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

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