Agent Orange Roundup by Sandy Scull & Brent MacKinnon

Agent Orange Roundup: Living with a Foot in Two Worlds (Bookstand Publishing, 210 pp. $24.95, hardcover; $15.95, paper; $4.99, Kindle), by Sandy Scull and Brent MacKinnon, is a unique, poetic condemnation of the massive use of defoliants and herbicides by the United States during the war in Vietnam. It is also an educational resource to help people learn more about the development, use, and devastating effects of Agent Orange. Along with poetry, the book contains artwork, stories, and essays.

Scull and MacKinnon served with the Marines during the war; they first met in 1988. They both have received Stage 4 cancer diagnoses that they believe are associated with being exposed to Agent Orange in Vietnam.

The first part of the book consists of poems by Scull, including this couplet:

“We return to you with a souvenir

 Of present and future Death”

He goes on to describes AO as “the round we didn’t hear, and it is killing us.”

He says that today, “I like my steak tartar/shrapnel-cut and raw –” and refers to war as a “big bang without the theory.”

Here’s more:

“When memory of war joins a poem, it’s more

than a blood trail, it has a voice and is free

to move with and punctuate its own rhythm.

Those imprinted lines of sacrifice now curve.”

Scull writes that he arrived in Vietnam with a “dread of what would come.” Here’s what he says about the American military’s policy of war by body count:

“This number game had faces.

My face. And mothers. My mother.”

At one point, he’s running to catch a plane leaving Khe Sanh, “wondering how many/rotting Marines want into my jungle boots leaving.” He also questions “How much blood can this soil absorb?”

We learn from Scull that when you smash your M-16 against a tree out of grief for five men lost to rifle jams, it comes apart this way: “The plastic butt stock shattered first, then the hand guard, the trigger and rear sight.”

MacKinnon begins his part of the book by declaring: “These poems and prose are by two combat Marines sentenced to slow death by the country who sent us in harm’s way.”

One of his poems mentions those who are “soon to die,” “already dead,” and “almost dead.”

He cries out to the U.S. government: “I don’t want money. Just say you did It/Say you killed me with Agent Orange/say you did it.”

Scull and MacKinnon (Lt. Scull and Cpl. Mac) bring the reader right into the poem-writing process with a line like, “You say, cut this last stanza –” and a title such as, “These Are Not Your Poems!”

There are poems here that deal with receiving cancer treatments and living with cancer. Scull sums things up beautifully when he says: “Though the subject matter of these poems may seem like a downer, my hope is that the human spirit of love and connection bleeds through.”

Overall, this is a strong collection of material written by two war veterans who have made a pact with their readers that they are going to go out fighting.

–Bill McCloud

It Looks Like What I’ll Take to My Grave by Emerson Gilmore

Emerson Gilmore’s book of Vietnam War poetry, It Looks Like What I’ll Take to My Grave: Viet Nam Fifty Years Later, a Memoir in Verse (106 pp. $15.99, paper; $2.99, Kindle), moves beyond the borders of the war to consider the effects of armed conflict in general and the unfortunate fact that war is apparently a consistent part of human existence.

Gilmore served in the U.S. Army in Vietnam from January 1970-February 1971 as an interpreter and interrogator. The book’s title refers to the fact that his war memories will stay with him for his entire life.

The book gets off to a great start with the first line of the first poem: “None of us was meant/to war.” Gilmore writes that Basic Training at Ft. Jackson taught him how to “guard empty buildings/with empty rifles.”

On his way to Vietnam, he writes, “I stopped in to fill my stomach with beer,/drank for nearly a year/and landed in Bien Hoa, Vietnam.” That was not Gilmore’s last beer, as he admits, “I drank the war.”

He also tells us through his poetry that he “never fired or was fired upon” and he spent much of his time in “the clubs of Saigon/where the whores/knew my name.” Gilmore sometimes writes disparagingly about street prostitutes calling out offers of sex, “Their breath tainted with rat and dog.”

There’s a great poem about both sides during the war singing “the ageless G.I. blues,” with a nod to the 1960 Elvis Presley song and the lyrics to a similar song in James Jones’ great World War II novel, From Here to Eternity, as well as the Hollywood movie version of the book.

Gilmore’s poetry gives us much to think about. Such as: “I will never fight another war/even if God says.” And:

“History without wars bores,

shortens the books,

drains the blood from professors’ careers,

and politicians’

cuts the balls from

man after man

Why Adam and Noah

if not for war?”

