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

Contrasts of War edited by Larry Johns

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Contrasts of War: Vietnam War Images from U.S. Army Medic Bob “Doc” Shirley (Red1Publishing, 100 pp., $29, paper) is a conjurer’s trick, in the best sense. By juxtaposing fragments of poems by veteran Michael Monfrooe and refugee Chay Douangphouxay with the simple, elegiac photographs of Bob Shirley, the book attempts to transport the reader to war-torn Vietnam—its beauty, its starkness, its horror, its humidity.

It’s a story of men and children. Women, too, are portrayed, but not as often as helicopters. Nor were they as important. There are mothers and old women, and there’s a marvelous image of a barely dressed performer at a remote base gyrating on a makeshift stage as the men stand in rapt attention. But the focus immediately returns to the young American soldiers and the even younger local urchins attracted to them.

As a medic, Shirley had greater access than most. His photographs are straightforward and unadorned. They show soldiers at rest and during combat. His images of helicopters in defoliated forests are stark. His men are tense, even at rest. His children are inscrutable, serious far beyond their years—even when smiling.

In one photo five men stand awkwardly on the edge of a landing zone surrounded by a nearly leafless forest. The helicopter overhead, judging by the scant attention being paid to it, is rising away from the scene. On the facing page reads:

Somewhere in the middle of nowhere
A wasteland of lost innocence,
Covered in a cloud of smoke,
Screaming of deadly silence,
Somewhere in the middle of nowhere.
–Chay

In another photo, also in pale color, two men—seated, shirtless, and still—face the camera. One, smoking a cigarette, appears several times in the book. The facing page reads:

Common Bond

Just two American boys conceived through the draft,
Brothers borne in the womb of war.
–Chay

Shirley’s are not great photographs, but they are clean and honest. Nor are the poetic fragments of Douangphouxay and Monfrooe great poetry. But magic sparks from the juxtaposition and the conversation that’s generated between words and images.

Larry Johns is the impresario who pulled it all together. In trying to make sense of his older brother Jeffrey’s death in Vietnam in 1969, he visited the country several times and even built a memorial there to his brother.

Working with these three artists, Johns’ skillfully woven collection of poems and photographs stimulate the subconscious into a greater understanding of the past.

–Michael Keating

ARVN Soldiers’ Poetry edited by Nguyễn Ngọc Bích

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Nguyễn Hữu Thời, who translated the poems in  Tho Linh Chien Mien Nam: ARVN Soldiers’ Poetry (CreateSpace, 416 pp., $20, paper), tells us that this poetry collection “is a product of soldiers. Not the ‘ghost soldiers’ or the decorative ones, nor the desk bound or office soldiers, but real soldiers, fighting ones in a difficult war, facing hardened and tricky warriors who give us very little breathing space: it’s either you or he, there was no other choice.”

Nguyễn Hữu Thời himself  “has gone through thick and thin in real battles, [and] can therefore empathize with the ‘powerful feelings’ of these poets, his valiant comrades in arms.”

There are no poems in this anthology by noncombatants. The translator hopes he’s represented the ideas of men who spent twenty years of their lives “defending the peace and security of some twenty million South Vietnamese, a quarter million ARVN soldiers died, hundreds of thousands were left handicapped for life and 300,000 went to concentration camps.”

These translated poems—which are presented side by side with the original Vietnamese ones— are often about that experience and represent a bleak picture of both the war and the post-war period. The language is often harsher than the language of poems Americans have written about their experiences in the Vietnam War. These poems also more than match the bitterness found in American Vietnam War veterans’ poems, which express the notion that they were sold down the river by political interests.

Here’s one example, “The Meal on the Battlefield” by Tran Dza Lu, who served as an officer in Kien Hoa province:

Four or five boys look helpless

In their ragged clothes

Eating besides the bodies

They pick their rice, holding the rifles

 

My heart’s with Mom in the Western Paradise

My mind’s with sister in the refugee camp

Villages and hamlets are inconsolably sad

The world is more deserted

 

After the meal, we scoop from the field

Some water we drink to get by

At home, do you know it?

The war dooms us the soldiers

 

It’s still lucky I can eat

Sometimes for two or three days

Having neither meal nor drink

I lie beside the plants and trees

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This is one of the book’s shorter and milder poems. My favorites are by Tran Dac Thang. Each one begins with the word “fuck.” Such as: “Fuck! Why sleep in the jungle again?/All night, the mosquitoes bite and bum one’s back.”

I highly recommend this book to American veterans who have complained about ARVN soldiers. They may not have been the paragons of virtue that we were, but they certainly suffered and died in very large numbers. I think they deserve respect for that.

Read this book and weep.  I did.

—David Willson

Night Sky with Exit Wounds by Ocean Vuong

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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.”

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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

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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.

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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