silent,/the silent answer for thousands of questions.” But the questions must still be asked.

Poetry is an effective and beautiful way to deal with the horrific aspects of war that have marked all of us. Those who have been avoiding Vietnam War poetry should try this book. You might find it surprisingly affecting.

—David Willson

 

 

Vietnam War Elegy by G. Lowell Tollefson

G. Lowell Tollefson served in Vietnam as a Marine civil affairs interpreter attached to an infantry battalion. He holds a degree in philosophy from the University of Washington and has taught philosophy at the University of New Mexico’s Valencia campus.

The long poem that makes up the book Vietnam War Elegy (LLT Press, 34 pp., $5.50, paper) “was born on a hilltop over forty-five years ago in Vietnam,” Tollefson tell us. “Time and the loss of this war have shown America that it was politically wrong in prosecuting it.”

Tollefson takes to task the use of H & I (harassment and interdiction fire) as he saw many innocent people die from that indiscriminate use of heavy ordnance. He says that it is time we owned up to it. “Let us admit the full measure of what we have done and learn from it,” he writes. “This is the reason I have written and am now publishing this elegy.”

Tollefson

There are some great lyrics in this elegy. Chapter 6, I believe, is the strongest example of Tollefson’s poetic gifts and moral sensibilities:

 

Along the copses of trees, the dense

jungle, beside the corn fields,

honeycombed like the damp-rooted rice

we set out ambushes and waited.

 

In the morning after the killing, we

washed the night away with sunlit

patrols.  The people were smiling, over-

joyed they could see us and to know

where we were.  They brought us

their broken-skulled, infected, rancid corpses.

 

We gave them candy, placebos, the stone

silence of force.  Fractured and folded in flat

fields under bombs, this peasant nation

endured, drawn to closure in a rhythm of

wounds, shadowed in movement like a snake come together,

come out of an old skin into one.

 

C. Lowell Toleffson is a new, strong voice in Vietnam War poetry. I look forward to his next work.

—David Willson

Song I Sing by Bao Phi

Bao Phi, the author of Song I Sing: Poems (Coffee House Press, 170 pp., $16, paper) was born in Saigon in 1975. He was raised in the Minneapolis suburbs and today Minnesota is his home base. Bao Phi’s poetry kicks ass; I have not read a more powerful book about the individual Vietnamese-American experience.

This is the guy I’d like to sic on the authors of Vietnam War books filled with name-calling of Vietnamese and Asians. I’d like him to shout his great poem “Vu Nguyen’s Revenge—Nguyen, Vu-Sacramento” at them. It begins: “Fuck you, Chavis Johnson, for pushing me down in ninth grade and calling me gook.”

The book is filled with references to Agent Orange, Oliver Stone, and other Vietnam War icons such as Senator John McCain. Bao Phi’s three-page poem, “Dear Senator McCain,” is a classic. It starts off with two quotes from McCain: “I hate the gooks. I will hate them as long as I live.”

The poems do not pull punches— in fact, they are punches, right in the face to those who have scorned and vilified Asians of all stripes and types. Bao Phi bravely calls out those who have sinned with their mouths and acts, and holds them accountable.

Some lines—among many—that stood out: “I write this letter on jungle leaves/and the skin of a white man”  and “I am gook,/I ate your motherfuckin cat.”

Bao Phi

Bao Phi’s CD’s are Refugiography and The Nguyens EP. They show off his abilities as a performance artist of what is called slam poetry. He is a two-time Minnesota Grand Slam champion and a National Poetry Slam finalist, and he appeared in the HBO series Russell Simmons Presents Def Poetry.

The blurb on the back of the book tells us that the poet performs across the country and works as an Asian American community organizer. That job is a known springboard to the presidency, so I have hopes Bao Phi will be our first Asian president.

Anyone curious about how Vietnamese Americans are getting along in America should buy this book. The answer is here.

The author’s website is www.baophi.com

—David Willson

Between Here and Monkey Mountain by Laren McClung

Laren McClung is a poet from Philadelphia. Her poetry has appeared in War, Literature and the Arts and other serious journals. In Between Here and Monkey Mountain: Poems (Sheep Meadow Press, 64 pp., $14.95, paper) she thanks the William Joiner Center and the poets Yusef Komunyakaa, Vinh Long, and Bruce Weigl, among others.

McClung also thanks her family “for their conversations, which made many of these poems possible.”  These thank yous are clues to her connections to the Vietnam War.

This poetry book has a creepy-beautiful cover from a famous painting that has nothing to do with the Vietnam War, but is suitably grotesque. The back cover has a long cryptic blurb from the great poet Bruce Weigl, who has written a Vietnam War poem or two.

The title contains the clue that made me hope and suspect that this book was a book of Vietnam War poems, even though the back cover showed McClung to be a very beautiful young woman for whom the Vietnam War is likely an event that concluded long before her birth. That is surmise. I also surmise that her father is a Vietnam War veteran.

The book has a large number of fine Vietnam War poems, perhaps having their roots in the above-mentioned family conversations or perhaps coming from the same wellsprings of imagination from which Stephen Crane pulled The Red Badge of Courage.

Section three, entitled “Monkey Mountain,” is all Vietnam War poetry. It consists of thirteen pages of excellent poetry dealing with the tour of duty of a grunt. Friendly fire, bouncing betties, morning ambushes, LZ’s, the red-brown clay of Khe Sanh, the South China Sea, R&R in Bangkok, Pleiku, and Qui Nhon all make appearances.

Laren McClung

There is also plenty of the Vietnam War and fine poetry elsewhere in the book. I loved “Lined up on Their Backs” and also “A Fable of Tuy Hoa.” Here is the latter:

Someone was shot in the free zone.

He said maybe a farmer, maybe

carrying a rucksack.  As he walked up to check

He saw her wedged under the Viet Cong.

Did she know enough to play possum in the grass?

When he rolled the body from hers

he said he caught sienna of eyes opening.

This one was alive.  He carried her

from the field to the firebase, his only

prisoner.  She was four, he said.

I wouldn’t have thought that a young woman who had never been anywhere near the Vietnam War could write that poem, but what do I know?  Not just anyone can write a truly great Vietnam War poem, but Laren McClung has done it. In fact, she has written several.

“Many of the poems are mysterious, passionate love poems,” the poet Stanley Moss says on the back cover, “and there are war poems.” That’s an understatement.

Buy this book and read it and add it to that small shelf of Vietnam War poetry books that are worth reading, savoring, and saving.

—David Willson