Several of the poems are written with a rhythm that would make them especially interesting to be read out loud. Some, if you read carefully, are love poems to lost buddies. Some are straightforward in their story telling; others make creative use of symbolism. A few are fairly light-hearted, but most are as serious as the idea of endless war.

I admire Emerson Gilmore’s poetic efforts to reduce the numbers of American casualties in the war: “If I turn on the radio,/sons will die. The man/will say so. I have not/turned on the television for/months, saving countless lives.”

There’s also serious PTSD at work here, along with occasional glimpses of possible redemption.

I read through this volume three times and different things jumped out at me each time. This book of poetry is alive and I encourage you to engage with it. It’s one of the good ones.

–Bill McCloud

Our Best War Stories edited by Christopher Lyke

The title—Our Best War Stories: Prize-Winning Poetry & Prose from the Col. Darron L. Wright Memorial Awards (Middle West Press, 234 pp. $17.99, paper; $9.99, Kindle) edited by Christopher Lyke—sets up expectations that the book meets time and time again. The awards, honoring an Iraq War veteran killed in a training accident, are administered by Line of Advance, an on-line veterans literary journal. Lyke, a U.S. Army veteran of the Afghanistan War, is the journal’s co-founder and editor.

As for the poems, I especially enjoyed “Starling Wire” by David S. Pointer because of its great word flow and the use of words such as “microscopicesque” and “retro-futuristically.” I also liked Eric Chandler’s “Air Born,” which has us flying home with a “war hangover,” and Jeremy Hussein Warneke’s “Facing 2003,” in which he looks at the aftermath of war with a poem inside a poem. Randy Brown’s “Robert Olen Butler wants nachos” deals with desire.

“Soldier’s Song” by Ben Weakley is my favorite among the poems as it lyrically deals with time and worlds that exist in the tip of a bullet that barely misses your head. In “Havoc 58” Laura Joyce-Hubbard describes a grief-filled widowed pilot’s wife as “Dressed black-drunk.”

Some of the short stories that stood out were David R. Dixon’s “The Stay,” about a man who can smell death, and Michael Lund’s “Left-Hearted,” featuring a man with a rare heart condition. Other worthy stories include  “Bagging It Up” by Scott Hubbartt, and “Walking Point” by former Marine Dewaine Farria, my second favorite story in the book, looks at the warden of a small town prison in Oklahoma. Some of his memories are of men who became only “blood-soaked heaps of jungle fatigues on stretchers.” He uncovers a prisoner’s dangerous shank and realizes that prison and war “encourage ingenuity.’”

“Village With No Name” by Ray McPadden is my favorite short story in the book. It’s set in Iraq and looks at a group of men motivated to get their dangerous mission completed quickly because of an impending sandstorm. They shoot dogs “for no particular reason” and carelessly rip down electric lines as they drive through a village. Then, when one of the men is bitten by a poisonous cobra, and the medic says, “I ain’t no snake doctor,” they find themselves begging for help from an old woman and her jar of paste.

Christopher Lyke

In Travis Klempan’s “Some Kind of Storm” a newly discharged veteran finds himself in “the least hospitable place in America,” a Christian rock festival in southern Oklahoma. He encounters the Painted Man (a tribute to Ray Bradbury’s The Illustrated Man) whose tattoos seem to come to life.

The most exciting story is “Green” by Brian L. Braden. In it, a helicopter pilot refueling in-flight suddenly sees tracers from ground fire arcing in the sky. In William R. Upton’s “A Jeep to Quang Tri” we’re aboard a fixed-wing Caribou in Vietnam about to land on a “small dirt strip with more VC than flies on a dog turd.”

Our Best War Stories contains many great poems, stories, and essays—all of them well-told. That’s as good a combination as you can ask for.

–Bill McCloud

The Best of Medic in the Green Time by Marc Levy

Marc Levy’s The Best of Medic in the Green Time: Writings from the Vietnam War and Its Aftermath (Winter Street Press, 563 pp. $24, paper) is a kaleidoscopic book of stories written by Levy and others. Kaleidoscopically, these colorful stories burst out in all directions. They’re collected from a website that Levy, who served as a medic with the First Cavalry Division in the Vietnam War, started in 2007.

The stories, poems, essays, recollections, and reflections are divided into three sections: War, Poetry, and Postwar. There are more than seventy stories in all, three-fourths written by Levy.

Here is some of what we encounter in the opening section on the Vietnam War. A casualty of friendly fire, the first man Levy has to patch up. How to make morning GI coffee. Inflated body counts. Souvenirs taken from the dead. Medals awarded to appease grieving families. Coincidences that save lives. Men voluntarily returning to the war because they missed the adrenaline rush.

