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

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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

The Light Where Shadows End and No Thanks by R.G. Cantalupo

I have a tendency to skip over narrative in italics in a book. R.G. Cantalupo’s long narrative, The Light Where Shadows End: A War Hero’s Inspirational Journal Through Death, Recovery and a World Without Home (New World Publishers, 171 pp., $9.99, paper), which the author calls a “lyrical memoir,”  is entirely printed—every single page of it—in italics, except for the illustrations. Why? I’ve no idea and the author does not tell us. I’m guessing, though, there was a purpose.

Cantelupo served in Vietnam as a Radio-Telephone Operator (RTO) with the 25th Infantry Division in 1968-69, and was awarded a Bronze Star and three Purple Hearts. In May 2015 he returned to Vietnam. He walked along Highway 1 “as thousands of motorbikes rushed by.” He sat at a table and reconciled with former “members of The Peoples Army, soldiers who lived in Trang Bang and who fought against me in 1968-69.”

The war’s legacy in Vietnam, Cantelupo says, includes “leaving hundreds of thousands of unexploded bombs to kill more children,” as well as “fourth generation birth defects and genetic mutations caused by our massive spraying of Agent Orange.” That situation “will not allow for reconciliation.”

A member of the Vietnam Veterans Against the War, the author took part in the 1971 Winter Soldier Investigations where he confessed to committing crimes and atrocities. This small book contains many powerful, poetic vignettes of the above, and covers much of the same ground as this same author’s book of poems, No Thanks (All in One Publishing).

Many of these two dozen poems in No Thanks were first published in the journal “War, Literature, and the Arts.” Their titles give a good idea of what they’re about: “Trang Bang,” “Monsoon,” “Search and Destroy,” “The Execution,” “Agent Orange.”

The poem, “Agent Orange,” hit me the hardest. How could it not?  Agent Orange is what’s killing me.

Breath in,

Nothing’s forever

Even this orange-brown haze

dies down, leaves a

tree of bone

There is a vignette in The Light Where Shadows End about a nurse nicknamed “Peaches” who the author fell in love with. There’s a full-page photo of her in jungle fatigues. There are many other full-page photos in this book, both famous ones and some I’ve not seen before. The photos are not credited. Some of them should be. John Wayne and his classic film The Green Berets are briefly discussed.

Read this book in tandem with his book of poetry, despite the italics.

—David Willson

Monkey Screams by Robert Joe Stout

Robert Joe Stout is a graduate of Mexico City College and has written books about Mexico. As far as his military service, he looks to be about the right age to be a Vietnam War veteran.

Monkey Screams (FutureCycle Press, 90 pp., $15.95) starts with a twenty-page section of poetry called “Testimonies from Vietnam.” It contains fifteen of the best poems I’ve read dealing with the Vietnam War: “Hero,” “Messenger,” “Good Reports,” “Propaganda Photos,” “In Command,” “God’s Grandeur,” “Yankee Know How,” “Purple Heart,” “Signals,” “Supply Clerk,” “Second Lieutenant,” “Ambush,” “Night Patrol,” “Why?” and “Day After Cease-Fire.”

The rest of the poems in this book are all worthy, but it’s the Vietnam War poetry that make this book. The very first poem, “Hero,” has a line about “four Marines with blankets where their legs had been, sit waiting for decorations just like mine.” Hard stuff to read, but necessary reading for everyone.

Most people don’t read a lot of poetry, but this is a good place to start. The poems are written to be accessible, and the book is very beautiful. The non-Vietnam War poems are about everyday things that we can all identify with, and I did.

I’d like to know more about Bob Stout, but I’ll settle for this.

The author’s website is robertjoestout.weebly.com

—David Willson

Where the Flowers Went by John Henningson

 

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John Henningson enlisted in the U.S. Army in July 1968. He was commissioned a 2nd Lieutenant in August 1969. He went to Vietnam August 1970.

As Henningson writes in Where the Flowers Went In Poetry and Pictures (Mira Digital Publishing, 66 pp., $20, paper) when he shipped out to Vietnam he left “his wife who was 7 months pregnant with their first child behind.” In Vietnam he was assigned to the 3rd/82nd Artillery, which was part of the  the Americal Division in I Corps. Most of his time, he writes, was spent with infantry units as an artillery forward observer and later as a battalion artillery liaison officer.

Henningson’s  military memoir is entitled A Reluctant Warrior: 1968-1971. He tells us that Where the Flowers Went “builds on the prose” in that book, and that his “intent is to go beyond the direct recitation of events but rather to express how those experiences continue to affect my thinking today.”

Henningson’s poems are concrete and packed with detail about his tour of duty. I’m sure that much of the poetry came right out of his memoir, little changed other than to make some of the lines rhyme.

His poems have titles that let the reader know their subjects. “Baby Killers,” for example, is about his encounters with students when he drove his Jeep to bars near a university campus to drag drunken EMs home after trying to pick up college girls. “Their blame was misdirected not against the politicians who caused to all, but rather against those heroes so had answered their Nation’s call,” Henningson writes.

Other titles include “Night Lager,” “Grunts vs REMFs,” “When Death First Came to Call,” “A Grunt’s Feast,” and “Friendly Fire.”

Henningson can wax mighty poetical occasionally as in: “Suddenly a group of Cong appear and sprint toward a patch of trees/ We all draw down and fire at them but they disappear like a bit of smoke wafting in the breeze.”

“Grunts vs REMFs” is one of the best delineations of the eternal war between those two groups that I have read. It is well worth reading, as is every other poem in this fine collection.

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John Henningston in country 

Where the Flowers Went is one of the few poetry books written by a non-poet that I enjoyed reading. Why?  Because it is written from direct experience and that direct experience is on the page in a no-nonsense way. I look forward to reading Henningson’s next book.

I also enjoyed the many color paintings in the book. They remind me of the work of the great 18th century English poet and painter William Blake.

The author’s website is www.henningson.net

—David Willson