Arabic with a Redneck Accent by Aaron D. Graham

Aaron Graham, an assistant poetry editor for The Tishman Review, is a Marine Corps veteran of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq where he served as an analyst and linguist.  He is working on a PhD in literature at Emory University and teaches English Lit and writing at Kennesaw State University in Georgia.

His chapbook, Arabic with a Redneck Accent (Moonstone Press, $10, paper), contains twenty-six pages of poetry, much of which has been published in small magazines and journals such as Grist, Digging Through the FatThe Seven Hills Review, and The Taos International Journal of Poetry.

These are short poems, mostly about one page in length. They are all very powerful. Here’s one, “Mohave Viper,” an example of Graham’s fine work:

The nearest civilization

The world’s

Biggest thermometer

Is a palm tree

On our horizon

Approaching the plywood MOUT town

The first seconds of light

Breached the horizon—

The silence of darkness

What exploded before us

Was not shrapnel, prosperous

Or tetanus-seeping Philips-head screws,

Explosions were

Refracted light bouncing from

Microfilament spindle silk

Strands left by Tarantula-legions

Covering their cacti overnight

Like a police tape perimeter

Made of muslin

A crystalline kingdom of perfection

So delicate only the infant

Rays of sun would hold in focus.

 

In predawn hours

The Mohave sand

Already instructing—

The cost of invasion is

How something beyond

Fathom is lost—

Or, rather

Comes to end

 

under retread souls—

Issued combat boots.

Fine stuff and well worth savoring at great length while—as I did—drinking my morning cup of mint tea with honey. No better way to start my day.

Aaron Graham

Reading a poem in the morning is a great way to jump-start a day in Maple Valley, Washington, or anywhere for that matter.  It’s better than reading a chapter in a war memoir, which tends to be a downer.

For ordering info, go to squareup.com/store/moonstone-arts-center/item/arabic-with-a-redneck-accent-1

–David WIllson

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On the Shores of Welcome Home by Bruce Weigl

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It has been a long wait for this new book of poetry from Bruce Weigl as his previous collection, The Abundance of Nothingcame out in 2012. The great poet (and fellow Vietnam War veteran) Yusef Komunyakaa said then that Weigl’s poems often gazed into “the hellish, heavenly mechanics of life and death.” The poems in his new book, On the Shores of Welcome Home (BOA Editions, 104 pp., $17, paper; $9.99, e book), continue that scrutiny.

Weigl—who now has written more than twenty books of poetry, translations, and essays—served in Vietnam with the First Cavalry Division from 1967-68 and his work is heavily influenced by his participation in the war. All of his poems are of high quality and all should be purchased for any collection of literature dealing with the Vietnam War. This latest group deals with the difficulty of returning from war and adapting to a new life; all deal with life and death matters.

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Bruce Weigl

On the Shores of Welcome Home, in which Weigl meditates on the ghosts and the grace one encounters in life’s second act, justly received the Isabella Gardner Poetry Award for 2019.

The poem that follows from the book is “Modern Paradox Sutra Fragment,” which exemplifies Weigl’s skills:

 

A sex offender father broke the jaw

Of his four-year-old cerebral

Palsy son in an unspecified act

Of rage. Change yourself the teacher tells me

Again, and again because you can’t change anyone else.

Knowing things ensures heartbreak.  Not knowing

Is worse. Change yourself the teacher says;

Make more room for the suffering of others

Is what he means. Make more room and then let it

Flow through you. Let the broken-jawed little

Palsied boy who couldn’t even understand

His own poor life flow through you, and let his

Blurred screams flow through you and not through you

To feel them deeply and then to let them go.

 

I found it hard to let this poem go. It lingered in my consciousness as do many of Bruce Weigl’s poems. They have a way of sticking in the brain like jungle thorns in the torn flesh.

–David Willson

Cowboys and War by Larry R. Fry

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Cowboys and War (CreateSpace, 64 pp., $15, paper) is a poetry collection written by Larry R. Fry, who served as in the U.S. Air Force in Vietnam in 1962-63. The poems are written from the point of view—and in the voice of—USAF Lt. Gary Bishop Deale. Lt. Deale also is a protagonist in Delta Sierra, Fry’s companion novel which tells the story of Deale’s Vietnam War tour of duty as an F-105D Thunderchief fighter pilot.

The poems in Cowboys and War deal with Deale’s thoughts about the war, as well as his hopes, what was accomplished by the missions he flew, and how he and his fellow pilots coped with the frustrations of combat flying—as well as how they coped with the every-day stress.

When Deale is in Thailand, his wife remains in North Carolina. A major part of the book involves Deale’s thoughts about her and about their marriage.

This small book contains fewer than two dozen poems. They are rarely longer than one page and are often much smaller than that. They are powerful and pack a punch much greater than their size.

Here’s “Pickle the Load,” an example of the fine poetic art in this collection. It was written on June 30, 1967, which happened to be my 25th birthday.

 

Pickle the Load

Rolling

His plane

Upright

Following smoke trails.

Stooping

Down the chute

Like

A bad-assed bird.

Flaming

Telephone poles

Blast

By seeking death.

Drifting

Off target then

Centering

His pipper true.

Punching

His red button

Pickling

The bomb load.

Flashing,

Six orange bursts

Explode

Behind and below.

Slashing

Hot iron shards

Shred

Life from limb.

Thanks to Larry R. Fry—a life member of Vietnam Veterans of America—for this inadvertent birthday poem.

—David Willson

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

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