Several stories describe extreme combat at a personal level. A buddy dying in Levy’s arms. The attacking Viet Cong dressed only in loin cloths. Men giving themselves self-inflicted wounds to try to keep from returning to combat.

The poems are a mixed bag; some of the best are written by Levy. In “He Would Tell You,” for example, he writes:

 Let me never tell you

Things you cannot know

Let me never tell you

Things that won’t let go.

“Portrait of a Young Girl at Dawn” ends with:

They haul her in.

Beneath the whirling blades

She is spinning, spinning

She is floating away.

“Dead Letter Day,” begins: “He sent the letter to the guy’s wife/The same day,/Leaving out the following:”

We then learn the truth of the man’s death. Things his widow must never know.

One of the best poems, by Tom Laaser, is “Things I Think About at 11:11 on November the 11th”. In it, a man is attending yet another program for vets in a high-school auditorium and he’s conflicted. He senses that he does not want to be a veteran,

But the second that god damn flag is unfurled

And that crappy high school band strikes up you

Give way to unyielding patriotism of the highest degree.

I bled for this

You want to scream.

I am a veteran. This is MY country. I earned this freedom.

I earned

This day.

Marc Levy, left, at LZ Compton in An Loc, 1969

The third part, “Postwar,” includes a small section on combat humor, as well as one on how to talk to college students about the war, and one on the symptoms and treatments of PTSD because, as Levy writes, “Whatever you did in war will always be with you.” An especially interesting section includes comments from dozens of veterans describing what they think when some well-meaning person says, “Thank you for your service.”

It’s a phrase Levy considers to be “petty.”

This is a great book because of the well-written variety of stories and topics Levy covers. It’s also great because of how it’s put together. There is no reason to read the more than seventy chapters in order. Dig in and skip around any way you choose.

A kaleidoscope of stories awaits you.

Marc Levy’s website, Medic in the Green Time, is medicinthegreentime.com

–Bill McCloud

Far and Away by Frank Light

Frank Light’s Far and Away (Finishing Line Press, 21 pp. $14.99, paper) is a poetry chapbook containing five poems—or eight, depending on how you count them. Its twenty pages tell of several lifetimes and a few trips around the world, including to South Vietnam during the American war. Light was drafted into the Army and served a 1967-68 Vietnam War tour of duty in Nha Trang.

The title of the first poem appears to be a made-up word–something a writer can more easily get away with in poetry. Said title, “Cotophrasis,” comes from the idea that it’s an ekphrastic poem about a painting by Frederic Edwin Church of the volcano called Cotopaxi in the Andes. The first line of this first poem is a great one: “Church went south of south.”

The second poem, “World of Wonders,” is divided into four parts. Each is also a stand-alone poem. One of them is a prose poem that creates a Swedish scene that comes to life as you read the descriptive stanzas. Another one makes interesting use of the space on the page and includes a French phrase that can be read as both a question and a reply, a great use of word play. This poem also deals with two groups in southern Morocco, non-believers and believers. Or perhaps it’s non-believers becoming believers.

The third part of the second poem drops us into the Long An Province in the Mekong Delta in southern Vietnam. The fourth part—a prose poem that includes a sentence that is 118 words long and contains seven commas—puts us in a Spanish town near the French border.

While reading these dense (that’s a good thing) poems we end up dropping anchor or pitching a tent in Gibraltar, the Congo, the Casbah, Dakar, the Canaries, the Sahara, and other places, primarily in the Middle East. Memories of past conflicts and wars keep bubbling up.

In Frank Light’s poetry there are no add-on or throw-away lines, so there’s great significance in words such as “her sunglasses which you broke rolling over.” This is a personal, challenging, small collection of poetry that rewards the reader who confronts these human adventures. Despite the title, I’m left with the sense that one can go far without actually going away. The final poem, fittingly, tells of a fruitless search for a certain gravestone in a cemetery.

Here are my favorite lines from the collection:

Full roof, half moon. Stars swoon.

Make a wish.

The book’s page on the publisher’s website is: finishinglinepress.com/product/far-and-away-by-frank-light/

–Bill McCloud

Fragments by Bruce K. Berger

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Fragments: The Long Coming Home from Vietnam (Wordworthy Press, 92 pp. $12.95, paper; $11, Kindle) is a poetry chapbook by Bruce K. Berger. Berger served with the 101st Airborne Division in Vietnam in 1970, writing sympathy letters to hundreds of families. This chapbook is as good a collection of poetry dealing with the Vietnam War as I’ve read.

There’s no dipping a toe in the water here. In the first section of the first poem Berger references the My Lai massacre, napalm, Agent Orange, AWOLs and “Dinks and Gooks.”

Berger writes of the “bloody mathematics” involved in taking, abandoning, then re-taking territory. Men around him wonder why they were there. “Why the hell were we, where the hell we were?” At one point he notes that “The long war symbolized so many lies/some of them true.”

Elsewhere he writes about the sympathy letters: “What more could he write/without deepening their pain?” He also writes of holding buddies while their lives slip away and remembering one soldier who died with a smile on his face. You don’t realize at the time that being “Impregnated by orange rain” means you were killed in Vietnam, though you won’t die until thirty years later.

He addresses the times on guard-duty when you have a chance to note the country’s fleeting moments of beauty. Then the rain and other natural sounds seem to combine to create “the jungle band.” Eventually there’s “The precious gift of sunrise in Vietnam.”

He shares in the comfort that can be found in a stray dog. Then there’s the “contagious smile” of the young boy with a “missing foot.” There’s also an old woman who continues to look for her grandson, although he died months earlier after being “shot by Aaron from Akron.” A young girl has “tiny breasts” that recall “two little sparrows/poking just barely/under her tee-shirt.”

Returning home from the war means “picking up where they left off/one year a century ago.” Then memories began to hit like “hot grease spattering his brain.” Memories that you begin to think of as “just dead life.” There is some evidence of healing once you are “no longer drinking suicide” and have started doing “drive bys” of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

1111111111111111111111111111111111111111

Berger in Vietnam

The stories told in these poems are the memories of one American Vietnam War veteran. The collection is not all-encompassing. It doesn’t try to explain the causes of the war or the motives of the people fighting on the other side. It’s personal, and poetry may be the most personal form of written expression.

There are 34 poems in this book. None of them is a throw-away. Each brings something to the table. The inclusion of 24 illustrations creates a complete package.

This is an unflinching look at the horrors of war and one man’s life-long efforts to escape its memories told in the form of poetry. Berger is a true word-artist.

The book’s Facebook page is facebook.com/fragmentspoems

Bruce Berger is donating profits from book sales to Vietnam Veterans of America.

–Bill McCloud

Lingering Fire by William Jackson Blackley

William Jackson’s Blackley’s poetry collection, Lingering Fire (Main Street Rag Publishing, 40 pp., $11, paper), which was published in 2015, contains excellent, mostly short poems with titles such as “Indirect Fire,” “Black Market Habits,” “Cities,” “Captain Crazy,” “Thermite,” “One Tour Too Many,” and “Blue Sunday.”

“Some of these poems were written during a very dark chapter in my life when I questioned even the existence of God,” Blackley writes. “They are based on my experiences growing up, with the draft, military training, battlefield action, coming home, talking with veterans and post-traumatic consequences of actions in Vietnam.” The poems “are, at times, my personal attempts to work through conflicted emotions rising from war experiences.”

The key to understanding this collection is a close reading of Blackley’s poem “Captain Crazy.” It’s about his fellow Vietnam War veteran Yusef Komunyakaa, the much-honored poet.

During my thirteen-and-a half-months in Vietnam I served as an office worker. However, in the months and years after I returned from the Vietnam War, I observed similar behavior to what Blackley describes in “Captain Crazy”. My sympathy for Komunyakaa and other returning Vietnam veterans was extreme, partially because I was similarly affected by my tour of duty.

Blackley

If you want to understand the fears of a Vietnam War veteran, read Komunyakaa’s poetry and your sympathy and understanding will be increased.

The poem I like best in the Lingering Fire is “Breaking Ranks.” Here are excerpts:

Home from Vietnam I carried engraved images of twisted and burned men everywhere I went

Never mentioned them, never even hinted at them until in the stands at my son’s soccer game one year I stunned myself and friends when ashen faced I stood and shouted “shut up shut up shut up” to a knot of teenagers chanting “kill them kill them kill them”

If you like hard-hitting poems that don’t mince words, this book is for you.

–David Willson

Year of the Dog by Deborah Paredez

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The poet, scholar, and critic Deborah Paredez, a Professor of Creative Writing and Ethnic Studies at Columbia University, is the daughter of a Vietnam War veteran. The title of her new book, Year of the Dog (BOA Editions, 128 pp. $17, paper; $9.99, e book), refers to 1970, the year Paredez was born and the year that her father, a Mexican immigrant, deployed to the war zone.

Paredez divides the book into three sections: The first (53 pages) contains personal poems such as a self-portrait in flesh and stone and hearts and minds. The second is about Kim Phuc and the famous photograph of her being burned by napalm. The third deals with subjects along the lines of those explored in Trinh T. Min-ha’s 1989 documentary Surname Viet, Given Name Nam, which looks at the lives of Vietnamese and Vietnamese-American women.

Some of the poems, including those about Kim Phuc, are difficult to read because of the painful subject, but they must be read. Dozens of photographs are distributed throughout the book, which add greatly the power of Paredez’s words.

Here are a couple of stanzas from “Mother Tongue” that give the flavor of what the book holds in store:

If I could bite my tongue

And have it split into two

Whole daughters that split

Again in endless fission

-ing splitting the very thing

Keeping their whole line

Going—If I could I would

Watch my tongue and its

Tongue-set wagging

Their tails, some silver-

Tongued some wicked—I’d hold my tongue

Out like an offering or a battalion

This is a book of powerful poems about pain and politics and war.

–David Willson

Playing Chicken with an Iron Horse by Fred Rosenblum

Rosenblum is the author of Hollow Tin Jingles and Vietnumb, which contain some fine Vietnam War-related poetry. He joined the Marine Corps in 1967 and “Six months later, I’d piss myself on the banks of the Perfume River,” Rosenblum writes in his newest poetry collection, Playing Chicken with an Iron Horse (Formite, 104 pp. $15, paper; $4.99, e book).

Much of his poetry in this volume mentions the Vietnam War in passing. Here’s an example from one of the book’s longer poems, “That I would cheat that poor old woman.”

Future lung cancers were of no concern

When grandma sent a carton of Winston’s to me

Sleeping with rats in the charred mountainside bunkers

Of Quang Tri, a little more than a stone’s throw

From the DMZ in 1968

“Here, if Charlie don’t gitcha’, these will”

The Christmas card (should’ve) read

But lest I deviate, it was the game of cribbage

Or as we called it crib…about which I’d like to relate…

That I would cheat—gain leverage by carefully

Focusing on the lenses of my grandmother’s

Spectacles—stealing reflections of what she’d

Held in her hand

Rosenblum’s carefully composed poetry covers all aspects of American life, leaving no stone unturned and no cliché unplumbed. He is a careful student of the American vernacular. He benefits from careful reading. In fact, his poems make little sense if read in a hurry.The cover of this little book contains clues to that fact. The railroad ties the poet’s sneakers are walking on are not an accident.

This is an important book of poetry about the American predicament and situation. It should be handled carefully. I hope I live long enough to read Fred Rosenblum’s next book of poetry. I’m certain that will be a treat.

–David Willson

Empires by John Balaban

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Empires (Copper Canyon Press, 80 pp. $17, paper; $9.99, Kindle) is the award-winning poet, novelist, and translator John Balaban’s eighth poetry collection. As the title implies, the poems in the book covers the globe. Balaban—a conscientious objector who volunteered to go to Vietnam during the war and wound up carry a weapon during the 1968 Tet Offensive—has not let much grass grow under his feet. In the new book, he roams the planet and the centuries.

The Vietnam War is not mentioned until page seven in the book’s second poem, but that is not the last mention. Far from it. Balaban is one of those poets who has not gotten the war out of his system. Has he even tried to expunge it?  I doubt it.

The best way to communicate the purity and power of Balaban’s poetic vision is to quote from “Returning After Our War,” one of his many poems dealing with the Vietnam War. Balaban, a North Carolina State University Professor Emeritus of English, is at his poetic best when writing about that awful war that he was personally involved in, a war that was the subject of his acclaimed memoir, Remembering Heaven’s Face: A Story of Rescue in Wartime Vietnam.

 

I woke up to animal groans

Down in the stairwell  Flynn and Stone

Were beating up a young thief

Who had broken in to steal their bikes

Bucking an M 16 against the kid’s ear

Then punching him in the stomach with the butt

Before they bum-rushed him out the door doubled over and wheezing for air.

I stammered no in a syllable that rose

Like a bubble lifting off the ocean floor.

Ten days later, they were dead.  Flynn

And Stone who dealt in clarities of force,

Who motorcycled out to report the war,

Shot at a roadblock on Highway 1.

Nearly all those Saigon friends are gone now,

Gone like smoke. Like incense. 

The friends and the adventure exist only in this poem and in John Balaban’s mind and memory. But for now that’s enough. It’ll be a sad day when he puts down his pen and stops producing the best poetry of the war.

Sometimes I have to remind myself that Balaban never wore an Army uniform, let alone a Marine Corps uniform. He helped wounded and hurt children. Hard to top that mission.

John Balaban is one of the very few saints produced by the Vietnam War.

–David Willson